What Sets Adults With Autism Who Have Savant Skills Apart?

Occasionally, people with autism have special abilities where they are able to far outperform others. They might be able to perform feats of memory, create incredibly realistic works of art, or tell you without hesitating that January 31, 2021 will be a Sunday.

Of course, the majority of people with autism don’t have savant syndrome, as psychologists call it. Which raises the question: if a subset of people with autism develop extraordinary, highly specialized skills, what sets these people apart?

General intelligence? Probably not. Turns out people with autism and savant abilities don’t score much different on IQ tests that people with autism and no savant abilities.

But a new study from researchers at University of Sussex and University of Cambridge highlights another set of cognitive abilities that might distinguish adults with autism who have savant skills. The research suggests that sensory sensitivity, obsessiveness, spatial abilities and a bias toward more systematic ways of thinking might all be part of the cognitive profile associated with savant syndrome.

In the study, the researchers administered a set of cognitive tests to three different groups: people with autism and savant syndrome, people with autism and no savant syndrome, and a control group with neither autism nor savant syndrome.

The researchers found that on measures of sensory sensitivity, obsessive behavior and systematizing, people with autism scored higher than people without autism in general. But people with autism and savant skills scored even higher.

Meanwhile, on a measure of technical and spatial abilities, people with autism and no savant skills didn’t score significantly differently than the control group, but people with autism and savant syndrome scored higher than both.

There were plenty of areas were both groups of people with autism scored differently from people without autism but not from each other. For example, people with autism with and without savant abilities were more or less the same in terms of need for organization, attention to detail and social skills.

We still don’t know how exactly savant abilities arise. As part of the study, the researchers asked participants to learn a savant skill they didn’t already have, calendar calculation, and found that all groups performed equally regardless of savant status.

But the findings do tell us that in piecing together what cognitive abilities go hand-in-hand with savant syndrome, systematizing, heightened sensory sensitivity, obsessiveness and spatial abilities may be part of the picture.