Evaluate savant skills that may accompany autism
In the 2005 documentary, The boy with the incredible brain, the producers introduced Daniel Tammet, a young British scientist with enormous cognitive abilities. The producers tested his abilities, and a challenge required Tammet to learn Icelandic in less than a week.
In his memoirs, Tammet wrote how he worked with a dictionary, flashcards, and then eventually a tutor. He instantly memorized words and quickly recognized grammar rules and sentence structure. At the end of the week, Tammet proved his ease in an interview on an Icelandic news show.
Tammet describes himself as an autistic savant. Scientists are discovering why Tammet and others with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may have extraordinary cognitive abilities. Currently, researchers believe this is an evolutionary advantage.
Isolated special skills
Researchers have documented how some people with ASD also have a scholarly level or extraordinary abilities in a specific area, also called “isolated special skills.” A study from 2009 was one of the first to consider these skills, and the authors assessed 137 people with autism. Male and female participants in the study ranged from “intellectually impaired” to “superior functioning,” with their average age being 24.
The researchers analyzed the skills of the participants and they also interviewed the parents to understand how they described the skills of their children. The study found that approximately one-third of male participants and 19% of female participants demonstrated scholar-level or exceptional ability in a specific area.
Mathematical ability was the most common skill. While many of us rely on our phone calculators in restaurants to add a tip, the participants in this study had minds that worked as fast as calculators. Other skills included: exceptional musicianship and the ability to repeat a complex piece of music after hearing it only once; superior artistic abilities that allowed the person to recreate pieces requiring advanced technique; and phenomenal recall of historical events and dates. In-depth foreign language skills were less common.
In 2015, a study in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disabilities assessed 254 people with autism and found a higher prevalence of special isolated skills. More than 60% of participants had exceptional memory, spatial visual abilities, reading, drawing, music, or math skills. The authors argued that the results of the 2009 study were inferior because they considered competence only then, and not earlier in the participants’ lives. For example, some children with autism suffer from hyperlexia, that is, the ability to read early and beyond what is expected for their age. The skill becomes less noticeable as other children learn to read and catch up.
The 2009 study also relied on an older cohort, meaning it likely presented more consistently how researchers were defining autism in narrower terms at the time.
These studies demonstrate that scientists understand that autistic people may have special skills that exceed the abilities of non-autistic people. But why? Only recently have geneticists presented a possible answer.
An evolutionary advantage
In 2017, a study in PLOS genetics used the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium to analyze ASD as well as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, and schizophrenia. The consortium, which is based at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, involves 800 researchers who share genetic data related to psychiatric disorders.
The study authors used the consortium to search for genetic variants linked to ASDs that could improve cognition. They found that there were indeed inherited variants associated with ASDs, and that the occurrence was too high to be considered mere chance. One of the ASD-linked variants, for example, was linked to the ability to grow new neurons.
The authors considered inherited variants in terms of evolutionary advantage. Variations that contributed to a person’s cognitive success or gave them a competitive edge were positively selected and passed on. In contrast, other variants, such as those that limited reproductive success, were negatively selected for and less likely to be transmitted.
One takeaway from the study was that the autism-linked variants were designed as an evolutionary advantage, which is why they were never eliminated from the gene pool. The theory has also been tested in qualitative research. A 2019 study in autism in adulthood interviewed 28 people with autism. They described their particular skills, which included hyper-focus, attention to detail, strong memory and creativity. They then looked at how these traits could be advantageous.
Hyperfocused participants described their enviable ability to “zoom in” on the task at hand and get it done: no distractions, no Facebook breaks or browsing the Internet. They could just sit at a desk and work on a project for hours.
Hypersensitivity has also been described as an advantage. One participant enjoyed being in nature very much and felt a strong sense of connectedness in the moment. Not thinking about work. No need to take out the phone to pose for a selfie. They felt fully aware of the surrounding sights, smells and sounds.
Hyperfocus and great attention to detail seem like very good attributes to have. The researchers, however, also caution against assuming that schools and workplaces are ready to harness these capabilities. Instead, they recommend that parents and medical providers help maximize a person with ASD’s particular skills to improve their quality of life.