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Savant Syndrome

What Is It, Causes, Treatment, and More

Authors:Ali Syed, PharmD,Emily Miao, PharmD

Editors:Alyssa Haag,Kelsey LaFayette, DNP, ARNP, FNP-C

Illustrator:Jessica Reynolds, MS

Copyeditor:Stacy Johnson, LMSW


What is savant syndrome?

Savant syndrome is an exceedingly rare condition in which individuals with a developmental disorder or an intellectual disability possess extraordinary talents, knowledge, or abilities in a specific area. Savant syndrome may be congenital at birth or acquired later in life and is commonly associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It may also coexist alongside other conditions, such as brain injuries.  Individuals with savant syndrome were historically referred to with the term “idiot savant,” but negative connotations of the term “idiot” resulted in its abandonment and is now solely termed “savant.” Famous individuals with savant syndrome include Kim Peek, who was able to calculate dates for any event hundreds of years into the past or future and inspired the movie the Rain Man. Stephen Wiltshire was mute and communicated through drawings of detailed city landscapes.

Approximately 10% of individuals with autistic disorder have savant abilities. Less than 1% of the non-autistic population have savant syndrome. Therefore, not all savants have ASD, and not all persons with autism are savants.

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What causes savant syndrome?

The exact cause of savant syndrome remains unknown. In some cases, savant syndrome can occur following severe head trauma or brain injury in the left anterior temporal lobe, in which the right hemisphere compensates for the injured left hemisphere. 

Many researchers, such as Dr. Treffert Darold, have put forth theories explaining savant syndrome and its link with autism, as savant abilities often coexist with autism. Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition that can be recognized from early childhood, characterized by challenges with social interaction, communication, and repetitive behaviors.

The biological-developmental theory, cognitive theory, and modularity of mind hypothesis all attempt to explain the development of savant syndrome. The biological-development theory proposes genetic, neurochemical, frontal, and temporal lobe damage and pervasive developmental disorder may contribute towards the development of savant syndrome. The cognitive theory suggests deficits in executive function, abstract thinking, and highly developed procedural memory explain savant syndrome. The modularity of mind hypothesis proposes disruptions in behavioral functions lead to a striking modular organization of the mind, resulting in savant syndrome.

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What are the signs and symptoms of savant syndrome?

Signs and symptoms of savant syndrome are primarily characterized by exceptional talents or skills in specific areas such as music, art, calculating, and mathematics. Individuals with savant syndrome typically have intelligence quotients of around 70, below the typical range of 85-115, with genius-level knowledge in their savant abilities. 

Savant abilities can appear and disappear suddenly and may be categorized into splinter skills, talented savants, and prodigious savants. Splinter skills are the most common savant abilities, which include behaviors or skills that contrast with an individual’s overall level of functioning. Examples include obsessive preoccupation with and memorization of music and sports trivia, license plate numbers, maps, or historical facts. Talented savants are individuals in whom musical, artistic, or other special abilities are very prominent and highly esteemed in contrast to their overall ability.  Prodigious savants involve a rare condition in which the given ability is not only spectacular compared to the individual’s ability but is also viewed as spectacular in unaffected individuals. For example, Derek Paravicini has autism and blindness and is a prodigious savant and piano player who can play any song immediately upon hearing it. 

While an individual may possess singular or multiple savant abilities, each ability is typically combined with an extraordinary memory. Typical savant abilities include superior memorization of complex information such as population statistics; rapid mathematical calculations; and calendar calculators, in which they can identify the day of the week a date fell on or will fall on for long periods. Additional savant talents include advanced musical abilities such as outstanding composing and perfect pitch, artistic abilities such as painting and sculpting, and language abilities.

How is savant syndrome diagnosed?

Savant syndrome may be diagnosed when an individual’s abilities in a specific area are exceptionally higher than expected, given their intelligence quotient or general level of functioning. However, since savant syndrome is not classified as a disorder, formal tools, guidelines, or criteria used to diagnose savant syndrome do not exist.

How is savant syndrome treated?

Savant syndrome is not a disease or disorder that can be treated. Underlying disabilities or disorders that coexist with savant syndrome may require treatment and vary based on the underlying cause.

What are the most important facts to know about savant syndrome?

Savant syndrome is a rare condition that developmental disorders, intellectual disabilities, and extraordinary abilities in specific areas may characterize. It may present at any age and is commonly associated with autism spectrum disorder. The exact cause of savant syndrome remains unknown, although many theories have been proposed. Signs and symptoms of savant syndrome include exceptional talents or skills in specific areas such as music, art, calculating, and mathematics. Savant syndrome may be diagnosed when an individual’s abilities in a particular area are exceptionally higher than expected, given their intelligence quotient or general level of functioning. Underlying disabilities or disorders that coexist with savant syndrome may require treatment.

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Related links

Autism spectrum disorder
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD): Nursing

Resources for research and reference

Anuthanyaa, R. (2022). Savant Syndrome-Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment. In iCliniq-The Virtual Hospital. Retrieved February 9th, 2023, from: https://www.icliniq.com/articles/neurological-health/savant-syndrome

Autism Speaks (n.d.). What is Autism? Retrieved February 9th, 2023, from:  https://www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism

Hiles, D. (2002). Savant Syndrome. Retrieved February 9th, 2023, from:  http://psy.dmu.ac.uk/drhiles/Savant%20Syndrome.htm

Rudy, L. (2022). What Is a Savant? A person with developmental or mental challenges who has extraordinary abilities. In VeryWellHealth. Retrieved February 9th, 2023, from:  https://www.verywellhealth.com/what-is-an-autistic-savant-260033

SSM Health. (2022). Savant Syndrome. In SSM Health-Treffert Center. Retrieved February 9th, 2023, from: https://www.ssmhealth.com/treffert-center/conditions-treatments/savant-syndrome

Treffert DA. The savant syndrome: an extraordinary condition. A synopsis: past, present, future. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2009 May 27;364(1522):1351-7. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2008.0326. PMID: 19528017; PMCID: PMC2677584.