Most people probably already know that the right-hemisphere of the brain is responsible for our artistic skills such as music and other forms of art, spatial skills, and what we directly perceive. The left-hemisphere of the brain is responsible for our cognitive skills which is responsible for our ability to learn new skills and knowledge. The logical, analytical, and sequential skills are also influenced by the left brain.
In the dictionary, savant means a person with detailed knowledge in a specialized field or a person of learning. Hence, idiot savant or savant syndrome was taken from that word. And in this hub, I'll be using savants to connote people with savant syndrome.
What Is Savant Syndrome
Savant syndrome is a rare condition in which the person has mental disabilities but has an extraordinary talent that is connected with immense memory. It is the presence of unusual intellect or artistic abilities. The skills savants possess tend to use the right-hemisphere of the brain more than the left-hemisphere, though.
Savants can focus on a single talent and perfect it. Whether the talent is in mathematical calculation or in any other artistic skill but they don't have the ability to learn skills that is beyond the periphery of their talents. Their brain pushes them to focus all their energy into a limited skill.
It seems to us that savants acquire amazing abilities instantly. It is just that their brains tend to hyper-focus on a certain skill that normal people are unable to do. While they are unable to do what normal people can do.
Cognitive skills, logical skills, and analytical skills are absent in savants. The talent takes over the life of the person. They spend their day practicing that talent. They should practice, and they practice obsessively. It's a force within them. They are very interested and motivated in their skills. Thus they show amazing ability.
About 1 in 10 autistic patients and about 1 in 1000 patients with other mental impairments are savants. Mental impairments in this case refer to mental retardation, brain injuries, and brain diseases. This syndrome appears more in males than in females.
How to Deal With Savant Syndrome Patients
It is noted that savant skills persist within the life of the person and with continued practice, these skills increase in almost all cases. Experience had shown that trying to keep them away from their skills may prove to be detrimental for them. Savants should not be denied if they want to practice their talents. Educators of savants should assist in the functional use of their talents. Actually, when savants are encouraged with their skills, their defects tend to subside in time. Through continuous supervised training, they may develop better attention towards daily living skills, communication skills and their interaction towards other people.
Another important thing to remember about savants is that they must be praised, encouraged, and be shown acceptance by the people who gives care for them. Everyone likes approval but the emotional needs of savants are demanding.
How Savants Are Developed
When undamaged, our brain uses higher level memory that is responsible for the semantic (language learning) and declarative (understanding) capabilities. Normal people's brain uses both the left-hemisphere and the right-hemisphere. Although we use both, some people come to rely more on the left-hemisphere of the brain that gives them the capability to use logical and analytical thinking. Some people, however, may come to rely more on their right brain skills that gives them the ability to be more artistic than others.
What happens to savants is that their central nervous system are damaged from injury or disease factors making them rely on more primitive memory that is responsible for the procedural (routine) and habit capabilities. The combination of right brain skills and procedural memory produces the extraordinary skill that is savant syndrome.
The theory behind savant syndrome is that an injury in the left brain may spark right brain compensation meaning the left brain limitation is substituted by an enhanced right brain capability.
The Discovery of the Disease
The first description of savant syndrome was by Gnothi Sauton in 1783 about Jedediah Buxton who had lightning calculating abilities. But the first report was written by Benjamin Rush in 1789 when he described Thomas Fuller's ability with calendar calculating.
John Langdon Haydon Down (Nov 18, 1828 - Oct 07, 1896) had first termed the disease idiot savant in 1887. Savant syndrome, however, is now widely used. He was also the doctor who coined the term mongolism, a condition which is now called Down syndrome, which was named after him.
The Common Misconception
Some people may have misunderstood that savants are autistic. Some may use the two terms interchangeably. But that is not the case. About 1 in 10 autistic patients are savants and about 1 in 1000 savants appear in patients with mental retardation, brain injury, and adult onset dementia. All in all, they have estimated that savants appear in about 50% of the time in autistics and about 50% of the time in other forms of mental impairments.
Savant Syndrome Skills
- Music performance, most often piano
- Composing in the absence of performing knowledge
- Playing multiple instruments
- Calendar calculating
- Spatial dexterity
- Mastery of map making
- Direction finding
- Able to memorize a book verbatim
It appears that savants with multiple skills are higher in savants with autism. Be noted that because savant syndrome is very rare, the above listed skills are mostly isolated cases. And that the skills they have are more exceptional than normal people.
They have found a few frontotemporal dementia (FTD) patients who suddenly acquired savant syndrome with the onset and progression of FTD. Many of them did not have artistic abilities in the past but artistic abilities had emerged as FTD proceeded. They had acquired visual or musical skills but verbal and cognitive skills have deteriorated. Most of their works are meticulous copies of the original copy of the artwork. Like other savants, they develop obsessive preoccupation of their work.
Different kinds of accidents and hemorrhagic incidences to the head had been reported that had made the patients savants after their tragic accidents.
The Difference between Autism and Other Mental Retardation
Mental retardation is congenital, even when the baby is still in the mother's womb, doctors can already tell if the baby has mental disabilities. Autism is regarded by doctors as a developmental disability. Autism shows no signs of mental disabilities in the early years of the person. Doctors usually do not have a clue if the baby has autism. In fact, as toddlers, they appear to be normal and energetic children. Symptoms usually show up at about 5 or 6 years old, when the development of their brain suddenly stops.
What is Frontotemporal dementia (FTD)
Frontotemporal dementia is an adult onset dementia. It is called as such because it damages either the frontal or temporal lobe of the brain during its early stages. Patients of FTD might manifest different symptoms on the early stages of this disease, making it hard for doctors to diagnose them. Doctors often misdiagnose FTD as Alzheimer's disease or as a psychiatric problem. Some symptoms of FTD are verbal deterioration, decline in personal hygiene, muscle weakness, rigidity, swallowing difficulties, behavioral changes, repetitive compulsive behavior, unable to control their own movements, and other motor skills deterioration. Signs and symptoms vary depending on the portion of the brain affected. After diagnosis, the duration of the remaining life of the patient is anywhere between two to ten years.