6.0 Rainman - Fact or Fiction?
When Dustin Hoffman sympathetically portrayed an autistic person in the film Rainman, the public awareness of the disorder became much greater. Indeed when Leo Kanner first described autism in the 1940's he noted an unusual characteristic, in that many of his case studies had very good rote memories:
'Their excellent rote memory, coupled with the inability to use language in any other way, often led the parents to stuff them more and more verses, zoologic and botanic names, titles and composers of record pieces, and the like.'
The term 'islets of ability' is sometimes used to describe a person who in amongst some severe behavioral problems displays extraordinary skills in one specific area.
Historically, individuals with these exceptional skills were called 'idiot savants,' a French term meaning unlearned (idiot) skill (savant). In a 1978 article in Psychology Today, Dr. Bernard Rimland introduced a more appropriate term 'autistic savant,' which is often used.
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6.2 Is it common and what's it like?
The skills portrayed in Rain Man are quite rare and it is estimated that the prevalence of savant abilities in autism is about 10%, whereas the prevalence in the non-autistic population, including those with learning difficulties, is less than 1%.
There are many forms of savant abilities. The most common forms involve mathematical calculations, memory feats, artistic and musical abilities. A common mathematical ability relates to calendar memory. They could be asked a question like: 'what day of the week was May 22, 1961'? and they can determine the answer within seconds - Monday. Others can multiply and divide large numbers in their head and can also calculate square roots and prime numbers without much hesitation.
Some autistic individuals with savant abilities are excellent artists able to work from single pictures and in some cases draw different perspectives from a single image. A child named Nadia drew beautiful pictures of horses, and her drawings have been compared to those of Rembrandt. Interestingly, she lost her drawing abilities when she started to learn to speak.
Music is another common savant ability. Many performers with autism have perfect pitch and also have a great memory for music. In some cases, a person can hear a classical piece once and play it back in its entirety.
The reason why some autistic individuals have savant abilities is not known. There are many theories, but there is no convincing evidence to support any one theory.
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