How Is Someone Diagnosed as an Autistic Savant?
A savant possesses extreme skill in a particular area that is above and beyond what the general population holds. An autistic savant is someone with autism who possesses this type of skill.
Autism is a developmental disorder involving degrees of social communication problems, behavioral issues, cognitive delays, and mental impairment. Since autism occurs on a spectrum, the problems associated with ASD can range greatly in severity. Many people with autism excel in various areas.
People with autism regularly participate in repetitive behaviors and can fixate on particular fields or things of interest. Oftentimes, this can lead to excellent skills in math, science, art, or music. While some level of achievement in a certain field may be somewhat common among people with autism, an autistic savant has tremendous skill in a particular area.
To be diagnosed as an autistic savant, a person will typically have developmental disability and an extraordinary knowledge or skill in one specific area. Generally, savant skills are in art, math, calendar calculation, music, and memory recall.
There are no specific tests to diagnose an autistic savant, but the skill level in this one field will be way beyond that of the general population.
What Is an Autistic Savant?
One of the diagnostic signs of autism is near obsession with a particular field of study, subject matter, or object. Young children may develop an obsession with trains and how they work, for example. Others may show talent in art, math, or music.
A savant goes beyond talent or extreme knowledge and will possess prodigy-like skills in this specific area. To qualify as an autistic savant, the skill level must be rare and extraordinary — way above and beyond what the general population could do.
Estimates of the prevalence of autistic savant syndrome vary greatly. Some sources report up to 10% of people with autism have savant syndrome. Other sources report up to 37% of people in the autistic community are considered autistic savants.
Savant syndrome is reported to be more common in males than females.
Types of Autistic Savants
While an autistic savant will have extraordinary abilities in one specific area or field of interest, this is often a “splinter skill” and may not actually serve them in daily life. Being able to recall every number in a phone directory is not a readily usable skill, for example.
Despite extreme skill in this area, an autistic savant often suffers in other areas that relate to daily life. Autism can lead to significant difficulties with communication and social skills as well as behavioral issues.
Typical savant skills are in the following areas:
- Math: A savant may be a prodigy in mathematics and have the ability to calculate extremely complex problems without pencil and paper.
- Art: They may have the ability to recreate a scene with perfect precision straight from memory or create artistic masterpieces.
- Music: A savant may be able to sing with perfect pitch, play an instrument with extreme talent, or play or recognize music by ear just from hearing it once.
- Calendar calculation: They may be able to calculate the day or week of the month or year at any given point or time.
- Spatial/mechanical skills: They may have the ability to put a jigsaw puzzle together lightning fast, hit golf balls in the exact spot every time, read a map extremely well, or calculate distance or height without measurement.
Extraordinary memory often accompanies savant syndrome.
Interestingly, an autistic savant often has a lower than average IQ, but this is not always the case. Autistic people are frequently extremely intelligent and have the ability to focus intensely on one specific interest.
Diagnosing an Autistic Savant
Savants are often high-functioning. They can therefore fly under the radar and possibly never get an accurate autism diagnosis. Not all savants are autistic; many are neurotypical.
There is no specific test or diagnostic criteria for an autistic savant, but there are several things that can be done to pinpoint savant syndrome. An autistic savant will be highly skilled in one area and also struggle with developmental disability of some form. Testing criteria for autism can help to diagnose the neurodevelopmental disorder first.
Autism can be diagnosed in a child by 18 months to 2 years old. At 18 to 24 months, children should be screened for autism through a developmental screening. If there are any risk factors or signs of autism, a more comprehensive developmental evaluation is conducted by a team of medical and mental health professionals to render a diagnosis.
If a child possesses extreme talent in a certain area, savant syndrome may be present.
Potential Cause of Savant Syndrome
There is a potential link between autistic savants and injury or damage to the left side of the brain. It is believed this damage often occurs in utero, or during pregnancy. This can cause a possible compensation on the right side of the brain. Imaging tests that show the workings of the brain can pinpoint higher brain activity in the left hemisphere, which can indicate savant syndrome.
There is also a potential link between autism, savant syndrome, and genetics that is still being explored.
Intelligence tests, developmental screenings, skills tests, and aptitude assessments can all identify extreme talent in specific areas that can indicate symptoms of savant syndrome. If a child is exceptionally gifted in a certain area, tests are not necessary to indicate this, however.
Autistic Savant vs. Exceptional Skill
On its own, autism can trigger intense attention to detail and focus on a certain skill or area of interest as well as repetitive behaviors and extreme organization. This can inherently cause mastery in this field and a high level of aptitude. Someone who spends hours memorizing state capitals is going to have a good recall of these details, for instance.
Exceptional skill in one or more areas does not necessarily mean the person has savant syndrome.
An autistic savant has extraordinary skill or expertise in a particular field without having to try exceptionally hard. While they will likely spend hours practicing their skill, it will come very easily to them and without much effort.
An autistic savant will be exceptional in one domain, but it will be limited to that one skill or area. For example, an autistic savant may be able to sing with perfect pitch, but unable to communicate their wants and needs.
Autistic savants may struggle with a high level of disability and need help functioning in daily life. They can learn how to use their skills and hone them to find ways to communicate and interact socially.
Treatment for autistic savants — such as ABA therapy, occupational therapy, and speech therapy — can identify ways to capitalize on their exceptional skills while teaching these clients how to cope with the outside world and manage in other areas of daily life.
- Diagnostic Criteria. (August 2019). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
- Autism Diagnosis Criteria: DSM 5. (2020). Autism Speaks.
- Savant Syndrome Has a Distinct Psychological Profile in Autism. (October 2018). Molecular Autism.
- The Autism- Genius Connection. (May 2017). Psychology Today.
- Extraordinary Minds: The Link Between Savantism and Autism. (January 2016). Spectrum.
- There’s a Link Between Autism and Genius. (March 2016). New York Post.
- Screening and Diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. (March 2020). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
- Islands of Genius: How Savants Do What They Do. (August 2014). Psychology Today.
- The Savant Syndrome: An Extraordinary Condition. A Synopsis: Past, Present, Future. (May 2009). Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.