Rainman’s Rare Condition

Braedon Harris, Co-Editor-in-Chief

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, nearly one in sixty American children is identified as being on the autism spectrum in recent years. Worldwide, this puts the number of individuals affected by autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in the tens of millions. Within these individuals, one in ten will have some degree of savant skills, displaying abilities which are far from average.

“Autism is typically defined as a collection of certain behaviors, certain ways of functioning, certain levels of functioning, but it’s widely different for a lot of different people,” said special education teacher Shawna Shockley.

Savant syndrome is a rare condition in which someone who is deemed mentally handicapped displays extreme capabilities in certain areas. Some of the categories of a savant are music, art, calendar calculating, mathematics or mechanical/visual-spatial skills. For most, these skills happen to be accompanied by an excellent memory.

The amazing abilities seen in those with savant syndrome are portrayed in the 1988 movie, “Rain Man”, which features a character inspired by one of the most well -known savants in the world, Kim Peek, who was diagnosed with autism at a young age.One of the most incredible was that he could read both pages of a book at once, the left page with the left eye and the right page with the right eye. He could also recall all U.S. area codes and the zip codes of major cities. Furthermore, he was able to give directions to any U.S. city and then give further directions to help navigate street by street. On top of all of this, he was able to use his mathematical abilities to calculate the distance and best route in an instant, which was something that had never been seen before. Though born in 1951, Peek’s abilities came well in advance of Google Maps and other navigation technologies.

However, savant syndrome is not limited to those with autism. People with other neurological disorders can display these savant abilities, but the number of cases of savant syndrome are far less numerous. The contrary is also true, not all autistic persons are savants.

“What we do see a lot of is scattered levels of skills,” Shockley said. “Somebody who may be able to read may not be able to do basic addition. They may be able to play music but not be able to read. They believe it is all tied into the way that the connections in the brain work.”

The savant label is associated with other terms that describe how rare and extraordinary the case is. For example, according to the Wisconsin Medical Society, talented savants are those in whom musical, art or other special abilities are more visible not only in contrast to individual limitations, but in contrast to peer group abilities whether disabled or not. Furthermore, the title “prodigious savants” is reserved for extraordinarily rare individuals in whom the special skill is so outstanding that if it were it to be seen in an impaired person he or she would be considered a “prodigy” or “genius.”

While savant syndrome is a rare condition, it shows that even those who suffer from disabilities can display extraordinary talents and skills. From remarkable memory to brilliant displays of art, it shows that there are many people in the world capable of things that would never be expected from them.

“The most significant thing that I’ve heard over and over and over again from parents and educators and people in the autism community is when you know one person with autism, you know one person with autism,” Shockley said. “Everyone is different.”