Autism from the inside
February 14, 2005 2:31 AM   Subscribe

Taking the "idiot" out of "savant" For many of us, the word "savant" conjures up images of Dustin Hoffman's character in "Rainman", or,more recently, Mike Haddon's wonderful hero of "The curious incident of the dog in the night". Now let Daniel Tammet take you inside the autistic mind. (link via Boingboing)
posted by MadOwl (18 comments total)
Every time savants are mentioned, I think of the titular story from Oliver Sacks' An Anthropologist on Mars, about Temple Grandin, whose artistic savantism is phenomenal, and who (like Tammet) is functional enough to have written a book about what it's like to be her.

Off-topic: That's "...night-time". It's a quote from The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.
posted by Plutor at 4:04 AM on February 14, 2005

That's a great article. Thanks.
posted by ruelle at 4:13 AM on February 14, 2005

Previous MeFi thread giving more detail on Temple Grandin's book, and various online articles such as her account of how she thinks.
posted by raygirvan at 4:35 AM on February 14, 2005

Very interesting and personal article, MadOwl. Thanks.
posted by louigi at 4:54 AM on February 14, 2005

Fascinating. Thanks. I've just emailed it to my mum, who teaches autistic/Asperger's kids.
posted by corvine at 5:07 AM on February 14, 2005

Remarkable. Thanks for a great article.
posted by lobstah at 5:59 AM on February 14, 2005

Reminds me of the story of Stephen Wilthsire who is an accomplished architectural artist. "As a child, Stephen was mute and did not relate to other human beings. Aged three, he was diagnosed as autistic. He had no language, uncontrolled tantrums and lived entirely in his own world." Check out his gallery of amazing drawings.
posted by ericb at 6:42 AM on February 14, 2005

Very interesting. I was fascinated to hear how lucid Tammet was about his lack of empathy and his synesthetic relationship withnumbers.

I am curious about the 1% of savants who are not autistic. Does anyone know of one?
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 6:52 AM on February 14, 2005


n. A learned person; a scholar.
posted by delmoi at 7:52 AM on February 14, 2005

It was 1% of non-autistic people that are savants, gesamtkunstwerk, and should thus massively outnumber autistic savants.
posted by nthdegx at 7:54 AM on February 14, 2005

Without the word "Idiot" there, "savant" just means an intelegent, well educated, person. Nothing more.
posted by delmoi at 7:56 AM on February 14, 2005

I heartily recommend Elizabeth Moon's Book: "The speed of Dark" it is an excellent story told from the perspective of an autist.
posted by spaceviking at 8:20 AM on February 14, 2005

This was a great article with all sorts of interesting tidbits. Kim Peek can read two pages simultaneously - one with each eye. That's excellent. I've never heard of a synaetheste composing a language before, but it makes sense. I'd be curious to see what Manti looks like.

I especially liked Daniel's speculation that GK Cheston was autistic. Is there any possibility whatsoever that this could be true?
posted by painquale at 9:03 AM on February 14, 2005

My fiance works with autistic children and constantly refutes the premise that all autistics have some kind of freakish talent for things ala Rainman. Most are unexceptional.
posted by dr_dank at 9:04 AM on February 14, 2005

Other interesting articles at the Savant Syndrome Home Page. Such coinings seem to be driving out of usage the original meaning of 'savant' ie minus the connotation of coexisting disability. A pity; it's a nice term.
posted by raygirvan at 9:14 AM on February 14, 2005

I especially liked Daniel's speculation that GK Chesterton was autistic. Is there any possibility whatsoever that this could be true?

I don't think so. GK Chesterton, the Eccentric Prince of Paradox mentions some of his eccentricities, and A Brief GK Chesterton Biography relevant qualities that might fit, such as his astonishing memory. However, there are a lot of other reported traits - good sense of humour, warm friendships, engaging and outgoing personality, readiness to engage in conversation and debate - that don't remotely fit with autism.
posted by raygirvan at 9:33 AM on February 14, 2005

In regards to the Chesterton scenario, it's always been my understanding that autism occurs on what we call a spectrum, and so it's quite possible to exhibit only some general spectrum attributes without necessarily running the whole gamut. Autism isn't easibly quantifiable all of the time as a "this, this, and this" sort of thing.

In regards to Daniel Tammet... I've decided that he shall be my Valentine.
posted by redsparkler at 1:23 PM on February 14, 2005

redsparkler - You're right, but the whole diagnosis of autism is under some debate right now. As more research has come in and psych*ists started making connections and distinctions between disparate illnesses the idea of an Autistic Spectrum has started to emerge and is generally accepted now. Depending on which traits you exhibit and which doctor you see you can get a whole range of different diagnoses, including my favorite: Pervasive Devlopmental Disorder - Not Otherwise Specified. Doctor: "Yes, well, there appears to be a pervasive developmental disorder of some sort, we'll just leave it at that and turn it into an acronym to make it seem official". Additionally many people with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) also show symptoms of other disorders such as ADHD, OCD, various lexic disorders, and just about anything else. There's still quite a bit of debate into how these factors all play into each other and what the differences are between the diagnoses, though. I think the whole field is really interesting and there's a lot of research going on now, but I've got Asperger's, so I don't know how interesting it would be to anyone else.

It's really amazing that Tammet does math based on visual imagery. It reminds me of Terence McKenna and the DMT elves that tried to teach him how to "communicate" visually...maybe there is something to it after all. I want to know how he encodes/decodes the numbers into the visual realm and how he processes the visuals together. It seems analogous to GPUs (computer chips dedicated to processing graphics) where the chip is manufactured for a specific purpose (visual processing) but at its core is simply processing numbers and can be adapted to any any number-related problems with varying amounts of efficiency.
posted by nTeleKy at 2:44 PM on February 14, 2005

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