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The Rain Man's Disorder: Savant Syndrome

Rare, amazing condition


Updated June 12, 2014

Young boy is learning basic mathematical concepts like counting, addition and subtraction.
Linda Epstein/E+/Getty Images
The 1988 movie Rain Man introduced people to a rare but amazing disorder called savant syndrome. In the movie, Dustin Hoffman sensitively portrays the character Raymond Babbitt, who has autistic disorder. When Raymond's brother, Charlie, comes to visit, he discovers that Raymond also has an astounding memory for baseball statistics, the phone book, and the ability to count cards in Las Vegas.

Occurs with brain dysfunction
Savant syndrome is extremely rare. People with autistic disorder, developmental disability, or mental retardation may be born with it. It can also develop later in childhood or even adulthood after a brain injury or with a certain type of dementia. It occurs more frequently in males than females.

Range of skills
All people with savant syndrome have an amazing memory that is very focused in one area. The most common behaviors demonstrated by people with the syndrome are obsessive preoccupations with trivia (facts about U.S. presidents, for example), license plate numbers, maps, or obscure items. Some people have startling artistic or musical abilities. For example, one man can hear a piano concerto only once, then play it perfectly. Other people with the syndrome have outstanding mathematical skills, such as being able to perform complex calculations within a few seconds. Some can also perform calendar calculations, meaning given any date past or future the person can tell what day of the week it is.

Formerly called idiot savant
People with savant syndrome were described in the medical literature as early as 1751, but the name "idiot savant" was not applied until 1887, when Dr. J. Langdon Down (who also named Down syndrome) coined the term. It referred to the fact that people with savant syndrome were thought to have very low IQ ("idiot" in the terminology of the day) but yet were very knowledgeable ("savant" from French savoir, to know).

The more dignified and accurate term "savant syndrome" is now used. Some refer to the condition as "autistic savant," but only about half the people with the syndrome are also autistic.

More than just a curiosity
Scientists believe that studying savant syndrome will provide clues about brain function. They believe that finding out what causes the syndrome could provide information about what intelligence really is and how different types of memory work within the brain. Perhaps this type of research might discover that there are special abilities inside each person, a hidden genius or prodigious talent waiting to be tapped.

Information for this article was taken from:
- Darold Treffert and Gregory Wallace. "Islands of Genius." Scientific American, June 2002, pp. 76-85.
- Darold Treffert. Savant Syndrome: Frequently Asked Questions. Wisconsin Medical Society. Available online.

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