Back when I was in school and spent my holidays in my home-town, there came a man to our house to ask for alms. He was blind - he had always been blind and his arrival meant all the people of the house coming out to meet the guy. For our amusement we used to ask the man what time it was, and he always answered to the minute. He could not see, and neither had he anyone to help him. It was fun to talk to him for some time and suddenly ask him the time again to check if he had known the time before he came in. He never failed. I don't know if being blind gave him a heightened perception of his biological clock but he was always correct. I am not sure if he qualifies to be called an autistic savant but he is the closest to one that I have seen. True story.
Raymond Babbitt - the Rain Man is a name familiar to many - an autistic savant from the movie “Rain Man” who has an eidetic memory and can perform complex mathematical calculations very fast but is doomed to repetitive behavior and lacks social communication skills. But the name of Kim Peek, the real Rain Man, is unknown to most of us. While the majority of the people learned about the savant syndrome through Rain Man, it has been known to scientists for a long time.
Savant syndrome is a condition where people with developmental disabilities or autism, have skills in certain areas which sometimes border on prodigious. The case is extremely rare and it is a misconception that only autistic people have savant syndrome. It is estimated that 10% of all autistic people and 1% of non-autistic people have savant syndrome. Babbitt is a classic example of a savant. The skills which are seen among savants are mainly photographic memory, phenomenal artistic talents, musical ability including perfect pitch and the ability to learn and speak multiple languages. But despite their genius, the autistic savant generally cannot explain how they are doing what they do. More-over their habitual restrictive or repetitive behavior makes them go largely unnoticed.
It is believed the key to understanding autism lies in the understanding of savant syndrome but the prevalent theories are not conclusive. Professor Allan Snyder, from the Centre for the Mind at the Australian National University in Canberra believes we all have savant-like abilities but it is generally some sort of brain-damage or dementia which allows us to access them. Research shows the abilities savants excel at are generally those of the right hemisphere of the brain. Since the left hemisphere is responsible for communication, it is said that the right hemisphere is dominant when it is damaged thus rendering savants their amazing skills.
But the theories have a long way to go and they still can't explain why savant syndrome is biased towards the male population.
Many savants have made it to fame in their respective skills but largely they remain ignored. One would be inclined to think otherwise considering their exceptional abilities. Here we take a look at some of the more known savants.
The inspiration for Rain Man, Kim Peek is called a megasavant. He had an eidetic memory but faced social and communication difficulties due to developmental disorders. He is reported have been able to read two pages simultaneously and remember each of the 7600 books he has ever read - verbatim.
A mathematical genius, Daniel Tammet has the ability to perform complex calculations within seconds. He holds the European record for remembering the value of pi up to 22,514 decimal places. He had epileptic fits in his childhood which left him largely disabled. He speaks seven languages and has started working on his own language.
Leslie Lemke is a musical genius. He was diagnosed with Glaucoma and brain damage and his eyes had to be removed in childhood. His talents became apparent when he started playing Tchaikovsky's piano concerto No.1 after having heard it only once. He possesses perfect pitch - a talent for remembering any note and recreating them without any reference. He now makes his living as a musician.
Richard Wawro was an artist who used wax oil crayons to draw landscapes and seascapes. He was diagnosed with autism at a young age and had to have his cataracts removed which made him practically blind. He drew from memory - scenes he had seen when he was young which he remembers in detail due to his excellent memory. His pictures are said to be powerful for their tones and his representation of light and shade has been termed masterly. He had his first exhibition at 17 and Pope John Paul II had acquired one of his pictures. He died of lung cancer in 2005.
The savant syndrome, though known of since 1887, has largely been ignored. Individuals with such gifted minds are handicapped due to their restricted social skills; who is to say that among the countless autistic people in Bangladesh, there is not a latent mathematical genius or a talented artist waiting to be found?