Gonzales: Autistic savants

YOU must have heard of some individuals affected with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) but are oozing with talents. Yes, some individuals with ASD are blessed with extraordinary talents in the field of music, arts, mathematics and in incredible memory work.

According to Dr. Stephen M. Edelson, "autistic savant refers to individuals with autism who have extraordinary skills not exhibited by most persons. Historically, individuals with these exceptional skills were called 'idiot savants,' a French term meaning unlearned (idiot) skill (savant). In a 1978 article in Psychology Today, Dr. Bernard Rimland introduced a more appropriate term 'autistic savant,' which is the current label".

What is amazing about this type of individuals is that most of them are able to demonstrate inborn talents without undergoing formal training in their respective fields of "expertise". Their abilities are manifested in miraculous ways and compensate for deficits or impairments in communication, adaptation to environment and social skills. Hence, sometimes, you can see some individuals so good in singing or in playing musical instruments or in coming up with unique art paintings, yet are not adept in personal grooming or in activities of daily living, are withdrawn and do not know how to make friends..

One of the famous movies that depict an autistic savant is that of "Rain Man" which was based on the life of an individual who was good in mathematical computations. It is a misleading movie though because it showed several talents all in one person, which in real life are not the real case. But what is true is that there are indeed some individuals who are good in memorizing mathematical formulas, remembering calendar events, reading a book and memorizing all the details, remembering birthdays of persons, telephone numbers in the directory, or even plate numbers of cars. Some autistic savants are good in naming the day of a date years back or in a future year. Some individuals with autism are good in painting or drawing or good in playing the piano or other instruments. However, not all individuals with autism have splinter skills and only about 10 percent have savant abilities. It has not been explained why some individuals have special abilities, only God knows.

Some of the famous autistic savants are Temple Grandin who has a doctorate degree and a designer of humane food animal handling systems; Daryl Hannah, an American actress best known for her roles in Splash; Donna Williams, Australian author of Nobody Nowhere and Somebody Somewhere, who was formally diagnosed as autistic in her 20s and many other personalities who are not so familiar to me.

In the Philippines, Thristan Mendoza, diagnosed with high functioning autism at age 2, is more popularly known as "an internationally recognized marimba virtuoso." He was born in Quezon City and was already playing the marimba at the age of 5. I have seen him perform in some events of the Autism Society Philippines.

My own son has his special skill -- that of playing the keyboard without any previous formal lessons in piano. He can play any song that you can mention, and he can tell you the title of songs and name of its singer. He can play a song that he has heard only once, and sometime, we wonder where he got his talent which we discovered when he was about 12 years old. He can win in a "name that tune" contest because of his special abilities.

Again, not all individuals with ASD are fortunate to have savant abilities. If there are autistic savants, they should serve as gentle reminders that individuals with ASD should be accorded the same respect and worth we give to "ordinary citizens."


Jane Ann S. Gonzales is a mother of a youth with autism. She is an advocate/core member of the Autism Society Philippines and Directress of the Independent Living Learning Centre (ILLC) Davao, a centre for teenagers and adults with special needs. For comments or questions, please email janeanngonzales@yahoo.com).


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