Friday, March 02, 2007

Autistic savant

'Autistic savant' means a person with autism who has a special skill. 'Savant' comes from the French word for 'knowing' and means 'a learned person'. A person with this condition was once known as an 'idiot savant', since 'idiot' was an acceptable word for mental retardation in the late 19th century, when the phenomenon was first medically investigated. Around 10 per cent of people with autism show special or even remarkable skills. For example, a person with autism, who may be intellectually disabled in most ways, could have an exceptional memory for numbers.

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A range of savant abilities Around 10 per cent of people with autism show special or even remarkable skills. The skills range includes:

Splinter skills - the most common type. The person, like an obsessive hobbyist, commits certain things to memory, such as sports trivia.
Talented skills - the person has a more highly developed and specialised skill. For example, they may be artistic and paint beautiful pictures, or have a memory that allows them to work out difficult mathematical calculations in their head.
Prodigious skills - the rarest type. It is thought that there are only about 25 autistic savants in the world who show prodigious skills. These skills could include, for example, the ability to play an entire concerto on the piano after hearing it only once.

The brain's right hemisphere Autistic savant behaviour is so far unexplained. However, researchers think it might have something to do with the right hemisphere of the brain.

The brain is divided into two hemispheres, left and right, bridged by a thick band of nerve fibres called the corpus callosum. While left hemisphere skills are involved with symbolism and interpretation (such as understanding words and body language), the skills of the right hemisphere are much more concrete and direct (such as memory).

CT and MRI scans of the brains of autistic savants suggest that the right hemisphere is compensating for damage in the left hemisphere. It seems that the right hemisphere of an autistic savant focuses its attention on one of the five senses - for example, if it concentrates on hearing, then the autistic savant may have a special skill in music. Research is ongoing.

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