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Explanations of Savantism in Autistic Individuals (Part 2)

January 13th, 2011

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Surprisingly, savant skills have been discovered in subjects who were virtually untestable by standard methods. Nadia, a woman described in Miller’s (1999) article, exhibited an extremely talented ability in drawing, yet her expressive language was restricted to just a few phrases and typical evaluation instruments placed her performance at near floor level. Such findings distinguish a difference between actual generalized intelligence and the abilities as supported biologically of savants.

Psychologists agreeing with Miller’s proposal believe that autistic individuals have limited skill expression, revealing constraints on their cognitions. The inability of savants to express and describe their own processes of drawing, musical performance, or calendar calculation also provides evidence that savants do not have a remarkable understanding of their abilities, but instead inherently possess them through biological characteristics of the brain. Adults and children with autism do not have the social function to know how to describe such events, but this trait is also displayed by protégés without a mental disability. Highly practiced skills, for example, may become so automatic and routine in typically developing individuals that they are also unable to describe these processes. The actual concept of language itself and the structure it requires to make sense in vocalization may interfere with the preservation of detailed information about a particular event or situation, as language disorders have been found to be very common in savantism (Miller, 1999).

Many studies have been conducted to determine exactly how much understanding savants have of their own abilities and the methods in which they utilize in their talents. The ability to formulate a specific day of the week on a mental calendar may be an exceptional skill, however, it is atypical and, therefore, a difficult skill to compare against sample groups without a disability (Miller, 1999). It is suggested that people with autism who display an uncharacteristic ability in calendar computations have a very rudimentary knowledge of mathematics (Miller, 1999). While Heavey, Pring, and Hermelin (1999) insist that formulas and algorithms exist in published format for the calculation of dates, they perceive it to be highly unlikely that the learning-disabled savants would be able to access, read, and synthesize these mathematical components. A strong short-term memory is also essential in manipulating the computation of calendar dates, which concurs with the findings in a 1973 study by Spitz and LaFontaine that savants have superior short-term memory in comparison to controls with developmental delays (Heavey, Pring, Hermelin). Additionally, when asked to reproduce a piece of art, autistic individuals with such savant abilities created sketches that were not literal copies of the original, but instead more often adapted another perspective on the original artwork, bringing in outside sources of knowledge. This example functions to provide evidence that these people are capable of thinking through a process of replication instead of merely producing an exact copy (Miller 1999). Similar to the findings in artist abilities, Miller (1999) also discovered through his research that immediate recall of musical fragments by savants is “not a literal reproduction of the material heard, (but rather) participants’ renditions preserved essential musical structural regularities present in the original. ” (p. 42). Through examples and theories stated by Miller and others, there exists a strong possibility that savants have a biological tendency to excel at specific tasks, contrasting with my assumptions that much of their abilities are learned through focused study.

Many of the arguments posed by Miller and others seem to be convincing, but much of the supporting evidence of their theories seems vague and hypothetical without practical knowledge of the day-to-day behaviors of autistic individuals Autistic savants may be predisposed to certain categories of abilities that are controlled by the right hemisphere of the brain, but these cannot develop without sufficient attention. Anderson (1998) has found significant data in a series of MRIs conducted in autistic individuals, concluding that there is no structural difference in the activities of each hemisphere at any given time in autistic savants. Bilateral processing is utilized most often by nearly every function of the body, and therefore, although one side may represent a stronger presence over the other, the latter side must also be relatively high functioning (Anderson, 1998).

People with autism spectrum disorders can become obsessed and narrowly focused on one particular subject of interest, as they are motivated to concentrate on a specified goal in response to the social and environmental deprivation, leading to attentional development and extensive practice of this new skill (Anderson, 1998).

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