Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Talents and Savants

Today’s post does not have much to do with science, just a little about genes. 

Several years ago at school, a teacher asked me what Monty’s special skill is; as she understood autism, people always have one.

Recently, at the same mainstream school, a teacher was explaining to the assembled now older kids why it was that she had decided to establish a talent show.  Did the kids really know what talent means?  Her point was that everyone has a special ability, something that they are surprisingly good at.  You just have to find it and develop it.  The key is what you do with those talents, do they grow or not?

“Talent” came ultimately from Greek talanton, and referred originally to a unit of weight used by the Babylonians, Assyrians, Romans, and Greeks. The use of talent to mean ‘natural aptitude or skill’ comes from the biblical parable of the talents in the Gospel of Matthew. In this story a master gives one, two, and ten talents of silver to each of three servants. Two of them use their talents well and double the value of what they have been given, but the third buries his coin and fails to benefit from it.

The teacher in kindergarten was assuming Monty, now aged 12, would have some savant skills that are apparently nearly always connected to memory.  The study below finds that 10% of people really do fit this description.

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

The science part of the post is to highlight the overlap between some autism genes and some of the genes that make you clever; we should not be surprised that some people with severe autism do indeed have some areas of intellectual excellence.

Autism risk genes also linked to higher intelligence

"Our findings show that genetic variation which increases risk for autism is associated with better cognitive ability in non-autistic individuals”

I was thinking back to my one and only ever “autism lunch”, talking with former university classmates who now have a child with autism. At least six out of 200 have a child with serious autism, this continues to surprise me since this kind of autism has an incidence of about 0.3%, so you would expect one or two cases not six. More anecdotal evidence to link autism incidence with IQ perhaps? 

One is preparing his non-verbal son for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics.  This boy has great athletic talents.  I could not picture Monty sprinting round the Olympic stadium.

One has son with a photographic memory, who seems to have instant recall of underground/metro travel maps.  Monty has yet to memorize any maps. 

One Australian lady, who could not make that lunch, has a son diagnosed with autism and MR/ID, who ended up great at fencing (sword fighting).  I remember being surprised to hear this, since I could not imagine Monty doing this, although his typical big brother did do this.  

Not to paint an unrealistic picture, one child was non-verbal, then developed self-injury and aggression, improved somewhat but at puberty developed epilepsy and then began a spiral downwards to institutionalization.  This is a case where the right pharmacological intervention at the right time might have been a game changer.
My son’s special skill is music, I just had not realized this yet when asked several years ago by that kindergarten teacher.

So based on my unscientific review of the people I have come across with more severe autism, I would have to say that many do indeed have special talents and some are indeed savants.
But just as in the biblical tale, it really is a case of nurturing those talents.

Monty’s musical talents where nurtured by years of music and dance with his Assistant.  All I did was provide the piano later on.
Adults with autism generally have a lot of time on their hands and so it will be very useful to have those interests/talents.   

Golf, sailing, swimming, running, trampolining, horseback riding are all good candidates.
Since many people with autism really do have unusually good memory and can recognize patterns, there is potential for everything from chess to poker.
Monty’s other talent could be diving, he is very competent underwater and down there you do not need to speak, so perhaps a pearl diver somewhere warm?

Parental Involvement

Whereas for typical children being a pushy parent is usually counter-productive, children with autism actually like the repetition and routine of training and do not have conflicting social engagements that mean training is a burden.  Even a trace of talent can be the foundation of something impressive later.

I think many talents in autistic teenagers are indeed the result of a great deal of parental nurture over the previous decade. 
When Monty won the talent show at school with his piano recital, I was amazed at how much of a big deal people made. His after-school assistant immediately called her mother who then bought him a present.  The other kids are school were genuinely happy for him. Days later, other parents were congratulating him.

Imagine what would happen if you won a medal at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics?

So it looks like what is your talent is indeed a better question, than do you have a talent.


  1. Hi Peter,

    It appears the the "Index by Subject" section is not working. At least it hasn't worked for me in a while. I've tried Edge, Chrome, and Firefox and none seem to be working.

    Just a heads up. Maybe it's just on my end.

    1. Thanks JB, that index uses a java script on another server, which seems no longer to be active.

  2. Here is something that might be worth trying:

    1. Thanks JB, but that one also does not work. My original one does not work because it links to a java script on another google server that has been deleted. So I have asked whether it can be put back.

  3. Hi Peter,

    I am having a problem with the search function on the homepage. Simply will not load, and comes back with a message to try later. Has been going on for a couple of months now. I wonder if others are experiencing this as well. Any solutions?

    1. I know it stopped working for some reason and then the Index by Subject failed. All the tools for blogger are free and so things are not perfect (ie not fully compatible or have silly bugs). The search now works. The index may have got too big and exceeded a limit somewhere, that software is free from a third party. I expect I will solve it.

  4. My kid is 4yo and is good with patterns / codes. He doesn't only align objects, he organizes into matrix (color and size for exemple), and is able to organize a 15 pieces puzzle in the sequence he intends to assemble it.
    He learned to read music partitions and associate this with the piano keyboard by his second music class. He reads, memorizes the song (frequently in one shot) and then plays. He also knows several written words (about 50 that we are aware off, but he is always surprising us with new ones). He can also write and associate these words with images or objects.
    But he is non verbal, and doesn't use his written vocabulary to communicate yet (and school is pushing for PECS not alphabetization).
    He is also at ease with numbers.

    His educators at school work on development plans based on what they think he should know at this age. But they seem to see only what he can't do, and rarely try to leverage his learning with his natural interests and aptitudes.

    So in our case its up to us to find and foster whatever talent our kid has. Even if its not something impressive, it will certainly allow for happy and satisfying times. Good enough for me.

    Nice post. Such a relevant but disregarded point...



    1. Keep up the good work Jane and watch your son's talents develop. As you point out, what matters most is developing your strengths.

  5. Well my son is 7 now and almost done with first grade. He has some speech, but nothing conversational (he does try though). In terms of talents, the best I can think of is that he now likes to use two ipads (his brother and sisters have them as well) where he will use one pad to record something else being viewed on the other ipad (some clip he likes), then upload it to youtube. Then he will play these short clips he recorded for his own amusement at later times. He also likes to record stuff outside in the backyard sometimes as well and gets very excited about it. Not so sure that I would call this a savant skill, but it is what he loves to do the most these days.

    On another note, there is an interesting paper on depression where they think they now understand why ketamine helps instantly cure depression in a lot of people:

    How this is relevant to autism, is that what they found was that in their mouse model they showed that both the GABAergic theory of depression as well as the Glutamatergic theory of depression may be both right at the same time. What seems to happen is that in this model a GABA receptor subunit is dysfunctional (gamma 2) and this decreases GABA signaling, but due to a homeostatic compensation for this defect, glutamatergic signaling (NMDA, AMPA), gets downregulated as well. To rescue depression, both the GABA dysfunction and glutamatergic dysfunction both need to be addressed at the same time even though GABA dysfunction seems to be the root cause of the problem (i.e. fix the GABA dysfunction and you still have the downregulated excitatory receptors) yet ketamine by some miracle seems to fix both problems at the same time (fixing the GABA subunit dysfunction while at the same time restoring glutamatergic signaling).

    With respect to autism, this is some food for thought in thinking about the multiple and concurrent steps that might need to be achieved to get the best out of cognition. Like in depression, simply, addressing the GABA issue or vice versa might not do much if anything and to get a good outcome you might have to deal with the whole cascade of problems that might have a root cause, but still need to be treated nevertheless. Just something to think about.

    1. Thanks Tyler, it is interesting. I recall another study showing that one NMDA dysfunction was corrected by baclofen acting via GABAb receptors. That surprised me. So much is possible, but it remains rather trial and error until there is a complete understanding of the science.

      There are not that many safe drugs and so a little experimentation is a realistic option to fine tune a person's unique GABA/NMDA/AMPA altered homeostasis.


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