Perhaps you have seen the movie Rain Man, in which Dustin Hoffman plays an autistic man whose ability to keep track of cards that have been played enables his brother, played by Tom Cruise, to win a great deal of money at blackjack. Raymond, Hoffman´s character, was a savant.
Savant syndrome, an unusual combination of mental retardation and genius, is a condition that allows an individual whose level of general intelligence is very low to perform certain highly creative or difficult mental feats. The term is derived from the french term for such a person: idiot savant. (idiot means "poorly informed or untutored" and savant means "wise one"). Savants demonstrate high levels of performance in a variety of domains. Some are exceptionally gifted in musical performance. Others can identify the day of the week corresponding to any specific date in the past or in the future. Still others can carry out complex calculations in their heads. Arthur is such a person.
""Arthur, how much is 6,427 times 4234?" Arthur turned his head in my direction and said slowly but without hesitation, "27 million, 211 thousand, 918." His voice was stilled but precise. His eyes never lost their blank stare, and now he returned to gazing into space, without seeing anything, a handsome, impassive 8-year-old." (Rimland, 1978, p. 69)
Arthur can multiply multidigit numbers in his head faster than you could do it in a calculator, and he never make a mistake. Yet, his measured IQ is extremely low.
Alonzo Clemons is not able to speak in complete sentences, cannot read or count, and, at almost 50 years of age, has the mental ability of an average 6-year-old child. He lives in a facility for the mentally retarded near Denver, Colorado. But Alonzo, the retarded genius, is making a name for himself in the art world, creating bronze sculptures, which collectors are eagerly buying for hundreds of dollars each, or more for special pieces. In only 4 months after his first show, Alonzo, the sculptor, sold $30,000 worth of his work through a Denver gallery.
Another rare combination of genius and low IQ is Arnold, who is identified as an autistic savant. Although his IQ of 80 is low, it is to high too allow him to be considered retarded. Arnold is employed at a Goodwill store, doing assembly work. But his mother describes him this way:
He reads and understands books on electronics and uses the theories to build devices. He recently put together a tape recorder, a fluorescent light, and a small transistor radio with some other components, so that music from the tape was changed to light energy in the light and then back to music in the radio. By passing his hand between the recorder and the light, he could stop the music. He understand the concepts of electronics, astronomy, music, navigation and mechanics. He knows an astonishing amount about how things work and is familiar with technical therms. (Rimland, 1978, p. 70)
The puzzle of savant syndrome is slowly being unraveled by scientists. For instance, psychologists have known for a long time that the prevalence of absolute pitch, the ability to identify musical tones merely by hearing them, is greater among individuals with autism than in general population. Recently, though, researchers have found that people with autism are more sensitive than other peoples to sounds, and to changes in pitch, in general (Bonnel et al., 2003). Moreover, savants who can rapidly determine day-date associations in the past and future, known as calendrical savants, appear to have enhanced abilities to calculate asnd to associate all kinds of verbal and numerical stimuli (Cowan et al., 2003; Pring & Hermelin, 2002). Many researchers hope that further investigation of the puzzling aspects of savant syndrome will lead to a clearer understanding of intelligence and creativity.
Read in The world of Psychology, p. 292-293
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