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Savant skills among Autistics

Posted Apr 01 2009 12:00am

Patricia Howlin and colleagues (including Sir Michael Rutter) reported the results of a study of savant skills among individuals with Autism. They found that, although some individuals with Autism have savant skills, it might not be as common as the popular press says.

Of course, the rare cases really astound us. Treffert and Christensen (2005) recounted the case of Kim Peek, who “read Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October in one hour and 25 minutes. Four months later, when asked, he gave the name of the Russian radio operator in the book, referring to the page describing the character and quoting several passages verbatim.”

I’m still working with my library to obtain a complete copy of the Howlin et al. paper. Here’s the abstract, though.

Most investigations of savant skills in autism are based on individual case reports. The present study investigated rates and types of savant skills in 137 individuals with autism (mean age 24 years). Intellectual ability ranged from severe intellectual impairment to superior functioning. Savant skills were judged from parental reports and specified as ‘an outstanding skill/knowledge clearly above participant’s general level of ability and above the population norm’. A comparable definition of exceptional cognitive skills was applied to Wechsler test scores—requiring a subtest score at least 1 standard deviation above general population norms and 2 standard deviations above the participant’s own mean subtest score. Thirty-nine participants (28.5%) met criteria for either a savant skill or an exceptional cognitive skill: 15 for an outstanding cognitive skill (most commonly block design); 16 for a savant skill based on parental report (mostly mathematical/calculating abilities); 8 met criteria for both a cognitive and parental rated savant skill. One-third of males showed some form of outstanding ability compared with 19 per cent of females. No individual with a non-verbal IQ below 50 met criteria for a savant skill and, contrary to some earlier hypotheses, there was no indication that individuals with higher rates of stereotyped behaviours/interests were more likely to demonstrate savant skills.

This is only one of many interesting articles in this issue of Transactions. There’s a list of the articles (and references for the works I’ve cited) after the fold.

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