Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Savants: Despite their amazing abilities, science has ignored these individuals.

Eye on Autism

By Dan Olmsted

Lately I’ve been trying to make sense of savants. What is the relationship between autism and the extraordinary abilities that, in a small percentage of cases, accompany it? Rain Man put both autism and savant skills on the map and may have created a bias toward believing that they go together a lot more often than they do.

Yet a number of important historical figures have been retrospectively “diagnosed” with both – principally Einstein, who indisputably had speech delay and an incredible visual imagination; and Newton, who shut himself up in his room for two years and emerged with the Principia, a feat of single-minded genius.
Today’s most astonishing autistic savant is Daniel Tammet, the Great Britain native who recited pi to 22,514 digits in just over five hours and taught himself Icelandic – one of the world’s toughest languages – in a week so he could speak it when he appeared on a talk show there. And there are many lesser-known people who nonetheless have amazing abilities – I met a man at an autism conference who was a taxi driver in New York when he went to see Rain Man. There’s a moment when Dustin Hoffman is asked to solve a complicated math problem, and this man astonished the audience by shouting out the answer before Hoffman did! He had no idea he was either autistic or a savant, but when he left the theater he touched the poster of Hoffman and said, “Finally I know – that’s who I am.”

Late 19th century England also seemed to produce plausibly autistic savants – for more on that, and the entire phenomenon of savants, see Dr. Darold Treffert’s fascinating site, and the earliest cases series of autistic children reported in the United States, by Leo Kanner in 1943, began with Donald T., who could recite the Presbyterian catechism as a toddler and (his brother told me a couple of years ago) has perfect pitch.
I also put Jason “J-Mac” McElwain somewhere in this constellation. He’s the high school basketball team manager in Greece, N.Y., who got his big chance and sank six three-pointers. In his new book, The Game of My Life, he writes: “The big point I want to make in this chapter is it’s all about focus.” No doubt that’s true, but I could focus all I want and I would not sink six three-pointers the first time I got the chance. Whether or not he was “hot as a pistol,” as Jason says, I suspect some aspect of his autism was also at work.

Let’s assume for the moment that all the people I’ve described do fit somewhere on the spectrum, and that their extraordinary abilities are an aspect of that. Does that give us any clues to where this all came from?

I’ve written in Spectrum about my reporting that suggests the early cases of autism in this country can be connected to organic mercury – in fungicides and vaccines. Donald T., for example, lives in the aptly named Forest, Miss., in the middle of a national forest and not far from where mercury was first tested as a lumber preservative. (That may seem like a reach, but consider that Case 2 was the son of a forestry professor in the south, and Case 3 the son of a plant pathologist.)

I can think of possible links to several other cases as well. Daniel Tammet writes in his autobiography, Born on a Blue Day, that his father came home from the sheet metal factory still covered in dust, which had to be mostly heavy metals. Newton was into alchemy as well as calculus – bridging, in effect, the superstition of the Middle Ages and the enlightenment of the Renaissance. And in alchemy, the king of metals was mercury.

Einstein’s mother’s father was a grain merchant. What kind of fungicides and other toxins might she (or Albert) have been exposed to? I don’t know much about J-Mac – he doesn’t say what his parents do – but I was struck by this comment by his mother in an afterward to the book: “In 1985, our family moved to a brand new development in the town of Greece, N.Y. Within three years we had both Josh and Jason.” I can’t tell you the number of families I’ve visited who will point out some sort of construction project or renovation or earth-moving that was going on when they were pregnant with their child. They all believed that exposure to chemicals and toxins in utero played a role.

None of this is to take away from Jason’s accomplishments or the general theory of relativity, obviously. But we need to look for clues to the causes and varieties of autism wherever we can find them. Maybe savants get such a truckload of certain toxins that the source is more evident in those cases.
Recently, a mom named Sonja Lopez posted a comment on my blog at, that really blew me away. Here’s what she said:

“I wanted to let you in on a few interesting facts about Anna and her skills. We started losing her after her 12-month vaccines (although I did not make that connection yet). She was pulling away in terms of eye contact and responsiveness but what developed instead was an incredible interest in the written word. By 15 months she was a fluent reader (could pronounce words she had never seen before perfectly – they called it spontaneous phonetic encoding). By the age of two she could read or spell anything you asked of her but could not put two words together functionally. By age 3 she was a computer wiz able to navigate the internet and complete most children’s software. She also has a gift for music and perfect pitch … she could reproduce tunes on the piano by ear.

“As seemingly wonderful as her gifts appeared, they also hindered and restricted her ability to recover. Her mind was so far ahead of the normal and mundane aspects of everyday living. We could not compete with the amazing things in her head. By the age of 4 we started our bio-medical journey and as her underlying medical issues were addressed and her language, communication, and ability to play improved, her savant skills started to recede.

“She still has an amazing ability to learn languages, an incredible memory, can type 120 words per minute and has flawless grammar, punctuation, and spelling but what we have come to realize is that these skills not only can help her navigate the world but are also a hindrance to her recovery. As she improves, they play a smaller role in her life…it is like watching the brain shift its abilities into areas that were silent in the past. You can see her at”

Does any of this mean we shouldn’t celebrate such extraordinary feats? No, not at all. The great Bernie Rimland – who believed vaccines triggered the huge rise in autism diagnoses and pioneered the biomedical approach to treating them – delighted in the artistic ability of his son, Mark, and sometimes had a savant perform amazing calendar and calculation feats at his presentations.

But here’s the point, and I’ll let Sonja Lopez make it. “You would think these amazing skills in kids so obviously disabled would spark the interest of someone in the medical community. What do they have in common? Does the biomedical path to recovery diminish these skills in all of these kids? This is amazing science. Why is it not studied?”

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