The Nature of Savant Skills in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Saturday, May 19, 2012
Sheraton Hall (Sheraton Centre Toronto)
11:00 AM
R. Furlano1 and E. A. Kelley2, (1)Psychology, Queen's University, Kingston, ON, Canada, (2)Department of Psychology, Queen's University, Kingston, ON, Canada
Background: Savant syndrome is a rare yet spectacular condition in which someone with a developmental disability has an ability that contrasts the individual’s overall handicap (Treffert, 2009). Savant skills have been found to be quite prevalent in people with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), with a suggested rate of one in ten (Treffert, 2009). Given the high-suggested prevalence of savant skills in individuals with ASD, it is surprising that there is a lack of empirical studies within the field. Research which focuses on savant skills in individuals with ASD would help not only to uncover the nature of these talents, but would also aid in developing new causal theories for autism and allow researchers to explore the genetic etiologies of ASD.

Objectives: To investigate the nature of savant skills in children with ASD by quantifying more precisely the various types of savant talents. The study examined the relations that IQ, language ability, parental encouragement, social skills, and repetitive and restricted behaviours have with these talents.

Methods: An online parental questionnaire was administered to 22 caregivers with children aged 3-12 years with a current ASD diagnosis. The Social Communication Questionnaire (Rutter, Bailey, & Lord, 2003) was used to confirm diagnosis of ASD and to gather a measure of social skills. The Savant Skills in Children with ASD: Parental Questionnaire, created for the purpose of this study, was used to gather information on savant skills in children with ASD and also examine IQ, language abilities, parental encouragement, and repetitive and restricted behaviours and preoccupations. The survey was created because as to our knowledge, there are no caregiver questionnaires that quantify and test savant skills. The savant skills included: math, calendar calculation, music, art, memory, mechanical, language, reading and writing, fluency for different languages, and other. The talent was considered to be a savant skill if it was above the general level of the child and if it was above or well above that of children of the same age.  

Results: The present study found that more than half of the children had a talent, whether it was a savant skill or extraordinary memory, that was both above the general level of the child and above that of children of the same age. Mid-size correlations, approaching significance, were found between the number of savant skills each child possessed and IQ, language abilities and social skills.

Conclusions: Overall, the current study supports the need for future research on the nature of savant skills in individuals with ASD. Future research should focus on creating a more widely accepted classification of savant skills and a tool to measure and assess the different types of talents. It should also use a multi-dimensional approach by pairing parental-report data with experimental observation and attempt to get a larger and more representative sample of individuals with savant syndrome. The findings of the current study, can be used to guide future research on this topic, as the key to understanding savant syndrome may lie in examining it in relation to ASD.


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