The Savant Syndrome

The Savant Syndrome

The Savant Syndrome

intelligence

Robert Gagno

Robert Gagno is an autistic young man who may never live independently from his parents, but he has an incredible talent : he's one of the top-ranked pinball players in the world.

Robert's brain seems hard-wired for pinball wizardry: intense concentration and focus, the ability to almost instantly recognize the impetus, trajectory and velocity of the ball, and an incredible memory that allows him to memorize shot patterns and rack up huge scores.

Robert and his father head to the Mayo Clinic to meet with a leading neurologist to see what makes Robert's brain unique. 

However, it's a visual processing test that presents the biggest clue as to why Robert is such a gifted pinball player.

Robert is tall and rail-thin, with tousled brown curls, oval-framed glasses, and great big sapphires for eyes. 

When he's playing pinball, which is most of the time, those eyes bug out in a state of twitchy hyper-alertness. 

At other moments, like when he has to meet a stranger, they quickly make for the ground.

Robert is also autistic, which helps explain the lack of eye contact and why he wouldn't have offered his hand for a shake had he not been reminded to do so by his mother and father, Kathy and Maurizio, who, as both parents and pinball competitors, are usually right by his side. 

Moreover, Robert is a savant, which helps to explain why at 22 he's the top-ranked player in the league. 

He's also tops in a league in his hometown of Vancouver, B.C. In a sport where the elite have been playing for decades, Robert is something of a prodigy.

Just two years ago, on a whim, Maurizio signed up Robert for the Canadian World Championships, his son's first competitive tournament. 

"I had to go to Toronto for business anyway," Maurizio says. "So I figured 'What the heck?'"

"What the heck" turned into a 12th-place finish. 

Shortly thereafter, the people responsible for ranking pinballers decreed that this impressive debut meant that there were only 3,722 players in the whole world better at pinball than Robert. 

Today there are 22.

So is the secret to Robert's meteoric rise just practice? 

Talent? Or, as some have suggested, something beyond his control? 

Whatever it is, it'll have to wait, because shortly after the handshake, Robert spins on his heels and marches back into the house with a slightly herky-jerky gait that will soon become familiar.

Robert delicately nudges a button so that a ball jumps from one flipper to the other, an advanced technique known as an alley pass. 

Now he's not just playing pinball, he's juggling too. 

The look on Robert's face is something between a smile and "Oh my God, they're removing my fingernail without anesthetic!" 

As he plays, three guys stride up. 

One of them has a clipboard. "Aw, man, he's still going," he says. 

A few minutes later the last ball goes down.

"Is that a good score?" asks Kathy.

"Yes," answers Robert, one arm flung up and behind his head as if he were patting himself on the back.

"But you used to hate this game."



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Daniel Tammet

Born : 31 January 1979 (age 33) - London, England

Occupation : Writer, educator

Daniel Tammet (born on 31 January 1.979) is a British writer. 

His best selling 2.006 memoir, Born On A Blue Day, about his life with high-functioning autism and savant syndrome, was named a "Best Book for Young Adults" in 2.008 by the American Library Association.

Tammet's second book, Embracing the Wide Sky, was named one of France's best selling books of 2.009 by L'Express magazine in its March 2.010 edition.

Tammet's books have been published in 20 languages.

Biography

Early life

Tammet was born Daniel Paul Corney and raised in East London, England, the eldest of nine children. 

He suffered epileptic seizures as a young child, which he subsequently outgrew following medical treatment. 

At age twenty-five, he would eventually be diagnosed with Asperger syndrome by Professor Simon Baron-Cohen of the Autism (Spectrum) Research Centre at Cambridge University.

Tammet is one of fewer than a hundred "prodigious savants" according to Dr. Darold Treffert, the world's leading researcher in the study of savant syndrome. 

Tammet finished school with nine GCSEs (an 'A*' in History, 'A' grades in English, English Literature, French, and German, two 'B' grades in the Sciences, a 'B' in Maths, having obtained an 'A' in his preliminary Maths exam, and a 'C' in Woodwork) and three A-Levels in History, French and German, all at grade 'B'.

Preferring travel to university, Tammet taught English for a year in Lithuania.

Tammet twice participated (in 1.999, and 2.000) under his birth name in the World Memory Championships in London. 

Placing 12th in 1.999, and 4th in 2.000, behind a trio of present and future 'World Memory Champions'.

He changed his birth name by deed poll because "it didn't fit with the way he saw himself."

In 2.002 Tammet launched his website, Optimnem.

The site offers language courses (currently French and Spanish) and has been an approved member of the U.K.'s National Grid for Learning since 2.006.

Savantism

Tammet's memory, mathematical and linguistic abilities have been studied by some of the world's leading neuroscientists at California's Center for Brain Studies and the UK's Cambridge Autism Research Centre  and have been the subject of several peer-reviewed scientific papers.

Professor Allan Snyder at the Australian National University has said of Tammet: "Savants can't usually tell us how they do what they do. 

It just comes to them. Daniel can describe what he sees in his head. 

That's why he's exciting. He could be the 'Rosetta Stone'."

Tammet's unusually vivid and complex synesthesia has been widely reported. 

In his mind, he says, each positive integer up to 10,000 has its own unique shape, colour, texture and feel. 

He can intuitively "see" results of calculations as synaesthetic landscapes without using conscious mental effort and can "sense" whether a number is prime or composite. 

He has described his visual image of 289 as particularly ugly, 333 as particularly attractive, and pi as beautiful. The number 6 apparently has no distinct image yet what he describes as an almost small nothingness, opposite to the number 9 which he calls large and towering.

Tammet has described 25 as energetic and the "kind of number you would invite to a party".

Tammet not only verbally describes these visions, but has also created artwork, including a watercolour painting of pi.

Tammet holds the European record for reciting pi from memory to 22,514 digits in five hours and nine minutes on 14 March 2004.

Tammet's record currently ranks 6th in the world.

Tammet states in Born On A Blue Day that he speaks ten languages: English, Spanish, French, German, Finnish, Lithuanian, Romanian, Icelandic, Welsh, and Esperanto. 

He learned conversational Icelandic in one week, which he demonstrated in a live television interview conducted entirely in the language.

Segments of the interview showing Tammet responding to questions in Icelandic were shown in a documentary film entitled (in the UK) The Boy with the Incredible Brain, first broadcast on the British television station Channel Five on 23 May 2.005.

Segments of the interview were also televised on 28th January 2.007 edition of the CBS news magazine, 60 Minutes.

The British documentary showed Tammet meeting Kim Peek, a world famous savant. 

Peek was shown hugging Tammet telling him that "Some day you will be as great as I am," to which Tammet replied, "That was a wonderful compliment; what an aspiration to have!".

Career

Born On A Blue Day, Tammet's memoir of a life with Asperger's syndrome, received international media attention and critical praise. 

Booklist's Ray Olson stated that Tammet's autobiography was "as fascinating as Benjamin Franklin's and John Stuart Mill's" and that Tammet wrote "some of the clearest prose this side of Hemingway". 

Kirkus stated that the book "transcends the disability memoir genre". 

Other reviewers praised Tammet for his "elegant," "eloquent," and "engaging" style.

For his U.S. book tour, he appeared on several television and radio talk shows and specials, including 60 Minutes and Late Show with David Letterman.

In February 2.007 Born on a Blue Day was serialised as BBC Radio 4's Book of the Week in the United Kingdom.

Tammet's second book, Embracing the Wide Sky, was published in 2.009. 

Professor Allan Snyder, director of Sydney University's Centre for the Mind, called the work 'an extraordinary and monumental achievement'.

Tammet argues that savant abilities should not be seen as "supernatural" or computer-like but as "an outgrowth" of normal brain functioning and "natural, instinctive ways of thinking about numbers and words", which suggests that affected brains might be at least partially retrained and that normal brains might be taught to develop or retain some savant abilities.

In other people blue is connected with sadness for example, but when you think about it sadness is an abstract concept so why is it blue, why not green or yellow?

It makes no more logical sense for sadness to be blue than for four to be blue. 

So there are certain connections, certain concepts in everyone's brain that are connected that way and mine just takes it to a whole other level.

Tammet was among the invited speakers at the TED2.011 'Rediscovery of Wonder' conference in Long Beach, California.

Scientific study

Tammet's abilities have been examined in several scientific investigations.

After the World Memory Championships, Tammet participated in a group study of several superior memorisers later published in the New Year 2.003 edition of Nature Neuroscience.

The researchers investigated the reasons for the memorisers' superior performance. 

They reported that the superior memorisers used "strategies for encoding information with the sole purpose of making it more memorable", and concluded that superior memory was not driven by exceptional intellectual ability or differences in brain structure.

In another study, Simon Baron-Cohen and others at the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge tested Tammet's abilities in around 2.005.

He was found to have synaesthesia according to the "Test of Genuineness-Revised" which tests the subjects' consistency in reporting descriptions of their synaesthesia. 

He performed well on tests of short term memory (with a digit span of 11.5, where 6.5 is typical). 

Conversely, test results showed his memory for faces appeared to be impaired, and he scored at the level expected of a 6-8 year old child in this task. 

The authors speculated that Tammet's savant memory could be a result of synaesthesia combined with Asperger syndrome, while noting that mnemonic strategies (such as the method of loci) could also explain savant memory abilities.

Baron-Cohen, Bor and Billington investigated whether his synaesthesia and Aspergers syndrome explained his savant memory abilities in a further study published in Neurocase in 2.008. 

The authors state that the memory training used by other experts does not explain his abilities, as he had not had explicit training. 

They concluded that his abilities might be explained by hyperactivity in one brain region (the left prefrontal cortex), which results from his Aspergers syndrome and synaesthesia.

On the Navon task, relative to non-autistic controls, Tammet was found to be faster at finding a target at the local level and to be less distracted by interference from the global level.

In an fMRI scan, Tammet did not activate extra-striate regions of the brain "normally associated with synaesthesia", suggesting that he has an "unusual and more abstract and conceptual form of synaesthesia". 

Published in Cerebral Cortex (2.011), another fmRI study by Professor Jean-Michel Hupé and others at the Centre de Recherche Cerveau and Cognition at the University of Toulouse observed no activation of color areas in ten synaesthetes.

Hupé suggests that synaesthetic color experience lies not in the brain's color system, but instead results from "a complex construction of meaning in the brain, involving not only perception, but language, memory and emotion".

In his book Moonwalking with Einstein (2.011), former US Memory Champion Joshua Foer speculates that study of conventional mnemonic approaches has played a role in Tammet's feats of memory, while accepting that Tammet meets the standard definition of a prodigious savant.

In a review of his book for The New York Times, psychologist Alexandra Horowitz described Foer's speculation as among the book's few "missteps" and his decision to devote space to the case of a "renowned savant" such as Tammet "inexplicable," questioning whether it would matter if he had used such strategies or not.

Personal life

Tammet met his first partner, software engineer Neil Mitchell, in 2.000. 

Tammet lived with him in Kent, where they had a quiet regimented life at home with their cats, preparing meals from their garden.

Tammet and Mitchell operated the online e-learning company Optimnem, where they created and published language courses.

Tammet now lives with a new partner, Jérôme Tabet, a French photographer whom he met while promoting his autobiography. 

Although he has said that he did not think he would be here if it were not for the love and support of Mitchell, more recently he noted that he used to live a rigid existence aimed at calming his many anxieties .

"I was very happy, but it was a small happiness" whereas now, as the subtitle of Embracing the Wide Sky  : A tour across the horizons of the mind asserts, he believes that we ought to seek to liberate our brains a belief reflected in his new life :

My life used to be very simple and regimented but since then I have travelled constantly and given lots of lectures and it just changed me...

It made me much more open, much more interested in, I guess, the full potential of what my mind could do... 

Because of that change I grew and in a sense I grew apart from my long-term partner, so we parted amicably in 2.007, and a short while later I met my current partner, who is from France so I decided to go and live with him in Avignon.

Mänti

Mänti is a constructed language that Tammet has created.

The word 'Mänti' comes from the Finnish word for 'pine tree' (mänty). 

Mänti uses vocabulary and grammar from the Finnic languages. 

Some sample words include :

Mänti English Estonian Finnish Notes
buss bus buss bussi
kuppi cup kruus,kapp kuppi
kellokült lateness, tardiness viitsimatus, hilinemine myöhästyneisyys Literally "clock-debt". In Finnish kello = a clock / a bell
puhukello telephone telefon puhelin Literally "speak-bell". In Finnish puhua = to speak
tontöö music muusika musiikki Literally "tone-art". In Estonian töö = work
nööt night öö
koet saapat footwear jalanõud jalkineet In Finnish saappaat = boots. In Estonian saapad = boots.
hamma tooth hammas hammas
rât wire traat johto
râatio radio raadio radio

Works

Non-fiction

Born On A Blue Day (2.006)
Embracing The Wide Sky (2.009)
Non-fiction, Other
What It Feels Like To Be A Savant, in "Esquire", August 2.005
Open Letter to Barack Obama, in "The Advocate", December 2.008
Islands of Genius (2.010), foreword to book by Dr. Darold A. Treffert

Awards

American Library Association's Best Book for Young Adults
Booklist Editors Choice 
Sunday Times Top Choice 
Amazon.co.uk's Best Books of 2.006 
Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti Reads 2.012 Selection 

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Richard Wawro

Richard Wawro was a remarkable Scottish artist who earned widespread acclaim for his detailed drawings created with the unusual medium of wax oil crayons. 

With these he produced exceedingly detailed, dramatic images of intense depth and colour.

Richard died on February 22nd, 2.006 after a brave fight against cancer. 

Richard developed his art well beyond the constrictions of his autism and physical disability. 

The drawings of Richard Wawro have a popular appeal which is not confined to traditional artistic circles. 

His work is admired and owned by people who would not consider themselves art collectors. 

Notable owners of Richard Wawro originals are Lady Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II. 

Richard was born in 1.952. 

When he was three years old his parents were told that he was moderately to severely retarded. 

He also showed considerable autistic behavior with the characteristic obsession for sameness, withdrawal, walking in circles, spinning objects endlessly, and a preoccupation with the piano striking a single key for hours at a time. 

He did not have useful language until the age of 11. 

He required surgery for cataracts on both eyes during childhood.

Richard began drawing on a chalkboard at about age 3. 

He immediately covered the tiny chalkboard with numerous images. 

At age 6 he entered a Children's Center where he was introduced to drawing with crayons where his immense talent was immediately apparent. 

When Richard was 12 years old, Professor Marian Bohusz-Szyszko of the Polish School of Art in London viewed Richard's drawings and was "thunderstruck"; he described his works as an "incredible phenomenon rendered with the precision of a mechanic and the vision of a poet."

Like other savants Richard had a phenomenal memory. 

He remembered where he drew each picture and had each of them precisely dated in his mind. 

He used no models for his drawings, but drew from images seen only once, on television or in a book at one of the bookshops he loved to visit. 

He had perfect recall but often added his own touches, interpretations or improvisation to the images. 

He seemed especially fascinated, and facile, with light its sources and its dispersion and the tones he uses to capture lights and shadows are masterful.

For Richard art was his life and his love. 

He took pride in his talent and loved to share it. 

At the completion of each picture Richard would take it to his father for approval and then received appropriate and deserved compliments, followed by a mini-celebration in which he and his father raised joined hands in a sort of present-day high-five. 

He and his father shared an unmistakeable enthusiasm and appreciation for each other. Richard's mother, who also loved and appreciated him unconditionally, died in 1.979 but in spite of their closeness, Richard's work did not stop. Richard's father died in 2.002.

Richard had his first exhibition in Edinburgh when he was 17 years old. 

Now he is known worldwide and has sold over 1000 pictures in over 100 exhibitions. 

One of his exhibitions was opened by Margaret Thatcher when she was Minister of Education. 

She owns several of his pictures as did the late Pope John Paul II. 

A very impressive and moving documentary about Richard called "With Eyes Wide Open" had its world premiere in 1.983 and has won numerous awards in many countries. 

Dr. Laurence Becker who produced that film states "it enables the viewer to experience Richard Wawro as a highly gifted artist and as a person. 

It reveals the nurturing environments that enabled Richard's spirit and talent to grow and develop. 

It is as though deep within him that 'spirit was clamoring to be free' and for himself and for each viewer or his art, his drawing sets it free. 

This remarkable artist's life and his art provide abundant evidence of the quality and persistence of the human, creative spirit."

A videotape entitled A Real Rainman, Portrait of an Autistic Savant was also produced by Dr. Becker and is now available. 

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Tony DeBlois

Anthony Thomas "Tony" DeBlois is a blind US autistic savant and musician.

Biography

Tony DeBlois was born blind on January 22, 1.974. 

He began to play piano at the age of two. At first DeBlois studied in the Perkins School for the Blind but in 1.989 was awarded a summer scholarship at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. 

Later he was admitted as a full-time student and graduated magna cum laude in 1.996.

DeBlois specializes in jazz but can play just about any other type of music as well. 

A savant, he plays 20 musical instruments and has held concerts worldwide but also has his own band, Goodnuf. 

He can play about 8,000 pieces from memory.

Tony DeBlois is a musical savant I first met in 1.989 when he was awarded a summer scholarship at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. 

Tony so impressed the staff at Berklee that summer that he was admitted there as a full time student and graduated magna cum laude in 1.996, a astriking achievement for someone both blind and autistic. 

Tony is a tremendous jazz musician and improvises freely, and impressively. 

He, and his mother Janice, were featured in a 1.991.

Today Show and also have been on CBS Sunday Morning. 

There have been many other frequent television and media appearances since that time. 

Tony is autistic and blind with striking musical ability, which, while including spectacular jazz ability, extends to many other musical styles ranging from country to classic. 

He plays 14 musical instruments, 12 of them proficiently. 

Like many other musical savants, his ability surfaced at an astounding level when his mother bought him a chord organ at a garage sale when Tony was 2 years old. 

His story, and that of his dedicated proud mother was told in a CBS Movie of the Week, Journey to the Heart, which was broadcast nationally on March 2, 1.997. 

Tony's mother, Janice DeBlois, describes his remarkable story this way :

"Born weighing 1 lb. 3/4 oz. was only the first obstacle that Tony DeBlois had to overcome. 

This 29-year-old pianist from Randolph, MA is blind, autistic and has Savant Syndrome. 

He has been playing the piano since age 2. 

He was the subject of the 1.997 CBS made for TV Movie of the week 'Journey of the Heart,' which was inspired by actual events in Tony's life. 

Additionally, he has appeared on 2 Catholic Global Showcase Specials (2.001), The Learning Channel's 'Uncommon Genius', Strange Science 'Unusual People', and 'Understanding the Mysteries of Memory'. 

He is the recipient of numerous awards, among them are Chou, Ta-Kuan Cultural and Educational Foundations Global 'Love of Life Award' (2.002), the Faith and Family Foundation first Outstanding Achievement Award, the coveted Reynolds Society Achievement Award (1.996), the Foundation for Exceptional Children's prestigious 'Yes, I can' Award for 1.993 and the Panasonic Sponsored, VSAarts Itzhak Perlman Award (1.992). 

As Tony's 'Let me do it independently' attitude inspires many people who meet him, his talents are being noticed internationally, hence his returning concerts to both Singapore and Taiwan and upcoming performances in Dublin and Limerick, Ireland. 

Stories about him have been broadcast on National Public Radio (NPR), Voice of America Radio and Talk America. 

Spots about him aired in documentaries in Rome, London, Japan and Australia. 

Tony is the inspiration for the book 'Fred's Prayer Machine' (Ambassador Book 5/02) and he will be appearing in two Psychology textbooks referencing autism. 

All this fame has not daunted Tony's excitement about learning. 

His studies at Perkins School for the Blind earned him a Certificate of Achievement but, his hard work at Berklee College of Music paid off; he graduated magna cum laude on Mother's Day 1.996. 

When not on tour, Tony enjoys singing with St. Mary's Choir, performing with his band 'Goodnuf' and spending time with his girlfriend. 

Besides piano, Tony enjoys playing the organ, harmonica, guitar, harpsichord, English handbells, violin, banjo, drums and trumpet, and is now learning saxophone, clarinet, ukulele, mandolin and flute. 

When not playing musical instruments, Tony enjoys swimming, exercise equipment, the computer, Mystery Tours and has just learned to ballroom dance. 

For Tony there are no 'roadblocks' but mere obstacles to be cast aside or skirted. 

His favorite phrase seems to be 'I haven't learned that yet.'"

Tony's new, third CD, was recently released. It is titled "Beyond Words" and is an instumental jazz work in which Tony teams up with what the Boston Globe terms "Boston's House Band" with Bo Winiker on trumpet and flugehorn, Tommy Petrakis on bass and Bill Winiker on drums. 





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