The people known today as savants were previously known by the somewhat less-sensitive term idiot savants, reﬂecting the terminology that was once used with reference to mental retardation. A savant is a person in whom severe mental handicap, usually mental retardation or autism, coexists with exceptional talent in a discrete skill or ability.
Some autistic savants, for example, cannot dress themselves or perform basic self-care, yet they can instantly tell the correct the day of the week on which any date in history fell. Others can perform multiple-digit multiplication in their heads, while lacking the ability to read. Savants can show exceptional performance in a wide range of abilities, the most common of which are called splinter skills. Frequently seen splinter skills include a preoccupation with, and huge memory for, music and sports trivia, license plate numbers, calendars, maps, and historical facts; as well as more unusual niche categories such as the many different models of vacuum tubes, and the appliances they were used in. A common feature of all savants, regardless of the particular skill area in which they excel, is clearly an extremely deep and detailed memory, though only for a very narrow range of information.
Some rare savants, referred to as prodigious savants, develop a skill to such a high level that it would be extremely impressive and outstanding even in a nonhandicapped person. Some doctors estimate that as many as one in ten autistic patients have some degree of savant skill; and about one in 2,000 persons with mental retardation have it, although, owing to the much higher incidence of mental retardation, only about 50 percent of savants are autistic. It has been estimated that there are fewer than ﬁfty prodigious savants in the world. Tony DeBlois, an autistic savant in Massachusetts, is an excellent example of this highly unusual combination of ability and disability. He is a musician who can play a repertoire of over 8,000 songs on twenty different instruments. His huge repertoire owes its existence in part to his ability to play on a piano, from memory, any piece of music after hearing it only once. Despite this prodigious level of musical skill, however, the blind musician only learned to buckle his own belt around age thirty. Other prodigious savants possess the ability to draw extremely detailed and lifelike scenes or portraits from memory of people or places only seen once, and brieﬂy, while lacking even the most rudimentary verbal skills.
Prodigies are similar to savants in that they have a single area of exceptional ability, but they differ in that their cognitive functioning is otherwise fairly ordinary, rather than subaverage. Although they excel in their particular area of skill, for example, prodigies tend not to achieve unusually high scores on general intelligence tests. The other deﬁning feature of a prodigy is that the syndrome is apparent in early childhood—deﬁnitions tend to include the stipulation that prodigies are identiﬁed as such prior to age ten. These are unusual children: they tend to develop their particular interest well before reaching school age and possess a remarkable drive to learn more and do even better. Chess prodigies, for example, tend to begin playing by age three, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, probably history’s most famous prodigy, was performing complex pieces of music publicly at age four and composing them at age six.
Some very recent evidence, obtained through such brain imaging techniques as fMRI, suggests that the differences between prodigies and other children are qualitative, not just quantitative. Michael O’Boyle has discovered, for example, that right-hemisphere metabolic activity is six to seven times higher in math prodigies than in average children. More intriguing, however, is the fact that frontal lobe areas associated with executive functions, such as concentration and coordination of tasks, are also active in such children while doing math tasks, despite being mostly inactive in average children doing the same problems.
Spectacular though the achievements of prodigies can be, however, another facet of the syndrome is often overlooked: most child prodigies do not make major contributions to their ﬁelds once they reach adulthood. Some disappear from their ﬁeld entirely, perhaps developing psychological problems along the way, as in the case of American chess prodigy Bobby Fischer.
Many carry on their specialties quite competently in adulthood, but without performing at the same spectacular levels or earning the acclaim that accompanied their childhood accomplishments, as seems to occur with most celebrated music prodigies. This may be due in part to the nature of the adult skill areas that tend to produce prodigies: highly structured, formal, rule-bound areas such as music, mathematics, and chess. Their precocious drive and skill level are outstanding in childhood, but intuition and creativity are necessary to make lasting adult contributions, and outstanding adult musicians have the necessary drive and skill level that they didn’t possess as children. Perhaps the late bloomers catch up with the prodigies, so that what appeared to be precocious genius in childhood becomes merely a high level of competence in adulthood. Indeed, many genuinely world-changing geniuses were late bloomers, thoroughly undistinguished in childhood—Darwin and Einstein both come to mind.
- Feldman, D. H. and Goldsmith, L. T. Nature’s Gambit: Child Prodigies and the Development of Human Potential. New York: Teacher’s College Press, 1991;
- Treffert, D. A. “Extraordinary People: Understanding Savant Syndrome.” IUniverse.com, 2000.