What Is Savant Syndrome?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 12 June 2014
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Savant syndrome is the appearance of highly advanced intellectual gifts in one area of cognitive functioning in someone who has cognitive or developmental disabilities. Individuals with this condition operate in most areas of their lives with cognitive deficits, but have an unusual degree of talent for something in particular, like mathematics, playing a musical instrument, or memorizing materials presented to them. This phenomenon was first described in the 1800s, although evidence suggests that savants, as they are known, existed well before this era.

It is estimated that around 50% of people with savant syndrome have an autism spectrum disorder. Other cognitive and developmental disabilities can also be involved, ranging from Down syndrome to childhood brain injury. People with savant syndrome generally have difficulty learning and acquiring new information and can experience social difficulties because they have trouble understanding other people or do not acquire social skills. They may require aides or personal assistants to help with completing daily tasks.

Exhibitions of unusual levels of skill in a specific area of accomplishment may start to manifest at a young age or may not be identified until later. People with developmental and cognitive disabilities have historically not been considered worthy of education, and as a result, many people with savant syndrome went unrecognized because they weren't provided with access to materials they might have used to demonstrate their skills. If a musical instrument is never put in a child's hand, for example, the child can't develop and show musical talent.


Some people with savant syndrome have been able to use their abilities to achieve a high degree of independence. Unusual skills like being excellent at memorizing, good with mathematics, and so forth can have employment value, allowing people to support themselves independently. Even if aides or assistants are needed, the person with savant syndrome can still live and act independently thanks to the assurance of income and other benefits.

Individuals with this condition have been subjects of fascinated study since they were first identified. Once known as “idiot savants” or “autistic savants,” the term “savant” is preferred today, reflecting the fact that “idiot” has become a charged term in the disability community and that not all people with savant syndrome have autism spectrum disorders. Some examples of depictions of savantism in popular culture include characters in The Rain Man and A Beautiful Mind, although some critics have questioned the accuracy of these portrayals.


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