The movie Rain Man exposed millions of people to autism as well as the autistic savant phenomenon. Unfortunately, many people now have the impression that all autistic individuals have these abilities. While savant abilities in autism occur around 10%, the prevalence in the non-autistic population is less than 1%.

People with these exceptional skills used to be called idiot savants, a French term meaning unlearned (idiot) knowing (savant). Dr. Bernard Rimland introduced the more appropriate term autistic savant, in 1978.

One of the myths about autism in general and savantism in particular is that they have no emotion and thus cannot express themselves creatively i.e. they can only copy other works or reproduce things they have seen. Some autistic individuals with savant abilities are incredible artists. Mark Rimland (Dr. Rimland's grown son) is an excellent watercolor artist. 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. Another artist with autism, Richard Wawro, is legally blind and draws in crayons. His works sell for up to $10,000, even the Pope owns one of his paintings.

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. Tim Baley, who also has Fragile X, is a concert pianist and the piano player for Hi Hopes, a musical group of singers and performers with autism and/or mental retardation.

Because people with autism often do not have great expressive skills it is easy to assume they have no emotion to express. This is not the case. Many think in pictures instead of words. They often can express what they are feeling through art or music better than any other mediums. Though many artists with savantism can copy landscapes or still life and will be rigid about the detail, they can most always "make up a picture" from scratch as well (though they may prefer following the model - rigid routine is a classic autism symptom).

Incidentally, a word on Rain Man. Don't mention it. It was a good movie, but just like everything in Hollywood, it was pretend. People with autism are tired of hearing about counting cards and Judge Wapner being on at three. Considering that there is currently an epidemic of 1 in 500 children having Autistic Spectrum Disorder, one would hope that there will be more and varied portrayals of people with autism in the media. Until then, think of something else to talk about.

afk2000 kindly pointed out that much of the text of this write up is by Stephen M. Edelson, Ph.D. and you can read his original paper at I recieved the work uncredited as part of a Parents of Autistic Children Workshop and am happy to credit the origional author.

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