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Savant syndrome, sometimes referred to as savantism [sa-vahnt-iz-uhm], is a rare condition in which people with developmental disorders have one or more areas of expertise, ability, or brilliance that are in contrast with the individual’s overall limitations. Although not a recognized medical diagnosis, researcher Darold Treffert says the condition may be either genetic or acquired. Though it is even rarer than the savant condition itself, some savants have no apparent abnormalities other than their unique abilities. This does not mean that these abilities weren’t triggered by a brain dysfunction of some sort but does temper the theory that all savants are disabled and that some sort of trade-off is required.

According to Treffert, something that almost all savants have in common is a prodigious memory of a special type, a memory that he describes as ‘very deep, but exceedingly narrow.’ It is wide in the sense that they can recall but have a hard time putting it to use. Also, many savants are found to have superior artistic or musical ability. One in ten autistic people have savant skills. 50% of savants are autistic; the other 50% often have psychological disorders or mental illnesses.

Savant-like skills may be latent in everyone and have been stimulated in people by directing low-frequency magnetic pulses into the brain’s left hemisphere, which is thought to deactivate this dominant region (in at least 90% of right-handed people) and allow the less dominant right hemisphere to take over, allowing for processing of savant-like tasks.

Savant syndrome is poorly understood. No widely accepted cognitive theory explains the combination of talent and deficit found in savants. It has been suggested that autistic individuals are biased towards detail-focused processing and that this cognitive style predisposes both autistic and nonautistic individuals to savant talents. Another hypothesis is that hyper-systemizing predisposes people to show talent (hyper-systemizing is an extreme state in the empathizing). Systemizing theory that classifies people based on their skills in empathizing with others versus systemizing facts about the external world, and that the attention to detail shown by many savants is a consequence of enhanced perception or sensory hypersensitivity in autistic individuals. It has also been suggested that savants operate by directly accessing low-level, less-processed information that exists in all human brains but is normally not available to conscious awareness.

According to Treffert, the term ‘idiot savant’ (French for ‘learned idiot’ or ‘knowledgeable idiot’) was first used to describe the condition in 1887 by John Langdon Down, who is known for his description of Down Syndrome. The term ‘idiot savant’ was later described as a misnomer because not all reported cases fit the definition of idiot, originally used for a person with a very severe mental retardation. The term autistic savant was also used as a diagnosis for this disorder. Like idiot savant, the term autistic savant also became looked at as a misnomer because only one-half of those who were diagnosed at the time with savant syndrome were autistic. Upon realization of the need for accuracy of diagnosis and dignity towards the individual, the term savant syndrome became widely accepted terminology.

A prodigious savant is someone whose skill level would qualify him or her as a prodigy, or exceptional talent, even in the absence of a cognitive disability. Prodigious savants are those individuals whose abilities would be considered phenomenal or genius even in a person without any limitations or special diagnosis of impairment. The most common trait of these prodigious savants is their seemingly limitless mnemonic skills, with many having eidetic or photographic memories. Indeed, prodigious savants are extremely rare, with fewer than one hundred noted in more than a century of literature on the subject. Treffert, the leading researcher in the study of savant syndrome, estimates that fewer than fifty or so such individuals are believed to be alive in the world today. The website of the Wisconsin Medical Society lists 29 savant profiles; Treffert is past-president of the society.

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