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What is Savant Syndrome?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jan 24, 2024
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Savant syndrome is the appearance of highly advanced intellectual gifts in one area of cognitive functioning in someone who has cognitive or developmental disabilities. Individuals with this condition operate in most areas of their lives with cognitive deficits, but have an unusual degree of talent for something in particular, like mathematics, playing a musical instrument, or memorizing materials presented to them. This phenomenon was first described in the 1800s, although evidence suggests that savants, as they are known, existed well before this era.

It is estimated that around 50% of people with savant syndrome have an autism spectrum disorder. Other cognitive and developmental disabilities can also be involved, ranging from Down syndrome to childhood brain injury. People with savant syndrome generally have difficulty learning and acquiring new information and can experience social difficulties because they have trouble understanding other people or do not acquire social skills. They may require aides or personal assistants to help with completing daily tasks.

Exhibitions of unusual levels of skill in a specific area of accomplishment may start to manifest at a young age or may not be identified until later. People with developmental and cognitive disabilities have historically not been considered worthy of education, and as a result, many people with savant syndrome went unrecognized because they weren't provided with access to materials they might have used to demonstrate their skills. If a musical instrument is never put in a child's hand, for example, the child can't develop and show musical talent.

Some people with savant syndrome have been able to use their abilities to achieve a high degree of independence. Unusual skills like being excellent at memorizing, good with mathematics, and so forth can have employment value, allowing people to support themselves independently. Even if aides or assistants are needed, the person with savant syndrome can still live and act independently thanks to the assurance of income and other benefits.

Individuals with this condition have been subjects of fascinated study since they were first identified. Once known as “idiot savants” or “autistic savants,” the term “savant” is preferred today, reflecting the fact that “idiot” has become a charged term in the disability community and that not all people with savant syndrome have autism spectrum disorders. Some examples of depictions of savantism in popular culture include characters in The Rain Man and A Beautiful Mind, although some critics have questioned the accuracy of these portrayals.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Wisedly33 — On Aug 16, 2014

I dunno. I'd say "Rain Man" is fairly accurate. Of course, they're going to Hollywood it up, like they did with "Forrest Gump," but I've seen people who had that condition, and they acted a lot like Dustin Hoffman in the movie.

These people tend to be very routinized, and they get extremely agitated and anxious when that routine is disturbed. The routine is often what gives their lives structure and meaning and they are lost without it. Most of the time, they do need to live in a group home environment, where the staff can make sure their routines are very regular and can prepare them for any special events.

By Scrbblchick — On Aug 15, 2014

I read an article about a British man who is a math savant. He can do any equation, any math problem. But he cannot drive or live independently because he is also obsessive-compulsive about counting. He has to count everything, everywhere, and it keeps him from living a normal life.

He said he goes nuts at the beach because he feels compelled to count the grains of sand! He keeps his head shaved so he won't count the hairs on his head. He's really kind of pitiful. He works at a university, so he does have a job, but someone else has to manage his money for him.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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