Autism 101- Savantism & High IQ’s

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Following on from the previous post examining ‘Rain Man‘, today I’m going to dive into the area of high IQ’s and savantism relating to autism.

Now before we start, remember- in spite of what Hollywood has led us to believe, savantism is a RARE condition affecting between 0.5 and 10% of autists. This means that over 90% of the autistic community do not possess these skills.

So be sure to take ‘Rain Man‘ with a grain of salt.

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Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s explore this fascinating condition properly 🙂

So first off- what exactly is savantism?

Savant syndrome is an extraordinary phenomenon wherein a person with serious mental disabilities (such as autism) shows unusual or exceptional aptitude for a particular area, task or activity in spite of their mental challenges. Historically, these individuals were also referred to as ‘idiot savants’, a term that is sometimes still used today.

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While seemingly  insensitive, the phrase actually comes from the French term meaning unlearned (idiot) skill (savant).

Surprisingly, savant skills tend to exist within five different skill categories:

  • Music (perfect pitch, performance skills)
  • Art (drawing, painting etc.)
  • Mathematics (human calculator abilities)
  • Calendar calculating (i.e. can tell you the weekday a previous date fell on)
  • Mechanical/Spatial skills (model construction, mental measurement calculation)

Other skills have been recorded, but most generally fall within these categories.

Like autism, savant syndrome exists on a spectrum with varying degrees of savant ability. For example, there are:

  • Splinter skills- the most common form, involving memorization and obsession with facts, music, trivia, licence plate numbers etc.; kind of like specialist interests
  • Talented savants- who show highly honed talents and abilities predominantly in single areas of expertise 
  • Prodigious savants-those who possess extraordinary skills

Savant skills are additionally accompanied by exceptional memory. For example the ‘megasavant’ Kim Peek on whom ‘Rain Man‘ is based, memorized over 6000 books in his lifetime, all US area and Zip codes, several maps and possessed encyclopedic knowledge of music, geography, literature, history and sports to name but a few!!!

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Astonishing!!! 😀

So what’s going on in the brain to cause this?

Numerous theories have been proposed to explain this phenomenon, but as with autism, there is no one single theory to explain all cases. However, two theories in particular seem to dominate.

As savantism is found more often in cases of autism than in other mentally disabled groups, leading expert Simon Baron-Cohen proposed a theory concerning hyper-systemizing.

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I know- it sounds complicated! 😛

But basically the theory suggests that savantism results from an autists ability to recognize repeating patterns (systemizing) and excellent attention to detail. People with autism have a different style of thinking and memory filing and this predisposes them to savant skills 🙂

Further to this another theory, supported by several neurological studies of savants, indicates that dysfunction in the analytical left hemisphere of the brain (responsible for logic, language, reasoning, maths etc) causes the right hemisphere (creativity, imagination, art, music) to compensate, which can cause savant skills to emerge. It’s kind of like the right hemisphere is giving the left a piggyback.

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In addition to savantism, higher IQ’s are sometimes linked to autism and Asperger’s syndrome.

A number of studies have found that some of the genes linked to autism development are also associated with high intelligence. The link between autism and intelligence is not yet clear, however, people who carry these genes scored better than those without on intelligence tests.

These findings create an interesting paradox given that autism is generally characterized by lower IQ’s. Researchers have proposed the hypothesis that autism involves augmented, but imbalanced elements of intelligence to counter this paradox. This basically means that autists have higher levels of intelligence in some areas (e.g. academia, mathematics, art etc.) but not in others (e.g. social intelligence).

So there we have it, just a quick over view of savantism and IQ in autism! 🙂

Enjoy the weekend everyone! 🙂

Aoife

Autism on Screen- Rain Man

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

I’m going to change things up a little today with a new series examining the portrayal of autism on screen.

Film scholars have remarked that the portrayal of autism on film is generally inaccurate and highly stereotyped, so I’ve decided to take a closer look at things from a personal and scientific perspective 🙂

So let’s start at the very beginning with perhaps the most famous portrayal of autism in cinema- 1988’s ‘Rain Man‘.

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For those of you who have not seen the film, ‘Rain Man’ focuses on the relationship between brothers Charlie and Raymond ‘Rain Man‘ Babbitt as they embark on a cross country road trip to Los Angeles (Raymond refuses to fly unless it’s with Qantas- the safest airline in the world!). Charlie grew up without any knowledge of Raymond, only discovering his existence upon learning that his father’s multi-million dollar fortune had been bequeathed to the mental institution in which he resides. And so Charlie sets out to be Raymond’s carer in order to access the fortune, but *SPOILER ALERT*- ultimately has a change of heart. Classic Hollywood ending.

Here’s a trailer for anyone who’s thinking of watching it 🙂

‘Rain Man’ is often considered to be the main reference point for autism on film, as it prompted the breakthrough of autism into the wider conscious of the public. Prior to this, characters displayed autistic like traits in film, but autism itself was not discussed- likely due to the fact that the diagnostic criteria for autism was only just emerging in the late 1980’s. The term ‘Rain Man‘ has also become synonymous with autism and other mental disabilities in popular culture, as seen in this example from the film ‘Miss Congeniality‘ (2000):

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As a “female rain man”, I find this highly insulting, so try not to brand autistic people using the term 😛

Winner of  4 Oscar’s, ‘Rain Man’ has been highly critically acclaimed- but does the film match up to the reality?

Rain Man‘ is generally thought to be an accurate portrayal of the autistic condition in scholarly papers. Indeed, there are many areas in the film in which Raymond perfectly demonstrates some of the classical signs of autism- sensitivity to touch, restrictive and repetitive behaviors, specialist interests, coordination issues, deficits in social communication, autistic meltdowns etc.

Interestingly while I thought that I would not be able to relate to Raymond from previous viewings, I found that his literal thinking had me written all over it. There’s a scene in the film (which you can see in the trailer) where Raymond stops in the middle of the road on a pedestrian crossing after the light flashes “DON’T WALK”! I have a terrible habit of dawdling at pedestrian crossings. Oftentimes I can see that the road is clear, but still I’ll wait for the green man (although this may be related to getting clipped on the ankle by a car crossing the road in Dublin as a teenager! 😛 ). However, I’m not as bad as I used to be since learning to drive; hesitation gets you nowhere on a roundabout after all! 😉

The story where Raymond inadvertently burned Charlie in the bathtub as a child (which led him to be institutionalized), also brings back many memories from my childhood. There have been many cases where I have inadvertently harmed my siblings- why just yesterday I threw a foam roller at my sister in an attempt to help her stretch out her legs, only for it to whack her in the throat…oops!

Bad Aoife! 😛

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But my intentions were good!!

Acting without thinking is something that I tend to do an awful lot of (probably why I overthink and don’t act when it comes to love 😛 ). My mother had to keep a really close eye on me growing up after she found me attempting to push hair-clips down my sisters throat…I have no real answer for why I did that, but based on similar experiences, I’d say scientific curiosity probably had a role to play! 😛 😉 We’ll explore curiosity and impulsivity a little bit more in the coming weeks.

On the other hand however, this film has largely perpetuated the stereotype that autists typically have superb memories and savant skills. As I’ve stated previously, these traits are rare, and the vast majority of autists do not possess them. The same goes for card counting- a family friend actually inferred that I should be able to do it once! 😛

Here’s a fun article I found about a man who lost $17,000 after trying to use his autistic friend to count cards!

http://www.betootaadvocate.com/uncategorized/i-took-my-autistic-friend-to-the-casino-and-lost-17-000-in-ten-minutes/

In addition to this, Raymond is also described as ‘high functioning’ in the film, BUT Raymond is incapable of living independently. Whilst the definition of what constitutes high functioning autism varies, for many, Raymond does not fit the high functioning category and therefore does not come across as a true reflection of autism.

One of the biggest issues here I believe, is the fact that the character of Raymond is based on Kim Peek- a “megasavant” who did not in fact have autism, but FG syndrome (a rare genetic syndrome characterized by intellectual disabilities, low muscle tone and an abnormally large head).

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Bit hard to write a film about autism when the inspiration doesn’t actually have autism if you ask me! 😛

On top of this, Dustin Hoffman famously prepared for the role by observing autistic adults for months in psychiatric institutions. However, Hoffman by his own admission describes Raymond’s character as an unrealistic grouped composite of high functioning autists he encountered during his research.

With this in mind, don’t believe everything you see in the movies folks! 😉

When I first got my diagnosis, this film naturally came to mind, however, I really struggled to relate what was presented on screen to my reality. Indeed, ‘Rain Man‘ reflects some of the realities of autism, but not all. ‘Rain Man‘ is an excellent film with superb acting from Dustin Hoffman, but it comes from a time before the ‘spectrum‘ when knowledge of autism was limited.

So when it comes to films about autism remember- autism is a spectrum; one size does not fit all 🙂

Aoife

 

 

 

 

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