Savant syndrome: Condition with exceptional abilities

Savant syndrome is a condition in which a patient with a significant intellectual disability exhibits certain abilities that are far above average. Savant syndrome is not recognized as a mental disorder within the DSM-5. The condition is often due to neurological problems such as autism. The doctor treats the (symptoms of the) underlying disease, because no treatment is required for the savant syndrome itself. The exceptional abilities remain for life. When a patient continues to practice the special skill, it even improves. The most famous autistic savant is a fictional character, namely Raymond Babbitt. He was portrayed by Dustin Hoffman in the 1988 film “Rain Man”.

  • History of term
  • Epidemiology of savant syndrome
  • Causes and risk factors: Autism
  • Symptoms: Special skills
  • Exceptional abilities
  • Calendric savants


History of term

The term ‘idiot savant’ was first used to describe the condition in 1887 by John Langdon Down, who is known for his description of Down syndrome. The term idiot savant was later described as a misnomer because not all reported cases met the definition of idiot, originally used for a person with a very severe intellectual disability. The term ‘autistic savant’ has also been used as a description of the condition. However, this is also a misnomer because only half of patients diagnosed with savant syndrome were autistic. The term savant syndrome therefore became a generally accepted terminology.

Epidemiology of savant syndrome

Savant syndrome is rare. Perhaps one in a million people is affected. Female savants (women with savant syndrome) are in the minority; men are affected six times more often. Approximately 1 in 10-200 people with autism have savant syndrome to some extent.

Causes and risk factors: Autism

Patients with the condition generally have a neurological condition or developmental disorder such as autism spectrum disorder. Half of the patients with savant syndrome suffer from autism. A brain injury may also be linked to savant syndrome. Savant syndrome is also common in patients who, in addition to an intellectual disability, also suffer from deafness or blindness.

Symptoms: Special skills

Savant syndrome occurs in patients with a low IQ (60 or lower). Usually the symptoms of the condition are evident in childhood (in 90% congenital), but occasionally the signs develop later in life (in 10% acquired). Patients with this condition have certain abilities that are considered well above average. These abilities are a stark contrast between the limitations present.

Exceptional abilities

The skills at which savants excel are generally related to memory. A savant usually possesses exceptional abilities in one or more of five main areas, namely art, memory, arithmetic, musical skills and spatial skills. Usually there is only one special ability present.Some examples of these extraordinary abilities are:

  • memory: being able to recite e-mail addresses or car numbers by heart
  • art: copying something after having seen it only once
  • musical skills: being able to immediately play a piano piece after hearing it only once
  • arithmetic: make quick calculations
  • spatial skills: drawing maps


Calendric savants

The most common type of savants are calendric savants (calendar savants). These are human calendars that can quickly and accurately calculate the day of the week for any given date, or retrieve personal memories of a specific date. These patients possess these abilities despite an intellectual disability or other neurological condition.

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  • Autism spectrum disorder (autism): Causes and symptoms