The savant syndrome: do 'savants' exist?
Still from the series 'The good doctor', based on the experiences of a 'savant' doctor.
Still from the series ‘The good doctor’, based on the experiences of a ‘savant’ doctor.

The term savant (wise) is used to refer to people who have severe cognitive difficulties, which is also a characteristic that often appears in many other people on the autism spectrum, but who also have exceptional talent. This wonderful talent is usually in fields like mathematics, visual memory, art, etc. It is associated with the autistic spectrum because there is a percentage of those people identified as savants who have been diagnosed with autism.

In the past it was thought to be very, very rare. How many people with autism are savants? Before it was said that approximately one in ten, but more recent research suggests that it may be one in three. Although the truth is that it is not known.

And it is not known because, in reality, what do we consider an exceptional talent? It is a bit of an abstract term, since there is no line from which we can say that something is indisputably exceptional.

Also, I think we also associate autism with savants from what we have seen in the movies or in the series. There is a current series that reflects this: The good doctorwhose protagonist is a surgeon who has autism and is a savant who thinks with images. or the movie rain man, from 1988, which also shows an autistic person with exceptional abilities in mathematics and communication and cognitive difficulties. Or Stephen Wiltshire who has been dubbed the “human camera” for his great visual memory and his exceptional talent for replicating with precise drawing what he sees just by looking at it once. They are people with these talents.

A large part of them are within the autistic spectrum, but they do not have to be. There may be others who have some other type of developmental disorder. Not all people on the autism spectrum are savantsnot all savants They are on the autism spectrum.

Autism is a condition that encompasses many manifestations. It is a syndrome that has a very wide range that includes people with a very high intelligence quotient, but also people with a very severe intellectual disability. Or people who have a lot of language difficulties and others who don’t have any. But there are always common characteristics: such as difficulties in communicating and relating and repetitive behaviors. Those would be the characteristics most associated with autism, although the most visible thing is that it is very heterogeneous.

The thing about autism is that it’s hard to diagnose. There is no blood test or other medical test that allows us to diagnose it, but it is diagnosed through questionnaires that evaluate development and behavior. Until now, most autism diagnoses have been in boys. But it is that the questionnaires that are used for these diagnoses have been developed based on men. Before, it was thought that it was a disease that mainly affected children and that these were its characteristics. Now it has been seen that there are many girls with autism, but the syndrome is such a broad spectrum that in girls it usually has other characteristics. They are diagnosed much later because, in addition, autistic girls usually have a great ability to imitate behaviors and then, if they are in the schoolyard, you see them interact with others, although they do it only by imitation. The appearance is that, at first glance, they would not fit into what is associated with the main characteristics of autism.

But back to the savants, it is not known what causes it. There is some hypothesis that defends that what happens is that there is a part of the brain affected, which is usually the left, and then there is compensation on the right side, and that is what makes them have these capacities. We know that this also happens with the senses. For example, blind people develop much more hearing. Well, this would be the same, but with the brain. And it also happens with many other people on the autism spectrum who do not become savants, but they do have special abilities. It is thought that in them it may also be a compensation of the brain.

Alba Gutierrez Sacristan She is a doctor in Biomedicine, researching autism at the Department of Biomedical Informatics at Harvard University (United States).

Question sent via email by Dayana Sanchez Leal

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we answer is a weekly scientific consultation, sponsored by the Dr. Antoni Esteve Foundation and the program L’Oréal-Unesco ‘For Women in Science’, which answers readers’ questions about science and technology. They are scientists and technologists, partners of AMIT (Association of Women Researchers and Technologists), which answer those questions. Send your questions to usrespondemos@gmail.com or on Twitter #nosotrasrespondemos.

The advice in this office is of a general nature and is not a substitute for medical advice. If you have questions about your specific problem, ask your doctor or pharmacist.

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