Showing posts with label Savant. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Savant. Show all posts

Wednesday 18 May 2016

Talents and Savants

Today’s post does not have much to do with science, just a little about genes. 

Several years ago at school, a teacher asked me what Monty’s special skill is; as she understood autism, people always have one.

Recently, at the same mainstream school, a teacher was explaining to the assembled now older kids why it was that she had decided to establish a talent show.  Did the kids really know what talent means?  Her point was that everyone has a special ability, something that they are surprisingly good at.  You just have to find it and develop it.  The key is what you do with those talents, do they grow or not?

“Talent” came ultimately from Greek talanton, and referred originally to a unit of weight used by the Babylonians, Assyrians, Romans, and Greeks. The use of talent to mean ‘natural aptitude or skill’ comes from the biblical parable of the talents in the Gospel of Matthew. In this story a master gives one, two, and ten talents of silver to each of three servants. Two of them use their talents well and double the value of what they have been given, but the third buries his coin and fails to benefit from it.

The teacher in kindergarten was assuming Monty, now aged 12, would have some savant skills that are apparently nearly always connected to memory.  The study below finds that 10% of people really do fit this description.

Savant syndrome is a rare, but extraordinary, condition in which persons with serious mental disabilities, including autistic disorder, have some ‘island of genius’ which stands in marked, incongruous contrast to overall handicap. As many as one in 10 persons with autistic disorder have such remarkable abilities in varying degrees, although savant syndrome occurs in other developmental disabilities or in other types of central nervous system injury or disease as well. Whatever the particular savant skill, it is always linked to massive memory. This paper presents a brief review of the phenomenology of savant skills, the history of the concept and implications for education and future research.

The science part of the post is to highlight the overlap between some autism genes and some of the genes that make you clever; we should not be surprised that some people with severe autism do indeed have some areas of intellectual excellence.

Autism risk genes also linked to higher intelligence

"Our findings show that genetic variation which increases risk for autism is associated with better cognitive ability in non-autistic individuals”

I was thinking back to my one and only ever “autism lunch”, talking with former university classmates who now have a child with autism. At least six out of 200 have a child with serious autism, this continues to surprise me since this kind of autism has an incidence of about 0.3%, so you would expect one or two cases not six. More anecdotal evidence to link autism incidence with IQ perhaps? 

One is preparing his non-verbal son for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics.  This boy has great athletic talents.  I could not picture Monty sprinting round the Olympic stadium.

One has son with a photographic memory, who seems to have instant recall of underground/metro travel maps.  Monty has yet to memorize any maps. 

One Australian lady, who could not make that lunch, has a son diagnosed with autism and MR/ID, who ended up great at fencing (sword fighting).  I remember being surprised to hear this, since I could not imagine Monty doing this, although his typical big brother did do this.  

Not to paint an unrealistic picture, one child was non-verbal, then developed self-injury and aggression, improved somewhat but at puberty developed epilepsy and then began a spiral downwards to institutionalization.  This is a case where the right pharmacological intervention at the right time might have been a game changer.
My son’s special skill is music, I just had not realized this yet when asked several years ago by that kindergarten teacher.

So based on my unscientific review of the people I have come across with more severe autism, I would have to say that many do indeed have special talents and some are indeed savants.
But just as in the biblical tale, it really is a case of nurturing those talents.

Monty’s musical talents where nurtured by years of music and dance with his Assistant.  All I did was provide the piano later on.
Adults with autism generally have a lot of time on their hands and so it will be very useful to have those interests/talents.   

Golf, sailing, swimming, running, trampolining, horseback riding are all good candidates.
Since many people with autism really do have unusually good memory and can recognize patterns, there is potential for everything from chess to poker.
Monty’s other talent could be diving, he is very competent underwater and down there you do not need to speak, so perhaps a pearl diver somewhere warm?

Parental Involvement

Whereas for typical children being a pushy parent is usually counter-productive, children with autism actually like the repetition and routine of training and do not have conflicting social engagements that mean training is a burden.  Even a trace of talent can be the foundation of something impressive later.

I think many talents in autistic teenagers are indeed the result of a great deal of parental nurture over the previous decade. 
When Monty won the talent show at school with his piano recital, I was amazed at how much of a big deal people made. His after-school assistant immediately called her mother who then bought him a present.  The other kids are school were genuinely happy for him. Days later, other parents were congratulating him.

Imagine what would happen if you won a medal at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics?

So it looks like what is your talent is indeed a better question, than do you have a talent.