Why do many autistic people develop outstanding abilities in domains like drawing, music, computation, and reading? What aspects of autism predispose to talent? What can taxi drivers teach us about talent? And could scientists turn anyone into a savant using a real-life thinking cap?

For answers to all these questions and many more, please see below for media summaries of the latest issue of the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B*, which is all about talent and autism.

Autism & Talent

Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B Discussion Meeting Theme Issue Edited by Francesca Happé and Uta Frith


Extraordinary Talent remains one of the big unexplained puzzles, which will only be solved by a true collaboration between sciences and humanities. This special issue follows a Discussion Meeting on Autism and Talent under the joint auspices of the British Academy and Royal Society. Contributors from psychology, psychiatry, neuroscience, history and sociology explore aspects ranging from the history, origin and prevalence of exceptional talent to its basis in the brain, from cognitive theories to the representation of talent and autism in biography and fiction. The papers in this issue show some remarkable convergence of ideas: A detail focused processing style may predispose to talent; the incidence of special skills may be higher than previously thought; there are tangible practical benefits from fostering talent in autism. Some of the challenging questions addressed in this special issue include: Are great artists fundamentally different from the rest of us? Is there a price to pay for exceptional ability in one domain? What is the role of practice? Could we all become savants?

The beautiful otherness of the autistic mind

Striking skills in music, art, maths, memory are unusually common in people with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). In our Introduction to this special issue we discuss the puzzle of talent and its close association with autism. What is the role of obsessive practice? Do similar genetic effects predispose for talent and for autism? What do talents teach us about the love of repetition in all individuals with ASD? Could we all become savants? Is detail-focus at the root of talent in ASD and non-ASD individuals? How can talents best be fostered in children and adults with social and communication difficulties?

Explaining and Inducing Savant Skills: Privileged Access to Lower Level, Less Processed Information

Professor Snyder believes that the skills of autistic savants are latent in us all, but that they are normally beyond our conscious awareness. He says that savants, as a consequence of their brain impairment, have privileged access to sensory information before it is packaged into holistic concepts and labels. This explains why people with autism are better at seeing detail than the big picture. Consistent with his theory, Prof Snyder has been able to artificially induce savant skills in some "normal" people by using slow magnetic pulses to inhibit a part of the brain associated with the savant condition.

Talent in the taxi: a model system for exploring expertise

Whilst there is widespread interest in and admiration of individuals with exceptional talents, surprisingly little is known about the cognitive and neural mechanisms underpinning talent, and indeed how talent relates to expertise. Because many talents are first identified and nurtured in childhood, it can be difficult to determine whether talent is innate, can be acquired through extensive practice, or can only be acquired in the presence of the developing brain. We sought to address some of these issues by studying healthy adults who acquired expertise in adulthood. We focussed on the domain of memory and used licensed London taxi drivers as a model system. Taxi drivers have to learn the layout of 25,000 streets in London, the locations of thousands of places of interest, and pass stringent examinations in order to obtain an operating licence. Using neuropsychological assessment and structural and functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) we addressed a range of key questions: in the context of a fully developed brain and an average IQ can people acquire expertise to an exceptional level? What are the neural signatures, both structural and functional, associated with the use of expertise? Does expertise change the brain compared to unskilled control participants? Does it confer any cognitive advantages, and similarly, does it come at a cost to other functions? By studying retired taxi drivers we also consider what happens to their brains and behaviour when experts stop using their skill. Finally, we discuss how the expertise of taxi drivers might relate to the issue of talent and innate abilities. We suggest that exploring talent and expertise in this manner could have implications for education, rehabilitation of patients with cognitive impairments, understanding individual differences and possibly conditions such as autism where exceptional abilities can be a feature.

Do calendrical savants use calculation to answer date questions? An fMRI study.

Calendrical savants can name the weekdays for dates from different years with remarkable speed and accuracy. Whether calculation rather than just memory is involved is disputed. Our fMRI study of two autistic calendrical savants indicates that calculation is involved when they answer questions about dates, particularly when the dates are from years in the remote past or future.

How Does Visual Thinking Work in the Mind of a Person with Autism?

My mind is like an internet search engine that searches for photographs. I use language to narrate the photo realistic pictures that pop up in my imagination. When I design equipment for the cattle industry, I can test run it in my imagination like a virtual reality computer program. All my thinking is associative and not linear. To form concepts, I sort pictures into categories like computer files.

The Savant Syndrome: An Extraordinary Condition.

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 ten persons with autistic disorder have such remarkable abilities in varying degrees, although savant syndrome occurs in other developmental disabilities or in other types of CNS injury or disease as well (Treffert 2005). Whatever the particular savant skill, it is always linked to massive memory (Treffert 2006a). This paper presents a brief review of the henomenology of savant skills, the history of the concept, and implications for education and future research.

Savant Skills in Autism: Psychometric Approaches and Parental Reports

Most investigations of savant skills in autism are based on individual case reports. The present study investigated rates and types of savant skills in 137 individuals with autism (mean age 24 years). One third of males showed some form of outstanding ability compared with 19% of females. No individual with a non-verbal IQ below 50 met criteria for a savant skill and, contrary to some earlier hypotheses, there was no indication that individuals with higher rates of stereotyped behaviours/interests were more likely to demonstrate savant skills.

What aspects of autism predispose for talent?

Why are special abilities and savant skills seen in as many as 1 in 10 people with autism? Problems reading other minds may contribute to an original world-view in autism. However, the 'starting engine' for talent seems to be the amazing eye for detail seen in autism spectrum conditions. Attention to and memory for detail also seems to be linked to talent in the general population, as shown in a recent twin study of over 12,000 8-year-olds (Vital et al, in press). Comparison of identical and fraternal twins suggests overlapping genetic effects on talent and on autistic-like traits.

Precocious Realists: Perceptual and Cognitive Characteristics Associated with Drawing Talent in Non-Autistic Children

Some autistic individuals have a talent for realistic drawing and show a local processing bias, which could explain the precision in their drawings. We investigated whether this bias is seen in typically-developing children gifted in realistic drawing. We compared gifted children to less gifted counterparts. Like autistic individuals, the gifted group showed a local processing bias on the Block Design Task. But unlike autistic individuals, the gifted group showed a global visual memory advantage and did not use the kind of local drawing strategy used by autistic individuals. Different mechanisms must therefore underlie the talent of autistic vs. non-autistic graphic realists.

Talent in autism: hyper-systemizing, hyper-attention to detail, and sensory hypersensitivity

We argue that hyper-systemizing predisposes individuals to show talent, and review evidence that hyper-systemizing is part of the cognitive style of people with autism spectrum conditions (ASC). We then clarify the hyper-systemizing theory, contrasting it to the weak central coherence (WCC) and executive dysfunction (ED) theories. The ED theory has difficulty explaining the existence of talent in ASC. Whilst both hyper-systemizing and WCC theories postulate excellent attention to detail, by itself excellent attention to detail will not produce talent. In contrast, the hyper-systemizing theory argues that the excellent attention to detail is directed towards detecting 'if p then q' rules (or [input-operation-output] reasoning). Such law-based pattern-recognition systems can produce talent in systemizable domains. Finally, we argue that the excellent attention to detail in ASC is itself a consequence of sensory hyper-sensitivity. We review an experiment from our lab demonstrating sensory hypersensitivity detection thresholds in vision. We conclude that the origins of the association between autism and talent begins at the sensory level, includes excellent attention to detail, and ends with hyper-systemizing.

Enhanced perception in savant syndrome: Patterns, structure, and creativity

Autistic people perceive the world differently, often in more detail and more accurately than typical individuals, while autistic savants develop outstanding abilities in domains like drawing, music, computation, and reading. In this paper, we examine how atypical autistic perception contributes to the emergence of savant abilities, and to autistic creativity. Enhanced detection of perceptual pattern similarity may be one of the mechanisms responsible for savant abilities. A second mechanism would be the filling-in of missing parts in memorized or perceived patterns. We suggest that if autistics had better access to materials favouring such mechanisms, more autistics could develop their creativity.

Perception and apperception in autism: rejecting the inverse assumption

Many people with Autism Spectrum Conditions (ASCs), not only those individuals with particular savant skills, show superior perceptual and attentional skills relative to the general population. Such unusual minds can contribute greatly to a society's engineering, computing and mathematics. It is widely assumed that these abilities universally reflect deficits in other processes, a view we term the 'inverse assumption'. However, evidence presented here argues instead that cognitive and perception strengths in ASCs are often unrelated to processing difficulties, suggesting that alleviating processing deficits in such individuals need not deprive society of their skills.

A Case Study of a Multiply-Talented Savant with an Autism Spectrum Disorder: Neuropsychological Functioning and Brain Morphometry

A multiply-talented (calendar calculation, art) adult savant with an autism spectrum disorder demonstrated good visual-spatial and mental calculation abilities, an excellent 'eye for detail', and knowledge of calendar structure; all of which may have contributed to his savant skills. Brain imaging revealed only the superior parietal region, associated with mathematical and visual-spatial functions, thicker for the savant than for neurotypical adults while several areas, many associated with social cognition, were thinner. Skill in domains (e.g., calendars, art) that capitalize upon strengths associated with autism (e.g., good detail-focus), are likely enhanced through over-learning/massive exposure, and reflected in atypical brain structure.

Radial Cytoarchitecture and Patterns of Cortical Connectivity in Autism

The cortex of the brain stems from the palisading arrangement of modules called minicolumns. Connectivity among these modules provides for the emergence of higher functions such as language, intellect, and orientation. Recent studies suggest that in autism there is an abnormality in the basic template of these minicolumns which is generalized throughout a mayor portion of the cortex. The circuitry engendered by networks of minicolumns in the brains of autistic individuals may account for some of the symptoms observed in this condition. Alternatively, the bias in connectivity sometimes acquire novel functional propertied which is manifested as special skills.

Assessing musical skills in autistic children who are not savants

Whilst the phenomenon of the musical savant has long attracted interest, only recently has attention been paid to musical potential in people with autism, who are not savants. The findings from these more recent studies show that the difficulties characteristic of autism do not unduly impact on musicality and it may be the case that musical potential is spared. Therefore, an important future goal is to focus attention on how best musical education is delivered to children with autism.

Outsider Art and the autistic creator

Outsider Art (art brut) is defined as a mode of original artistic expression which thrives on its independence, shunning the public sphere and the art-market. Such art can be highly idiosyncratic and secretive, and reflects the individual creator's attempt to construct a coherent, albeit strange, private world. Certain practitioners of what may be termed Autistic Art are examined in the light of this definition; their work is considered as evidence not of a medical condition but of an expressive intentionality entirely worthy of the interest of those drawn to the aesthetic experience.

Autistic Autobiography

Autism narratives are not just stories or histories, describing a given reality. They are creating the language in which to describe the experience of autism, and hence helping to forge the concepts in which to think autism. This paper focuses on a series of autobiographies that began with Grandin's Emergence. These are often said to show us autism from the 'inside'. The paper proposes that instead they are developing ways to describe experience for which there is little pre-existing language. Wittgenstein has many well-known aphorisms about how we understand other people directly, without inference. They condense what he had found in Wolfgang Köhler's Gestalt Psychology. These phenomena of direct understanding what other people are doing, are, Köhler wrote, 'the common property and practice of mankind'. They are not the common property and practice of people with autism. Ordinary language is rich in age-old ways to describe what others are thinking, feeling and so forth. Köhler's phenomena are the bedrock on which such language rests. There is no such discourse for autism, because Köhler's phenomena are absent. But a new discourse is being made up right now, that is, ways of talking for which the autobiographies serve as working prototypes.

Stereotypes of Autism

Much of what society at large learns on disorders on the autism spectrum is produced by representations of autism in novels, TV-series, movies or autobiographies. Considering this, it will be of vital importance to check whether these representations are not, in fact, misrepresenting autism. In quite a few cases, media representations of talent and special abilities can be said to have contributed to a harmful divergence between the general image of autism and the clinical reality of the autistic condition.

Philosophical Transactions B

Each issue of Philosophical Transactions B is devoted to a specific area of the biological sciences. This area will define a research frontier that is advancing rapidly, often bridging traditional disciplines. The journal is essential reading for scientists working across the biological sciences.


Catherine de Lange
Assistant Press Officer
The Royal Society
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