Diagnosed with Autism at the age of three, today Stephen Wiltshire is a well known artist who has an amazing ability to draw accurate representations of cities. When I met him at his London based Gallery, his friendly nature and love for children made a lasting impression on me- as did his drawings. Finding it hard to choose one of his drawings, I opted for a calender featuring twelve of his drawings and got him to autograph it. Many would call him a Savant.
WHAT IS SAVANT SYNDROME?
This is a condition where someone with an intellectual or developmental disability has an ability or capacity way beyond what is considered to be the norm. They may have a neurodevelopmental disorder such as ASD, or may have a brain injury.
Rainman is a movie that was released in 1988 and stars famous actors Dustin Hoffman (Rainman) and Tom Cruise (Rainman's brother). The music was by Hans Zimmerman (who is well known in the film industry). The film was advised by Dr Bernard Rimland who is well known in the Autism community for many things including his book in 1963 that debunked the prevailing theory at the time- 'Refridgerator Mother Syndrome'- as the cause of Autism. Rimmland's book wrote about the biological causes of Autism. In the film Rainman Dustin Hoffman plays and adult with Autism who has a remarkable photographic memory. When you tell people that a person has Autism they often immediately think of Rainman, the Savant, and assume all people with Autism are like Rainman.
DO ALL PEOPLE WITH ASD HAVE A 'HIDDEN GENIUS' IN THEM?
Savants in the Autism population are as rare as Savants in the rest of the population. It has been found that many people with ASD have what we call 'scattered profiles' which means when they are assessed across all developmental areas and skills they present as above normal and below normal in the various areas. More often than not people with ASD have exceptionally high visual spacial skills. Personally I believe this could be due to the fact that because they often do not understand language or many of the environmental cues around them, they have to rely heavily on what they see to make sense of the world. This could also be the reason the frontal cortex of many people with ASD is overdeveloped- not causing ASD as some have suggested, but rather as a result of using it excessively to try and make sense of the world (the frontal cortices are the problem solving centres of the brain). Some people with ASD develop obsessions, making them engage in that obsession repeatedly for long periods of time. Together with the fact that many people with ASD self isolate because they find people unpredictable and difficult to understand, this engagement in a particular behaviour can lead to exceptional knowledge in a particular area or exceptional skill set, known as 'splinter skills'. While this is aamazing, unless these capabilities are way beyond the norm, they will not be classified as a Savant. Stephen Wiltshire's level of ability is definitely within the Savant range!