What is an Idiot Savant?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

An idiot savant is a somewhat derogatory term for a person who has significant mental impairment, such as autism or retardation, but also exhibits some extraordinary skills. The skills of the savant may vary from being exceptionally gifted in music or in mathematics, or having a photographic memory.

A savant may find it extremely difficult to express emotions.
A savant may find it extremely difficult to express emotions.

Most often, the savant is a person who suffers from extreme autism and cannot reach out to other people in a normal way. He or she may find it extremely difficult to express emotions, to communicate through spoken language, or to use inflection while speaking. Severe autistics function best when they have predictable routines.

Not every person who is autistic has savant abilities. Some appear to be more intelligent than others, but few autistic people are mentally retarded. In fact, because of the dependence on the brain’s right-sided functioning, facility for certain things, like mathematics, their memorization and creative ability may be greater.

Some studies have shown that people who have purposeful interruption of the left side of the brain can develop savant-type skills. Few people wish to participate in such experiments, however, and there are many excellent reasons for not undergoing unnecessary experimentation on the brain.

The savant skills are often called splinter skills. Kim Peek, for example, on whom the film Rain Man was based, has a "photographic" memory. Several recognized artists could be termed idiot savant as well, including Richard Wawro, Alonzo Clemens, and Stephen Wiltshire. Several people with such skills are recognized for their musical gifts, including Matt Savage, an incredibly gifted jazz pianist and composer, and Hikari Oe, a skilled composer.

The term idiot savant dates back to the concept of the “village idiot,” a person who might be tolerated because he or she exhibited certain uncommon skills. In other cases, the exhibition of savant skills, particularly in the Middle Ages, was apt to be considered witchcraft. Unfortunately, a savant cannot necessarily control demonstration of such skills, and some “village idiots” were chased out of their villages or killed.

Today, people more clearly recognize that such people are special because of their brain dysfunction. Not all brain impairment or dysfunction leads to savant skills, however. The term "idiot savant" is outdated and inappropriate. Virtually all savants have a high degree of intelligence and are not idiots. Most people now prefer the term savant or autistic savant instead.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


Nobody is an idiot. Even less autistic people. They can have extraordinary skills, like in the article said. You can be totally stupid in, for example, math, but you are highly talented in playing piano. Every brain works in another way. That's my conclusion.


What is it called when a person is extremely intelligent in general, but can barely do a lot of everyday things that most people take for granted, or is barely able to realize just how things work in general?

I have a friend like this and he needs to be reassured that he isn't an idiot, but whenever I try to show him or explain how things work he takes great offense, thinking I am being insulting, which I am not. If there were a term for this I could look it up and try to understand better. --dave


much like the word retarded, while it can be a medically accurate term it is generally not considered socially correct to use it. Idiot Savant is more commonly know as Savant Syndrome now and should be at least noted that the idiot part is offensive to some and while you can use it you don't have to, many people don't.


You actually put up with such disrespect?


anon 50212: What is it that you do?


to post #1: awww sorry but that was not a compliment


My boss was introducing me to a fellow colleague and called me an idiot savant when describing what I do. Is this a compliment or a cut?

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