Savant syndrome is generally rare and paradoxically involves possessing some genius capabilities, in the presence of mental disabilities, or brain injuries. Dr. J. Langdon Down, after whom Down's syndrome is named, first gave recognition to savant syndrome, by coining the term "idiot savant", a name that takes into account both the intellectual deficits and gifts that such people usually possess. For obvious reasons the term savant syndrome is preferentially used today.
Savant syndrome has a strong association with autism, but not all savants are autistic. According to Professor Darold A. Treffert, who specialises in the epidemiology of autism spectrum disorders, one in ten people with autism, have savant skills. However only 50% of savants have autism; the other 50% have other inherited or acquired brain conditions.The outstanding aspect of savant syndrome however, is that their genius capacities are set in the background of intellectual disability.
A Few Outstanding Savants
Laurence Kim Peek (1951 – 2009) possessed awe-inspiring savant skills and was the inspiration for the character of Raymond Babbitt, played by Dustin Hoffman in the movie Rain Man. Peek was born with a rare genetic disorder called Opitz-Kaveggia syndrome, which lists amongst its clinical features: mental retardation, hyperactivity and low muscle tone. About one-third of babies born with this syndrome die in infancy. Peek was missing the corpus callosum, the part of the brain which joins the two brain hemispheres together and it is thought that his brain may have made unusual connections, which resulted in his outstanding abilities. However recent research using brain imaging, has pointed to a lack of synaptic pruning taking place in the brains of many savants.
While still a toddler, Peek showed incredible memory skills. Later he was able to read a book in an hour and recount all he had read; his reading range was vast, including geography, history and music. In fact an article published in The Telegraph (2012), stated that Peek had memorised at least 12,000 books, including the whole Bible! And according to an article in the New York Times, Peek had also memorised many of Shakespeare's plays, whole music scores, zip codes and maps. It was also said, that Peek was able to read two pages of a book simultaneously, one with each eye. However despite Peek's amazing skills and incredible memory, he could not understand figurative language ideas like metaphors, did not have good social skills and scored poorly in IQ tests.
Daniel Tammet (1979- ) who is a savant with high functioning autism, is well-known for his book Born on a Blue Day, which he wrote about his life. As a young child, Tammet suffered severe epilepsy and banged his head on the wall repeatedly. However when he was given a counting book as a child, he was fascinated. Then at age five he found that he was able to do multiplications easily on demand. Tammet today is a mathematical genius, who can do split second, complex calculations. He also sees numbers as: shapes, colours and textures, a type of synesthesia (a kind of mixing of the senses). He has said, that the number 289 is ugly, but 25 is energetic and each number up to 10,000 has a unique identity. Tammet also holds the European record for reciting pi from memory to 22,514 digits in five hours and nine minutes on 14 March 2004.
Besides his outstanding mathematical skills, Tammet has also learned about ten languages, including a langauge that he has created himself called "Mänti". As part of a TV documentary, which sought to test his language skills, he learnt the incredibly complex Icelandic language in the space of a week. He then appeared on TV and spoke to the host, using the Icelandic language, he had spent only a week learning. He claims that he tries to develop a feel for a language and doesn't bother concentrating on things like grammar. Tammet is quite unusual among savants, as he possesses outstanding language skills and is able to describe the feelings and thoughts that he experiences.
The story of Leslie Lemke (1952- ) is amazing and inspiring. Born prematurely and diagnosed with glaucoma, cerebral palsy, and brain damage, Leslie also had to have his eyes removed. He was also given up for adoption by his parents. At six months of age, May Lemke, a nurse adopted him, yet despite seven years of intense care, he showed no development; he did not move, nor make a sound. Leslie finally learnt to stand at age twelve and walk at fifteen, with a lot of constant and innovative therapy.
In later years Leslie was able to sing along with songs, yet he did not "talk". One night, May sat up watching the Sunday Night Movie, which featured Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1. Later in the middle of the night, she awoke from her sleep and thought that the TV had been left on, as the same music was playing. Leslie however was sitting at the piano playing the Tchaikovsky music piece flawlessly, after having heard it once. Soon he was playing many music styles and began playing concerts at churches and county fairs.
Today he is able to improvise and knows countless musical pieces. He has never had a music lesson in his life.