The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Sunday, June 03, 2007

What is Savant Syndrome?

I wonder, sometimes, whether all the searchers who arrive on my site looking for "genius and savants"...or "Is my child a savant?" actually know what a savant is. I think there is much confusion about as to the distinction between a savant, a genius and a prodigy. I will therefore look at what a savant is.

Savant Syndrome is the presence of an extraordinary mental ability - of a particular limited set of kinds - in an individual who usually has some disability. It is found innately in some autistic individuals - or may sometimes be induced in previously normal people through damage to the left side of the brain. This indicates either that it is a form of compensation for left brain damage - or that the left-brain was masking its presence, until damaged and the gift could shine through.

Savants have one or more splinter skills: very deep, but very narrow abilities in such areas as maths, music or sometimes art, which allow them to display an extraordinary skill - such as lightning calculation, or the recall of long pieces of music, numbers or speech - at a single hearing. Other skills noted include calendar calculation - noting the day of the week of any day over tens of thousands of years - estimating distances accurately; telling the time without a watch; acquiring random information in a usually very narrow field at a single exposure - such as number plates, or telephone numbers and the like.

Some of the searchers to my site, seem to be unaware that there is a major difference between savant and genius. A savant is not a genius - and a genius is not a savant (though some geniuses have had savant like skills). Most savants are impaired in their general intellectual functions, though savant like gifts can exist in unimpaired individuals (but these people are not, then, called savants). The key difference between savant and genius is that a savant is not creative; whilst a genius is creative by definition.

Perhaps the most famous savant, of modern times, is Kim Peek, the inspiration for Rain Man. He is unusual in many more ways than that, however, being non-autistic - but having no corpus callosum - meaning his brain is actually two separate halves. Kim Peek has a photographic memory and can recall the contents of thousands of books word for word.

As for the difference between savant and prodigy: a savant has an over-development of at least one lower level thinking skill; a prodigy has a precocious over-development of higher level thinking skills that allow them to tackle an adult domain, while still a child.

I hope that clarifies the distinction between savant, and other forms of "gift", somewhat.

(If you would like to read of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged seven years and six months, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, three, and Tiarnan, sixteen months, please go to: I also write of gifted education, IQ, intelligence, child prodigy, child genius, baby genius, adult genius, savant, the creatively gifted, gifted adults, and gifted children in general. Thanks.)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 3:01 PM 


Blogger gstanz said...

"The key difference between savant and genius is that a savant is not creative; whilst a genius is creative by definition."

this suggests that savants are not creative. Darold A Treffert (who studies savants for a living) in his book Islands of Genius claims that savants have the same level of creativity as an average person without disabilities. i agree with genius being defined by creativity since they are much more creative than the average person

5:44 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Even if Treffert is right in his view (I haven't read his evidence), he is saying the same thing that I am saying: savants are not creative. Ordinary people are not creative least not to any degree that would attract notice or merit the description "creative". Notable degrees of creativity are what mark out the genius from all other kinds of people: it is the defining characteristic. If savants have the same creativity as average people, then they are, by definition, not creative to any significant degree. The average person shows remarkably little creativity, in my view.

Thanks for your comment.

7:29 PM  

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