What Exactly Is Savant Syndrome?

Dr. Robert Melillo

Savants are  children and adults who,  alongside intense  mental and sometimes  even physical disabilities,  display remarkable talent. In some  cases, this talent is considered genius.  Most often it occurs in children diagnosed with autism– a right brain deficiency. Savant syndrome is the result of a greatly magnified or enhanced left brain skill that is also mirrored with deeply weak right brain abilities. In fact,  some savants can have a genius-level skill but otherwise cannot communicate.

As an example, some  savants have been known  to draw incredibly accurate reproductions  of objects or locations solely from memory. They  include remarkable detail, showing exceptional fine motor skills. One of the more common skills of a savant is a remarkable ability to play music, even though the child cannot read music and never took a lesson.  The musical ability comes from enhanced left brain ability that results in perfect pitch, the unique talent to perfectly reproduce a note when heard. It is rare in the general population, even among  highly skilled musicians. Mozart was actually believed to be an autistic savant. Mozart’s music is believed to be unique because it contains an unusually high number of high frequency notes, much higher than any  other music. High-frequency sounds stimulate the left brain.

Other typical savant skills are a remarkable ability to calculate numbers and an amazing memory for dates or details, such as baseball statistics. Probably the most well-known savant in recent times was Kim Peek, the inspiration for Barry Morrow’s 1988 hit movie Rain Man. Peek, who died  in 2009 at the age of fifty-eight, could read at an amazing speed and had total recall of almost all the details in every book he ever read, even though he scored below average on a general IQ test. He reportedly read more than 12,000 books in his lifetime. And Peek is not considered to have been autistic. He was born with an abnormal cerebellum, the result of a lack of the bridge that connects the  two hemispheres of the brain—a true structural disconnection syndrome.