Is Rain Man Syndrome Real?

In 1988, the movie "Rain Man," starring Dustin Hoffman, introduced many of us to a disorder known as savant syndrome. In the film, Hoffman's character, Raymond Babbitt, is shown to have an amazing memory for baseball statistics and phone book listings. He can also count cards in blackjack.

This is a real-life condition even though some people believe it is not.

A young girl playing the piano
Inti St Clair / Getty Images

Causes and Characteristics of Savant Syndrome

Savant syndrome is extremely rare. While people with autistic spectrum disorder have been known to have savant syndrome, it can also happen in later life. This is usually because of a brain injury or disease, known as acquired savant syndrome. It occurs more often in males than in females.

People with savant syndrome have an amazing memory that focuses in one area. These people can be preoccupied with things like license plate numbers, historical dates, geography facts, lists of people (like U.S. presidents or world leaders), and other random trivia.

Some of these individuals are very artistic or musical. They may hear a piano concerto once and be able to play it perfectly. Others have remarkable mathematical skills, such as being able to make extremely difficult calculations in seconds. Others can calculate calendar almost instantly and provide the day of the week for any random date in the past or present.

The Savant in History

People with savant syndrome were described in the medical literature as early as 1751. It was not until 1997 that the term "idiot savant" was used by Dr. J. Langdon Down. He was the first physician to describe Down syndrome. He explained that people with Down syndrome having low IQs but exceptional knowledge in certain ways. This is why he used the word "savant," the French word for "learned."

In history, there have been many important people who fit this description. They are brilliant in a specific area but do not have key social and developmental skills. Among them:

  • Kim Peek (1951-2009), a man born with brain abnormalities who was the inspiration for the film "Rain Man."
  • Tom Wiggins (1849-1908), a blind black musical talent whose developmental skills would today be described as autistic.
  • Temple Grandin (1947- ), an autistic woman known for her livestock animal behavior skills and whose story was recounted in the HBO movie "Temple Grandin."

Today, savant syndrome is the correct term for the disorder. While some use autistic savant to describe the condition, only around half of the people with the syndrome are autistic.

Recap

Many people believe that savant syndrome is not a real condition. It is rare but real. People with this syndrome are usually artistic or musical with amazing memories. There are many famous people in history who had savant syndrome.

Investigating Savant Syndrome

Savant syndrome is interesting to the public, but there are no exact statistics about the number of people who have these skills. Some studies suggest that as many as one in 10 people with autism have some degree of savant syndrome.

There is currently no accepted cognitive theory to explain the combination of talents and impairments in people with savant syndrome. Some researchers think that it comes from an abnormality in the part of the brain that handles object perception and recognition. This area of the brain is known as the anterior temporal lobe. People with acquired savant syndrome often experience damage there.

Scientists continue to study the condition in the hope of gaining a better idea of the functions of the brain and how different types of memory work separately and together.

Summary

Savant syndrome is a rare condition where people usually have an amazing memory focused in one area but have lower social and development skills. About half of people with savant syndrome are autistic. More research is needed to figure out exactly why this condition occurs but researchers believe a certain area of the brain is part of the answer. The anterior temporal lobe helps people identify, organize, and understand objects and concepts.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Treffert DA. The savant syndrome: an extraordinary condition. A synopsis: past, present, future. Philos Trans R Soc Lond, B, Biol Sci. 2009;364(1522):1351-7. doi:10.1098/rstb.2008.0326

Additional Reading
  • Treffert, D. "The savant syndrome: an extraordinary condition. A synopsis: past, present, future." Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2009; 364(1522): 1351-7.