Autism, a severe and incapacitating developmental disorder of brain function affects social and communication skills of a growing child and thus theoretically hinders the learning process, although a surprising number of autistic individuals excel in specific areas, an occurrence that psychologists struggle to explain. Individuals with autism often exhibit similar characteristics including: lack of eye contact; usual attachment to objects rather than people; preference to repetitive activity; delayed or unusual acquisition of language; social naiveté; and the exceptional ability in one or more specific area. Incidence in these exceptional abilities, savant skills, is defined according to the 1973 American Association of Mental Retardation as “a person with low general intelligence who posses an unusually high skill in some special tasks like mental arithmetic, remembering dates or numbers, or in performing other rote tasks at a remarkably high level. ” (Miller, 1999, p. 31). The most common types of savant abilities are in the areas of visual arts, particularly drawing, musical performance, calendar calculating and prime number derivation. Throughout the past two hundred years, occasionally the emergence of an outstanding skill in a person possessing a mental disability has been documented, thus warranting much speculation to the basis of these rare and seemingly out of place abilities.
It is possible that the extreme focus and social seclusion of these individuals compel them to seek out an area of interest to occupy their mental capacities, and thus through practice and concentrated attention on this one subject area, adapt a supreme and specific ability in this chosen field. This is a main theory posted by mainstream textbooks, but there exists another explanation that I wish to explore in evaluating the sources of savant skills in autism spectrum disorders.
According to some mainstream textbooks, savant skills have an origin in a special form of cognitive function that only autistic individuals possess. Although the reference contains only a few sentences pertaining to this theory of cognition, in an attempt to unearth an accurate basis for savant skills, it is a worthy conjecture to explore. With supporting evidence from a wide scope of other articles pertaining to psychological studies, an article by Leon K. Miller, “The Savant Syndrome: Intellectual Impairment and Exceptional Skill” serves as a main source for information on this speculation. A strong link between autism and remarkable natural abilities implies a biological factor. Reports of the high prevalence of absolute pitch in savantism (15%) as compared to that of the general population 05-. 01%) also indicates a possible biological principle that allows such ability. In a brain scan of autistic savants with absolute pitch, there is a marked increase of blood flow to the cerebellum while listening to music in comparison to non-savantists (Brown, Cammuso, Sachs, Winklosky, Mullane, Bernier, Svenson, Arin, Rosen-Sheidley, Folstein, 2003). In keeping with this theory, the examination of five thousand, four hundred autistic children, produced data that exceptional skills were cited by parents in approximately ten percent of the sample (Miller, 1999).
In Miller’s (1999) understanding of savantism, the exceptional memory that such subjects possess is most likely the reflection of a domain-specific organization in the brain, rather than enhanced skills gained through repetitive, focused learning. Some features of savants are consistent with an attribution model that suggests a differentiation in function of brain hemispheres, thus providing a specific hypothesis to this biological theory. People with autism have obvious trouble with language and verbal skills associated with the left hemisphere creating a “consequence of right hemisphere flourish. ” (Miller, 1999, p. 35). Mathematical calculations, spatial representations, and musical and artistic abilities are associated with this right hemisphere of the brain. Strong evidence for this right hemisphere reliance also includes the fact that a far larger percentage of savants are left handed than the general population (Miller, 1999). An alternate conjecture to the hemispherical approach is that autistic savants possess numerous localities in the brain for greater pathological development of temporal and parietal (both relating to spatial orientation, bodily acclimation, such as temperature and touch, and visual and auditory input) polysensory (Miller, 1999).
Duckett (1976, as cited in Miller, 1999) has demonstrated in numerous studies that savants have stronger capabilities in several memory and creative test measurements than controls matched on age, gender, and general level of intellectual functioning, indicating that savants may be able to learn more easily than their non-gifted autistic counterparts.