Tuesday, October 12, 2010


Savants are people who despite serious mental or physical disability have quite remarkable, and sometimes spectacular, talents. This is an exceedingly rare phenomena, although there are several well documented cases (see Sacks, 1986; 1995; Treffert, 1989), and recently the Academy Award winning movie Rain Man has led to the term savant being much more widely known. Savant syndrome is perhaps one of the most fascinating phenomena in the study of human differences and cognitive psychology. It is often claimed that, because of the extraordinary abilities involved, we will never truly understand human memory and cognition until we understand the savant.

Savant syndrome was first properly recognised by Dr. J. Langdon Down, (n.b. he also originated the term Down’s syndrome). In 1887, he coined the term "idiot savant" - meaning low intelligence, and from the French, savoir, knowing or wise, to describe someone who had "extraordinary memory but with a great defect in reasoning power." This term is now little used because of its inappropriate connotations, and the term savant syndrome has now been more or less adopted. Another term, autistic savant, is also widely used, but this can be somewhat misleading. Although there is a strong association with autism, it is certainly not the case that all savants are autistic. It is estimated that about 50% of the cases of savant syndrome are from the autistic population, and the other 50% from the population of developmental disabilities and CNS injuries. The estimated incidence of savant abilities in the autistic population is about 10%, whereas the incidence in the learning disability population (which is very much larger) is probably less than 1%. Nevertheless, in order to understand savant syndrome, it is helpful to know something about autism, also it is important to realize that there is some confusion over these estimates of the incidence of the syndrome which stems from the different ways in which it is defined and described.