What Makes an Autistic Person a Savant?

A savant is a person who is diagnosable with savant syndrome— a condition once referred to by the outdated term "idiot savant." Savant syndrome, according to Darold A. Treffert, MD of the University of Wisconsin Medical School, Madison, “... is a rare, but extraordinary, condition in which persons with serious mental disabilities, including autistic disorder, have some 'island of genius' which stands in marked, incongruous contrast to overall handicap."

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In other words, a savant is someone who has significant challenges which belie their unique and extreme abilities in one area. They may have a very low IQ or other mental challenges — and yet show almost super-human strengths in one very specific area. Savants may or may not be autistic.

Often, savants have extraordinary abilities in the areas of music, art, calendar calculating, mathematics, or mechanical/spatial skills. Famous savants like Raymond Babbitt, the model on which Dustin Hoffman's Rain Man character was based, could almost instantly calculate dates for any event hundreds of years into the past or the future.

What Is an Autistic Savant?

An autistic savant is someone with ​autism who also has a single extraordinary area of knowledge or ability. According to Treffert, "As many as one in ten persons with autistic disorder have such remarkable abilities in varying degrees, although savant syndrome occurs in other developmental disabilities or in other types of central nervous system injury or disease as well. Whatever the particular savant skill, it is always linked to massive memory.”

It’s important to note that “savants” and “talented autistic people” are not the same thing. There are many autistic people with ordinary talents—but savant syndrome is rare and extreme. In other words, a person with autism who is able to calculate well, play an instrument, or otherwise present himself as highly capable is not by definition a savant.

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 savants, though many are very intelligent. It's been estimated that one out of every ten autistic people are 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 and, 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 a prodigious feat, serves no meaningful purpose outside of itself.

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

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.