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Talents Of Savants, Savant Or Genius, Causes Of Savant Syndrome

Savants are people with extremely outstanding abilities, often in music, mathematics, memory, or art. Their talents stand in marked contrast to their intelligence in other areas, which is well below normal. For example, a savant who, given any date in the past hundred years, could say what day of the week it fell on, might not be able to perform simple tasks like tying his shoes or catching a bus. The cause of this condition, commonly labeled savant syndrome, has yet to be fully determined.

Savant syndrome was first formally described in 1877 by British physician J. Langdon Down, who lectured the Royal Society of London about developmentally disabled individuals he had seen performing amazing mental feats at Earlswood Asylum. Down called these people idiot savants because of their low level of intelligence. At that time the word "idiot" was the scientific classification for people who functioned at a two-year-old level, having IQs no higher than 25. Researchers today believe that the term idiot savant is misleading, because most savants, although developmentally disabled, function at higher levels of intelligence than this; all savants reported in medical and psychological literature have had IQs of at least 40.

Today, some people with savant syndrome are called autistic savants. This is because many savants suffer from infantile autism, a developmental disorder involving some degree of retardation that first shows itself during infancy. Disturbed social interactions are a key part of autism. Autistic children dislike being held or touched, avoid eye contact, have poorly developed communication skills, and often perform unusual repetitive behaviors such as head banging or rocking back and forth. The cause of autism is unknown.

In the hundred years that have passed since Down brought savants to the attention of the scientific community, hundreds of cases have been reported. Despite the level of interest it has generated, savant syndrome is a rare condition. Only an estimated one out of every 2,000 developmentally disabled people living in institutions can be called a savant. It is known that the rate of savant syndrome is as much as six times higher among males than among females. Some researchers believe that this is because more males are autistic than females. According to one study, about one in ten autistic children have special abilities that could classify them as savants.

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