Autistic savants potentially much more common?

I believe that the number of autistic children capable of being savants, if only their early childhood environment were more savant-friendly, is probably much greater than the number of autistic savants who have actually manifested their abilities.

Why?

Consider musical savants, for example. In every story I’ve ever read about a musical savant, the instrument they figured out how to play on their own, as a very young child, was a piano. Always a piano. Never a guitar, a flute, or a trumpet.

There’s a reason for that. A piano, or other keyboard instrument, can give the user an intuitive feel for the relationships amongst the notes, in a way that other kinds of musical instruments cannot.

Problem: Most families don’t have a piano. Pianos are very expensive. Most families also don’t have other, cheaper keyboard instruments (e.g. keyboard synthesizers) in the house either. Families that choose to give their kids music lessons often choose other, less intuitive kinds of instruments. And there are many families with no musical instruments in the house at all.

I was a musical savant at age 4. Shortly before my 4th birthday, I finally learned how to walk and how to talk. At around that same time, I also figured out, on my own, how to play the piano by ear — one-finger melodies at first, then chords. (I wasn’t a full-fledged prodigy, though; I never quite reached professional-level skill.)

I was very lucky to have access to that piano, which was given to my parents as a gift. They could not have afforded it on their own. It was actually a used, scratched-up, hand-me-down piano that hadn’t been tuned in years and had a few broken keys, but it was adequate to the job of enabling me to figure out how to play it.

Another thing that probably helped me figure out how to play the piano was the example of my father and older sister playing it semi-regularly. Had I not seen this, I might have had no idea what a piano was for.

(Occasionally there have been fads among upper middle class families to have a piano in the house just as a status symbol, even if no one actually played it, which probably didn’t do much good for any potential musical savants among their children, especially if the keyboard was covered most of the time.)

From these obvious facts, I conclude that there are probably lots of potential musical savants out there who have never had the opportunity to manifest their abilities.

Similarly, the development of mathematical talent requires lots of early exposure to numbers. In my family, there were large calendars on the wall in both the kitchen and my bedroom, and we also had a large (analog) clock on the kitchen wall, plus smaller clocks in most other rooms. One year, in addition to the usual wall calendar that shows one month at a time, my parents gave me a very large wall calendar that showed the entire year at a glance, which helped me get a much more intuitive feel for calendars and for numbers in general. And my parents gave me excellent tutoring in counting and basic arithmetic between the time I learned to talk and the time I started first grade. My father also taught me quite a few fun mathematical games and tricks.

These days, I suspect that many parents of autistic kids probably don’t bother to do this sort of thing, being too preoccupied with trying to correct their kids’ lack of “social skills.”

That’s a big mistake, in my opinion. As Dr. Stephen Shore has pointed out, you can’t build a career on remediated weaknesses.

A recent article in the premier scientific journal Nature repeats the findings I’ve read elsewhere that (1) about 50% of all savants (people with cognitive disabilities of one kind or another who nevertheless are unusually talented in one or more ways) are autistic and (2) between 10% and 30% (depending on the study) of autistic people are savants.

Based on my awareness of the role of luck in the development of my own savant skills, I strongly suspect that potential savants are much more common among autistic children than these studies would seem to indicate. Maybe not all autistic children are potential savants, but it wouldn’t surprise me if at least 50% are.

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