What Is a Savant?

A person with developmental or mental challenges who has extraordinary abilities

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Savant syndrome is a rare condition in which someone with a serious mental disability or developmental disorder has an extraordinary talent, knowledge, or ability. Someone who is considered a savant may be especially skilled in art, math, music, memory recall, or another subject.

Savant syndrome is commonly associated with autism but can occur alongside other conditions. Dustin Hoffman's character Raymond Babbitt in the movie Rain Man was a savant.

While savants may have genius-level knowledge in their area of expertise, research shows savants often have a below-average IQ of around 70. While some savants have IQs in the normal range (between 85 and 115), no savants studied have had IQs under 50 or over 130.

This article discusses savants, savant syndrome, and autistic savants.

young asian Boy Studying At Table Against Blackboard
Prakasit Khuansuwan / EyeEm / Getty Images 

What Is Savant Syndrome?

Savant syndrome is a rare condition where someone with a developmental or intellectual disability shows extreme giftedness in one or more areas. It is not an official diagnosis, and there are no diagnostic criteria for savant syndrome.

Someone with savant syndrome may have a very low IQ or other mental challenges—and yet show almost super-human strengths in one very specific area. Savants often have extraordinary abilities in the areas of:

  • Music
  • Art
  • Calendar calculating
  • Mathematics
  • Mechanical/spatial skills

For example, famous savant Kim Peek—who inspired Rain Man—could almost instantly calculate dates for any event hundreds of years into the past or the future.

Savants may or may not be autistic, though savant syndrome is more common in people with autism.

What Is an Autistic Savant?

An autistic savant is someone with ​autism who also has a single extraordinary area of knowledge or ability. The savant skill is typically linked to a massive memory.

Statistics vary as to how many people with autism are savants. One study found as many as one in 10 persons with autistic disorder have remarkable abilities in varying degrees. Other research suggests slightly more than one-third of autistics meet the definition of savant.

An autistic savant is not the same as a talented autistic person. Many autistics have ordinary talents, but savant syndrome is rare and extreme. In other words, a person with autism who can calculate well, play an instrument, or otherwise present himself as highly capable is not a savant.

Research shows autistic savants have a distinct cognitive and behavioral profile that differentiates them from merely talented autistics. These include:

  • Heightened sensory sensitivity
  • Obsessional behaviors
  • Systemizing, or the drive to analyze or construct systems
  • Technical and/or spatial abilities

Is Savant Syndrome a Good Thing?

It’s fairly common for parents of a child with autism to be told how lucky they are that their child is autistic since autism implies great intelligence and ability. The reality, however, is that few people with autism are actually savants.

It is tempting to see savant syndrome as a positive thing. After all, savants are very impressive people with abilities beyond those of ordinary folks. The reality, however, is that it doesn't necessarily make life easier. In some cases, it can make life more difficult.

Some autistic savants have extraordinary abilities that can be expanded or channeled in useful directions. For example, some uniquely talented autistic artists and musicians are able to sell their work (almost always through parents or managers).

In most cases, though, savant skills are splinter skills, meaning skills that—while real and significant— are not used in daily life. For example, the ability to recite pages of the phone book from memory, while an impressive feat, serves no meaningful purpose outside of itself.

Famous Savants

In addition to Peek, some famous savants include: 

  • Leslie Lemke: Leslie was born with severe birth defects that left him blind. He could not stand or walk until his teens. At age 16 and with no formal musical training, he developed the ability to flawlessly play songs on the piano after hearing them just once. 
  • Alonzo Clemons: This savant sculptor suffered a severe head injury as a toddler. He can sculpt perfect 3D images of animals after only briefly seeing an image of the animal on a TV screen.
  • Orlando Serrell: Orlando became a savant after being struck in the head with a baseball at 10 years old. He can perform complex calendar calculations and recall the weather of any given date since his accident. 
  • Stephen Wiltshire: This autistic man is able to draw accurate and detailed city landscapes. As a child, he was mute and communicated through his drawings. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is the term "savant" offensive?

    People may have differing opinions on this. For example, some may prefer a person-first term such as "person with autism and savant syndrome" over "autistic savant." "Idiot savant," which was originally used to describe someone of below-average intelligence who has savant skills, is considered an offensive term, however.

  • What is the IQ of a savant?

    A savant typically has a below-average IQ. For autistic savants, research shows the average IQ is 70.

  • Is a savant syndrome a form of autism?

    No, savant is not a type of autism; you do not need to be autistic to be a savant. However, savant qualities are more common among people with autism than in other neuro-types.

5 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.

  2. Howlin P, Goode S, Hutton J, Rutter M. Savant skills in autism: psychometric approaches and parental reports. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2009(1522):1359–67. doi:10.1098/rstb.2008.0328

  3. Hughes JEA, Ward J, Gruffydd E, et al. Savant syndrome has a distinct psychological profile in autism. Mol Autism. 2018;9:53. doi:10.1186/s13229-018-0237-1

  4. Treffert, DA. Savant syndrome 2013 - myths and realities. Wisconsin Medical Society website.

  5. Applied Behavioral Analysis Programs Guide. Is the term “autistic savant” politically correct?

Additional Reading
  • Sources:
  • C Hou et al. "Autistic savants." Neuropsychiatry Neuropsychol Behav Neurol. 2000 Jan;13(1):29-38.
  • D.A. Treffert. : The savant syndrome and autistic disorder." CNS Spectr. 1999 Dec;4(12):57-60.
  • D.A. Treffert. "The savant syndrome: an extraordinary condition. A synopsis: past, present, future." Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2009 May 27;364(1522):1351-7.

By Lisa Jo Rudy
Lisa Jo Rudy, MDiv, is a writer, advocate, author, and consultant specializing in the field of autism.