The Film "Rainman"
Movie goers became aware of the phenomenon known as the autistic savant when the film “Rainman” came to the screen in 1988. It told the story of fictional Raymond Babbitt (Dustin Hoffman), an autistic savant, who is able to memorize a huge amount of trivia, and to add, subtract, multiply, and divide speedily. He also showed a great memory for ball player statistics; he could memorize large parts of the telephone book, and was able to count cards in Las Vegas. His brother Charlie hoped to capitalize on this last ability of Raymond to cash in at Las Vegas. Even though he possessed these special capabilities, Raymond was not able to function as a normal human being. “Rainman” won the Academy Award that year for Best Picture, and Dustin Hoffman won it also for Best Actor in a Leading Role.
The term “autistic savant” refers to individuals with autism who have extraordinary skills not exhibited by most people. Not all autistic persons can be labeled as savants. Ten percent of them possess special skills over a broad range of traits from what is called ‘splinter skills” up to a higher classification known as “prodigious savants.” The presence of savant abilities in the non-autistic population, including those with mental retardation, is less than 1%.
The most common forms of proficiency involve mathematical calculations, memory feats, artistic abilities, and musical abilities. They can multiply and divide large numbers in their head and can also calculate square roots and prime numbers without hesitation. Many autistic individuals display calendar memory; for instance, they can calculate what day of the week fell on a certain date several years ago.
Music is another common savant ability. Many performers with autism have perfect pitch and also have a great memory for music. Piano is a favored instrument. In some cases, a person can hear a classical piece once and play it back in its entirety. It has been theorized that these individuals have incredible concentration abilities and are able to focus their complete attention on a specific area of interest.
Autistic Savants have Math Abilities
Savant skills are not limited to autistic persons, nor are all autistic persons savants, as we said. The term “Savant Syndrome” is a more accurate and inclusive term for this remarkable condition. Savant Syndrome consists of about 50% of persons who are autistic with superimposed savant abilities, but also includes persons (the other 50%) with other developmental disabilities who have savant abilities as well. It may occur in those with mental retardation, but with much less frequency.
Presently, there is a group of “prodigious savants” whose skills are so spectacular they would be conspicuous even if they were to occur in a non-handicapped person. There are probably fewer than 50 persons living worldwide who would meet the high-threshold definition of “prodigious savants,” and approximately one-half of that group would be autistic savants. The skills of this group are almost always limited to a very narrow range of special abilities: music, art, mathematics, and mechanical or spatial skills.
Research by Dr. Down
Dr. J. Langdon Down, who gave his name to another condition we know as “Down’s Syndrome,” first described the autistic savant as an “idiot savant,” an accepted scientific term in that day for graver forms of mental retardation. It was an unfortunate term, given its pejorative connotation today. Savant Syndrome is a kinder term, and Dr. Down was able to separate the group from those who were considered mentally retarded.
We now hear the condition referred to as Autistic Disorder, a name which appeared in 1943, but has existed for the same length of time as other forms of developmental disorder and mental retardation. Autistic Disorder is not a single entity and is more appropriately described as a group of disorders. Dr. Down, who practiced in the late 19th century, noted that his cases were limited entirely to males. Over time, the ratio has proved to be approximately six males for every female savant.
The Human Brain
Increased Knowledge of Autistic Savants through Research
In most autistic savants, a single special skill exists; in others multiple skills occur. It has been determined that the skills tend to be right hemisphere in type; that is, they are nonsymbolic, concrete, and directly perceived, in contrast to the left hemisphere type that is more sequential, logical, and symbolic, and includes language specialization. Interestingly, imaging studies, such as the CT or MRI, demonstrate that savants, and particularly autistic savants, have suffered left hemisphere damage, presumably compensating by the use of right hemisphere function. Another curious occurrence demonstrates that there is a recurrent triad of blindness, autism, and musical genius.
In my own experience as an educational supervisor, it was clear to me that in a classroom of half a dozen autistic students, each of these children were extremely attractive physically, which is another trait that is common. It is often difficult, however, for parents of these children to come to a realization early on that their child needs professional help.
We should be grateful to Dustin Hoffman and the film “Rainman,” for raising the awareness of the public to the singular spectacle known as “autistic savant.” I know a family which includes a child having this diagnosis, and they have made great strides in this child’s quality of life through their research into his condition.
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