Savant syndrome is when someone with a developmental disorder displays above-average skill in a specific area. People often associate Savant syndrome with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Savant syndrome is rare, with some evidence estimating that it may affect 10–30% of autistic people. However, due to a lack of formal diagnostic criteria, it is difficult to accurately estimate how many people have savant syndrome.

Autism is a developmental disorder that affects social and behavioral capacities. The condition can cause mild to severe symptoms and typically emerges during the first few years of life. Autistic people may also have one or more abilities that exceed the population average, which is a sign of savant syndrome. However, it is also possible for someone to have savant syndrome without autism.

People with savant syndrome could have above-average skills in one or more domains, such as memory, music, or mathematics. The specific type and combination of skills will vary from person to person.

In this article, we discuss what savant syndrome is, what might cause the condition, and whether it is diagnosable and treatable.

A person building a robot.Share on Pinterest
Tara Moore/Getty Images

Savant syndrome is a rare condition in which someone with an intellectual impairment has one or more skills that exceed a population average. It can occur from birth or develop during early childhood. In some cases, the syndrome may develop following a brain injury or disorder.

People with savant syndrome have exceptional ability in one or more skills, which could include art, mathematics, or spatial abilities.

Autism is a developmental disorder that many people associate with savant syndrome. However, research in 2018 highlighted several distinctions between autism and savant syndrome. The authors suggest that savant syndrome typically occurs in autistic people but can also develop in people with other developmental disorders.

The research suggests that people with savant syndrome are distinct from autistic people in several domains, including:

  • heightened sensory sensitivity
  • obsessive behaviors
  • technical and spatial abilities
  • systemizing

There is a lack of formal diagnostic criteria for savant syndrome, which makes it challenging to estimate how many people have the condition in a population. The estimated number of people with the condition varies substantially.

For example, the SSM Health Treffert Center suggests that around 1 in 10 autistic people have savant syndrome. However, other evidence indicates that approximately 50% of people with savant syndrome have ASD, and 10–30% of people with ASD have savant skills.

However, an older study of 137 autistic people found that males were more likely to have savant syndrome than females by around 10%. A 2015 study looked at data from a registry of 319 people with savant syndrome and also found sex differences, with 79% of their sample being male and 21% being female.

People with savant syndrome have an exceptional ability in one or more areas that commonlyinclude:

  • art
  • music
  • calendar and numerical calculating
  • mechanical abilities
  • spatial abilities
  • memory

Their skill in these domains exceeds that of the general population. For example, someone with savant syndrome could perform rapid mathematical calculations or produce drawings with high levels of detail.

People with savant syndrome will typically also have other symptoms from a co-occurring mental or developmental condition. For example, they may also have autism and experience problems with:

  • Communication skills: Autistic people may avoid eye contact, lack appropriate facial expressions, or be unable to interpret the emotions of others.
  • Restricted or repetitive behaviors: Autistic people may intensely focus on specific parts of an object, be sensitive to changes in order, or rock backward and forward.
  • Other problems: Autism can also cause a range of other issues, such as delayed language, movement, or cognitive development.

There is currently no consensus on how savant syndrome develops.

However, an older theory suggests that the condition could develop in autistic people through the mind-blindness trait that causes difficulty understanding the mental state of others. People with this trait lack interest in the social world and may have more time to develop talents in another area.

Another theory is that autism causes obsessive behaviors and interests, which could lead to savant-like abilities over time.

Some cases of savant syndrome are present at birth, which suggests there may be a genetic component to the condition. Genetics is one potential cause of other related conditions, such as autism.

Savant syndrome lacks any formal diagnostic criteria, which prevents someone with the condition from receiving a diagnosis from a doctor.

However, researchers have recently developed questionnaires for characterizing the condition more clearly, such as the Sussex Savant Questionnaire. This questionnaire identifies the presence and nature of someone’s abilities in various domains.

People with savant syndrome have an exceptional ability in one or more domains, which may not require any specific treatment. However, these abilities could cause people to feel different from their peers, which might lead to social isolation or other problems. These problems could lead to the development of other conditions, such as depression.

People with savant syndrome may receive treatment for related conditions, such as autism. These treatments range widely according to the type and severity of symptoms and may include:

People with savant syndrome typically have other mental or developmental conditions that may require treatment, such as autism.

Autistic people can have major developmental, educational, and social challenges during childhood and adolescence. Early interventions can limit these challenges and include a range of options for different cases.

It is unclear whether people with savant syndrome need treatment for their abilities. However, they may develop problems alongside their condition that could require long-term treatment at some point, such as depression.

Savant syndrome causes exceptional abilities in one or more domains in people with developmental or mental conditions. For example, someone with savant syndrome could be a highly proficient musician or able to make rapid mathematical calculations in their head.

People with savant syndrome typically have autism or another condition that may require treatment. However, it remains unclear whether people require treatment for the specific symptoms of savant syndrome.