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Explanations of Savantism in Autistic Individuals

January 13th, 2011 Comments off

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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.

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Explanations of Savantism in Autistic Individuals (Part 2)

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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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Explanations of Savantism in Autistic Individuals (Part 3)

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Brunswick (2001) attests to this idea that autistic individuals are completely shut off from the world, and it is this isolation that motivates a select few to become absorbed into a particular field as a means of connecting with the world. Babies with autism appear to be developing normally until the age of two when social learning begins to contribute increasingly to the cognitive development of the children in question. Most of this learning takes place through processes of teaching by a caregiver and spontaneous imitation on the part of the toddler. However, because as autistic children gain greater knowledge of the physical world, their appreciation and discernment of human interaction fails to keep pace, and as a result, they are inclined to ignore other humans in favor of inanimate objects, to which they becoming increasingly attached. Data has verified this assertion when it was discovered that autistic individuals out perform the typically developing controls in the Wechsler Block Design Test, demonstrating the advantage that autistic participants have evolved through their “enhanced ability to mentally segment designs into their constituent parts. ” (Heavey et al. 1999, p. 146). It has been discovered that savants are more likely to engage in repetitious behaviors and among those with autism, the savants were more likely to possess one single interest, showing more obsessional attitudes towards their ability. Additionally, savant skills can be found in individuals where autism is not diagnosed. Therefore, it is more logical to conclude that an internal concentration on the skills rather than a biological predisposition determined by this disorder is at play

To counteract the claims pertaining to IQ and the ability of savant individuals to overcome such low general intelligence by biological function to achieve such great abilities, one must explore the biological explanation of IQ that Anderson (1998) cites. In his explanation, IQ is determined by the speed of neural conductivity within the brain, operating on the principle that knowledge is not the equivalent of intelligence to explain savantism. Further evidence goes on to argue that inspection time (IT) tasks provide the best calculable scale of speed processing, necessitating that participants make simple discriminations between two or more pieces of data (Scheuffgen, Happe, Anderson Firth, 2000). It has been found that the autistic group had the same inspection time as did normally developing individuals, regardless of the large gaps in IQ scores between each group, providing evidence that the modern IQ tests are not accurate in determining an individual’s true intelligence and ability.

The strong hereditary evidence suggesting that a much higher percentage of autistic individuals possess certain skills than the rest of the general population is a potent claim. However, knowing that not every savant is diagnosed with autism believes me to think that there is another factor involved, such as motivation, in addition to any biological evidence of predisposition. Also, with the discovery and understanding of a new, more practical IQ test that assesses inspection time, it appears that autistic individuals are more like normally developing people than was previously considered, providing strong evidence that in fact, these abilities are present because the autistic savant works towards them rather than has a mystical biological inclination towards them. Due to the feelings of isolation overall and the already predisposition for children and adults with autism to act in repetitive and often compulsive obsessional ways, that despite any evidence of increased blood flow and regional activity in the brain, savants possess their skills as a result of persistent focus and motivation, mostly excluding biological factors.

References

Anderson, Mike. (1998). Mental retardation general intelligence and modularity.

Learning and Individual Differences, 10, 1-9.

Brown, Walter A. Cammuso, K. Sachs, H. Winklosky, B. Mullane, J. Bernier, R.

Svenson, S. Arin, D. Rosen-Sheidley, B. Folstein, S. (2003). Autism-related

language, personality, and cognition in people with absolute pitch: Results of a preliminary study. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 33, 163-167.

Brunswick, Natheniel L. (2001). Social learning and etiology of autism. New

Ideas in Psychology, 19, 49-75.

Heavey, L. Pring, L. Hermelin, B. (1999). A date to remember: The nature of

memory in savant calendrical calculators. Psychological Medicine, 29, 145-160.

Miller, Leon K. (1999). The savant syndrome: Intellectual impairment and exceptional

skill. Psychological Bulletin, 125, 31-46.

Scheuffgen, K. Happe, F. Anderson, M. Firth, U. (2000). High “intelligence,” low

“IQ”? Speed processing and measured IQ in children with autism.

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Explanations of Savantism in Autistic Individuals (Part 4)

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Development and Psychopathology, 12, 83-90.

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