Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Autism and savant syndrome

Shortly after reading of an obsessive audiophile savant (definitely spectrum) I came across an Economist article exploring an old theme -- exceptional abilities in atypical minds...

The link between autism and extraordinary ability | Genius locus | The Economist

... A link between artistic genius on the one hand and schizophrenia and manic-depression on the other, is widely debated. However another link, between savant syndrome and autism, is well established...

A study published this week by Patricia Howlin of King’s College, London, reinforces this point. It suggests that as many as 30% of autistic people have some sort of savant-like capability in areas such as calculation or music. Moreover, it is widely acknowledged that some of the symptoms associated with autism, including poor communication skills and an obsession with detail, are also exhibited by many creative types, particularly in the fields of science, engineering, music, drawing and painting. Indeed, there is now a cottage industry in re-interpreting the lives of geniuses in the context of suggestions that they might belong, or have belonged, on the “autistic spectrum”, as the range of syndromes that include autistic symptoms is now dubbed...

... A standard diagnosis of autism requires three things to be present in an individual. Two of these three, impairments in social interaction and in communication with other people ... The third criterion, however, is that a person has what are known as restrictive and repetitive behaviours and interests, or RRBI, in the jargon.

Until recently, the feeling among many researchers was that the first two features were crucial to someone becoming a savant. The idea was that mental resources which would have been used for interaction and communication could be redeployed to develop expertise in some arbitrary task. Now, though, that consensus is shifting. Several of the volume’s authors argue that it is the third feature, RRBI, that permits people to become savants.

Francesca HappĂ© of King’s College, London, is one of them. As she observes, obsessional interests and repetitive behaviours would allow someone to practice, albeit inadvertently, whichever skill they were obsessed by. Malcolm Gladwell, in a book called “Outliers” which collated research done on outstanding people, suggested that anyone could become an expert in anything by practising for 10,000 hours. It would not be hard for an autistic individual to clock up that level of practice for the sort of skills, such as mathematical puzzles, that many neurotypicals would rapidly give up on.

... Dr Happé has drawn on a study of almost 13,000 individual twins to show that childhood talent in fields such as music and art is often associated with RRBIs, even in those who are not diagnosed as classically autistic. She speculates that the abilities of savants in areas that neurotypicals tend to find pointless or boring may result from an ability to see differences where a neurotypical would see only similarities...

Simon Baron-Cohen, a doyen of the field who works at Cambridge University, draws similar conclusions. He suggests the secret of becoming a savant is “hyper-systematising and hyper-attention to detail”. But he adds sensory hypersensitivity to the list. His team have shown one example of this using what is known as the Freiburg visual acuity and contrast test, which asks people to identify the gap in a letter “c” presented in four different orientations. Those on the autistic spectrum do significantly better at this than do neurotypicals...

... The question of how the autistic brain differs physically from that of neurotypicals was addressed by Manuel Casanova of the University of Louisville, in Kentucky. Dr Casanova has spent many years dissecting both. His conclusion is that the main difference is in the structure of the small columns of nerve cells that are packed together to form the cerebral cortex. The cortical columns of those on the autistic spectrum are narrower than those of neurotypicals, and their cells are organised differently.

The upshot of these differences is that the columns in an autistic brain seem to be more connected than normal with their close neighbours, and less connected with their distant ones...

... Dr Snyder argues that savant skills are latent in everyone, but that access to them is inhibited in non-savants by other neurological processes. He is able to remove this inhibition using a technique called repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation.

Applying a magnetic field to part of the brain disrupts the electrical activity of the nerve cells for a few seconds. Applying such a field repeatedly can have effects that last for an hour or so. The technique has been approved for the treatment of depression, and is being tested against several other conditions, including Parkinson’s disease and migraines. Dr Snyder, however, has found that stimulating an area called the left anterior temporal lobe improves people’s ability to draw things like animals and faces from memory. It helps them, too, with other tasks savants do famously well—proofreading, for example, and estimating the number of objects in a large group, such as a pile of match sticks. It also reduces “false” memories (savants tend to remember things literally, rather than constructing a mnemonic narrative and remembering that)...

... Savant syndrome, then, is a case where the politically correct euphemism “differently abled” has real meaning. The conclusion that should be drawn, perhaps, is not that neurotypicals should attempt to ape savants, but that savants—even those who are not geniuses—should be welcomed for what they are, and found a more honoured place in society.

The original article is "young and smart" smarmy, but I've excerpted the worst of the tangents. What's left is a compilation of interesting anecdotes.

I don't believe that 30% of autistic persons have "savant abilities". I suspect the journalist just got this wrong, perhaps the study group was made up of high IQ autistic adults. In that group I can imagine the 30% figure is real.

On the other hand I know a boy with a low IQ who has savant-like abilities to identify persons of interest in very large crowds. I keep trying to come up with a business use of his odd talent, but it sure comes in handy finding his prone-to-wander sibling.

In the end there aren't a lot of practical tips from the article, but it reminds us of the extraordinary diversity of mind concealed by our similar bodies. We're still far from understanding all the variations that shade between disability and selective ability, and how these minds develop from childhood through adulthood.


Anonymous said...

I really like your blog and don't know why you don't get more comments. In regards to this posting, have you seen today's NYTimes (26 May), Health section, a study on people who have extraordinary ability to recognize faces? I can't recall details of the study, but you could find it.

John Gordon said...

I'll look for the NYT article. My 12 yo has some curious savant-like abilities with locating a familiar form or face in a massive crowd, so I'm curious.

He also does extremely well at some game he plays with his therapist -- at a 98% percentile level perhaps. Way out of whack with his measured IQ.

We're constantly trying to figure ways to bring the skills he does have into alignment with his environment ...

As to low readership/comments, I don't promote the blog at all and the topics I cover are pretty eclectic. I'm also quite honest about a strong empirical/scientific orientation and my disappointment with the anti-immunization movement.

So it's a small readership!

Anonymous said...

Hi: I had replied further yesterday, and am not sure why the comment didn't show up.

You said: "I'm also quite honest about a strong empirical/scientific orientation and my disappointment with the anti-immunization movement."

Those are precisely the features I like about your blog. I am very astonished at the level of superstition that has developed around vaccines in a seemingly educated society (though the anti-intellectualism of the last several years should be a warning).

Anyhow, I am a regular visitor on your blog (from Kenya) and wanted to express my appreciation.

Did you find the NYT article on savant-face-recognition ability?

John Gordon said...

I got your first comment and this one, but I didn't see another. I'm sorry -- looks like a blogger bug with the submission.

Thanks for the reminder on the NYT article. I forgot! (I'm no savant.)

I'll try to fetch it, but it might be a week or so before I write about it.

Kenya. Wow. I'm old enough to still be awed by the "world wide" part of WWW. To my children it must seem completely unremarkable. I'm looking forward to the next great leap -- when translation technologies take us up another level.

Anonymous said...


I was just wondering what the Patricia Howlin article was called and where I might find it.