Sunday, January 17, 2016

Savant Syndrome

Knowing my fascination with autism research, my mom sent me a link to an online article from The Atlantic published yesterday that I found extremely interesting. In “The Mysterious Link Between Autism and Extraordinary Abilities,” writer Linda Marsa eloquently summarizes research regarding autism savants and potential causes for this phenomenon. [To read this article, please click here.] According to psychiatrist Darold Treffert, savant syndrome “refers to people who have a combination of significant cognitive difficulties, often stemming from autism, and profound skills––‘islands of genius.’” While savant syndrome was first described in medical literature as early as the late 1700’s, only recently has new research begun to find reasons for this rather rare condition.

A study in 1978 concluded that only ten percent of people with autism were also savants. However, new research indicates that one in three people with autism may also be classified as having savant syndrome, due to their exceptional abilities in certain areas. Typically, these savant skills include unique talents in art, music, and mathematics, along with extraordinary abilities to memorize. In addition, some people with autism demonstrate “splinter skills,” such as the ability to calculate complex math problems mentally without paper and pencil.

In the movie Rain Man, autistic savant Raymond Babbitt [who was loosely based upon Kim Peek, a man with autism who has savant skills] demonstrates the savant skill of calendar calculating, where he can name the day of the week when given any date. Another example of savant syndrome in autism may be found in the giftedness of Stephen Wiltshire, a man with autism who is called the “human camera” because he can draw intricate landscapes from memory [His amazing work can be found in You Tube videos.] after only seeing them once.

As this article points out, people with autism may be thought to have lower cognitive function, but perhaps the method of testing commonly used does not properly measure their actual abilities. Specifically, standardized intelligence testing includes verbal instructions, social interactions, and cultural references, all of which may be difficult for people with autism. Consequently, the perception of many people with autism as having “significant cognitive difficulties” may be incorrect. After all, standardized testing has limitations.

Although the cause of savant syndrome has not yet been definitively established, one theory is that injury to the left hemisphere of the brain before birth or during infancy triggers the right hemisphere to compensate for the loss, allowing unusual abilities to develop. Specifically, renowned autism researcher and psychologist, the late Dr. Bernard Rimland, also the father of a son with autism, noted that savant skills are typically found in the right hemisphere of the brain while communication skills, which are often weak in people with autism, are found in the left hemisphere.

This phenomenon of brain compensation has been found in people who have had strokes, neurodegenerative diseases, or traumatic brain injuries. For example, some people who have had brain injuries due to accidents have suddenly developed talents in art and music or newly found abilities to learn foreign languages. Similarly, people who are blind often develop their auditory skills to compensate for their loss of vision.

Perhaps the most compelling research on the connection between autism and savant syndrome has been done by Laurent Mottron, a psychiatrist at the University of Montreal. In brain imaging studies, his team noted that people with autism who had average IQ scores were 40% faster at solving complex logic problems than typical people. He believes that their analytic skills may explain their superiority at manipulating numbers. In addition, these studies showed that people with autism have enhanced perceptual abilities; specifically, they can mentally manipulate 3-D shapes, discern patterns, and spot details others might miss. He states, “People with autism are natural specialists––when they dig in, they quickly become expert.”

In 2012, further analysis of Dr. Mottron’s imaging studies noted that people with autism have enhanced activity in brain regions associated with visual skills, such as object recognition, visual processing and imagery, and the ability to distinguish between two similar objects. Consequently, “These results suggest that enhanced reliance on visual perception has a central role in autistic cognition,” states Dr. Mottron. Moreover, he believes that the enhanced perception found in people with autism helps them develop their logic skills, which makes them able to solve puzzles based upon logic.

Dr. Mottron’s research also indicates that this increased perception helps some people with autism acquire three abilities associated with savants: perfect pitch, synesthesia, which is a phenomenon where people associate hearing sounds with visualizing colors, and the precocious reading ability of young children known as hyperlexia. Dr. Mottron’s team explains the development of these savant skills as the “functional re-dedication of perceptual brain regions to higher-order cognitive functioning.” Hence, the brain areas dealing with perception develop so that that they can do tasks that involve higher-level thinking, such as performing music or reading.

Essentially, Dr. Mottron’s research indicates that people with autism have brains that are more flexible because they use different neural pathways to perform tasks. Mottron theorizes that the enhanced perceptive skills found in people with autism combined with knowledge and the development of expertise lead to savant skills. Essentially, the right hemisphere of the brain overcompensates for what may be lacking in the left hemisphere. Certainly, this research indicates that people with autism should never be underestimated in their abilities. Even though they may not perform well on standardized intelligence testing, their brains clearly function remarkably well.

This research on savant skills holds particular interest for me because Alex possesses savant skills in mathematics, and he was diagnosed with hyperlexia just after he turned four years old. As I have mentioned in previous blog entries, Alex has a phenomenal memory for anything number-related, such as dates, times, and statistics. He spent one summer learning the digits of pi and was able to recite nearly 1500 digits of this irrational number without making any errors. He tells us that he is able to visualize the digits in his head, which also makes him able to do mathematical calculations mentally. In addition, we know that he taught himself how to read at least by the age of three, and we suspect that he was reading as early as age two. However, because he had limited speech at that age, we weren’t certain that he was reading all the books he was perusing, including my college psychology textbooks that he liked to pull off the bookshelf and study for long periods of time.

In addition, Alex has a keen eye for small details that most people would overlook, noticing minor changes in signs, for example. For that reason, he is an excellent proofreader who easily catches mistakes in writing and possesses outstanding spelling ability, probably because he can also see the words in his mind. Although standardized testing has suggested that his intelligence is below average, we know how smart he is. Moreover, we know that God has given him a good mind that may not function like most, but He has also provided Alex with exceptional gifts, including perceptive abilities, excellent memory, and tenacity that will carry him far in life. We just need to give him time to develop his potential, and I have no doubt that he will.

“In His grace, God has give us different gifts for doing certain things well…” Romans 12:6

No comments: