Society - People
By: - at March 17, 2014

25 Individuals Who Thrived with Savant Syndrome

Savant syndrome is a fascinating, remarkable and baffling condition. Very little is understood about it, other than that it’s a phenomenon that involves an individual demonstrating a remarkable talent in a single area. This is despite significantly lacking in social skills or other aspects of life. Savant syndrome is very rare, though there have been a number of individuals during the years that have had the condition and conquered the severe handicaps that typically come with it.

savant syndrome concept

25)  Rudiger Gamm  (Mathematics Ability)
German, Rudiger Gamm, is a mathematical genius, who can perform complex calculations entirely in his head. This is without ever needing to write a single thing down. He also has the ability to speak backwards. There is some debate as to whether Gamm can be truly classified as a savant, as he intellectually understands his ability, whereas savants can demonstrate remarkable talents without explaining how and why they do things.

Mathematical Genius Rudiger Gamm

Whether Gamm is a true savant might be unclear, but what is indisputable is that he had never been particularly adept at mathematics growing up. It was only after the age of 21 that he discovered that he somehow had a phenomenal gift when it came to numbers.

24)  Richard Wawro (1952-2006)  (Memory Ability)
Richard Wawro is a Scottish savant who created meticulously detailed images of seascapes and landscapes using only crayon.

Richard Wawro

The images that he would recall were purely from memory, after having seen them either in person, in magazines or just on television.
Richard Wawro's Image of Spain - Wawro Began Drawing When He was Only Three

His work was praised for his close attention to detail, coloring and depth. Due to his remarkable memory, he could only recreate images in detail, but he could also date them precisely as to when he first saw them, even if it was only for a brief period.

23)  Matt Savage  (Musical Ability)
Matt Savage has never taken any official music studies. Nevertheless, he is a savant with a remarkable gift for playing the piano, which he first displayed when he was just six year old.

Matt Savage Seated Where He is Most Comfortable - The Piano

Now a young adult, he has carved out a prestigious career. He has both toured the world and also performed for a number of important political figures with his band, The Matt Savage trio. He has been honored with a number of high-standing. His ability as a child was so remarkable that he was offered a partnership with the piano manufacturer, Bosendorfer, as a spokesperson.

22)  Henriett Seth F.  (Literary Ability)
Hungarian, Henriett Seth F., is unique for a number of reasons. Given that savant syndrome generally affects males (only around 16% females), her condition is unusual. Perhaps what is most impressive is just how successful she has been, both personally and commercial, despite her condition.

Henriett Seth F. (Left) With Her Daughter:
Henriett Seth F. (Left) With Her Daughter
By Wwwsavant5mpeu via Wikimedia Commons

She is an acclaimed poet, artist and writer. She has penned a number of successful books. Her life and achievements were detailed in the documentary ‘Freedom of Speech’ (2005).

21)  Gottfried Mind (1768-1814)  (Artistic Ability)
Gottfried Mind was Swiss savant who had the remarkable ability to draw. Specifically, he spent years portraying images of his favorite animal, which was the cat. Throughout his lifetime, Mind produced numerous illustrations of felines.

"A Cat in a Cage"
A Cat in a Cage - Gottfried Mind, 1800

Reportedly, his obsession with cats began after he viewed an image of a cottage in which a woman was feeding her cats. When Mind saw the depiction of the animal, he declared that it was “no cat!” Mind thought he could do better and thus proved his claim to be true by his representations of the animal in his work. Ultimately, Mind ended up producing such a large quantity of cat images that he earned himself the nickname, the “Raphael of Cats.”

20)  Derek Paravicini  (Musical Ability)
Derek Paravicini is a self-taught musical savant, and said to be a genius on the piano. He can play the song ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ in pretty much each and every music style. Astoundingly, despite his skills on the instrument, he struggles to coordinate his fingers in regards to day to day life.

Derek Paravicini musical savant

He is barely capable of buttoning his own shirt, thus highlighting the perplexing nature of savant syndrome and the gifts it bestows under the most unusual circumstances.

19)  James Charles Castle (1899-1977)  (Artistic Ability)
Another self-taught artistic savant, James Charles Castle, was known to utilize numerous esoteric items that he simply happened to stumble upon to produce his artwork. Furthermore, he was known to not bother with pencils or ink. He would instead utilize sharpened sticks in place of drawing utensils and a combination of soil and saliva in place of ink.

James Charles Castle artistic savant

Castle was born and lived in Garden Valley, Idaho. He never ventured outside of his comfort zone, thus he was largely, if not entirely, unaware of the art world beyond his home town. Nevertheless, his work was of world-class quality. When his work was discovered in the late 2000s, it took the global art community by storm. Major institutions and private collectors began competing for his art.

18)  Temple Grandin  (Precision)
Temple Grandin is one of the usual savants. Despite her condition, she is highly functional, so much so, that she is a doctor of animal science. Furthermore, she is a professor at Colorado State University.

Temple Grandin
By Steve Jurvetson via Wikimedia Commons

She has remarkable eye for detail, which she has utilized to assist in the development of animal handling equipment. She is also heavily involved in the livestock field of work. In 2010, Grandin was listed as one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People.

17)  Thristan Mendoza  (Musical Ability)
Thristan Mendoza, otherwise known as the “marimba prodigy,” was born in the Philippines. Since the age of two, he had displayed a great talent in regards to music, specifically in the area of percussion. His talents soon caught attention of the instrumental scene, and he has become a living legend in worldwide music.

Thristan Mendoza

16)  Jonathan Lerman  (Artistic Ability)
Jonathan Lerman has savant syndrome, but he also suffers from autisim. Despite having autism, he has an IQ of over 150. He was diagnosed with autism when he was two-years-old. Although Lerman had these conditions, he displayed remarkable drawing ability in his youth, producing charcoal illustrations at the age of ten.

Jonathan Lerman artistic autistic savant

Jonathan Lerman artistic autistic savant painting

By the time Lerman was 14-years-old, a number of his pieces had already sold for more than $1,000. Today, he is still a professional artist who continues to produce a variety of creations through which he articulates himself; thus overcoming the many communication barriers of his condition.

15)  James Henry Pullen (1835-1916)  (Carving Ability)
James Henry Pullen, otherwise known as the “Genius of Earlswood Asylum,” lived in England during the late 1800s. At the age of 15, he was committed to an asylum. Little was known about autism in those days, and many with the condition were considered “not normal.” Pullen was born with a number of disablements. He was considered mute and deaf until he reached the age of seven - when he suddenly pronounced the single word “mother.”

James Henry Pullen master carver carving savant asylum

Although Pullen never possessed the ability to read or write, he displayed a great ability when it came to carvings. He was especially adept at carving ships. One particularly impressive piece of Pullen’s work was a depiction of the British vessel, The SS Great Eastern. The model was meticulously hand-carved so wonderfully that it included representations of all the ship’s actual rivets (5,585 of them), as well as the ship’s pristine furniture. Given the misconceptions about his condition, Pullen lived 60 years in the Earlswood Asylum.

14)  Leslie Lemke  (Musical Ability)
Leslie Lemke was born with brain damage and glaucoma that left him blind. He was fifteen years old before he learned how to walk. Although it seemed like Lemke would struggle throughout his life, he was discovered to have a remarkable talent for playing the piano. This discovery came about when he was 16.

Leslie Lemke musical savant

After hearing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 on television, Lemke’s adoptive mother found that he could play the piece perfectly. His talents aren’t just limited to classical music. He is a prodigy and he can play various styles after hearing it performed just once. Furthermore, he composes his own original pieces of music.

13)  Gilles Trehin  (Geography, Artistic Ability)
Gilles Trehin is an autistic savant who has produced hundreds of drawings and maps of a fictional French city he named “Urville.” He has dedicated his time to detailing the dimensions of “Urville,” with a variety of drawings and maps of the city that exists only in his mind. The population of the city is 12 million. The city is the capital of a big island province. A number of books have been published about the city.

Gilles Trehin georgraphy genius artistic savant autistic

12)  Daniel Tammet  (Language Ability)
Daniel Tammet is a distinct savant in that he has both a phenomenal ability to learn languages and he has strong social skills – each of which is unusual in savant syndrome. He can speak 11 different languages, plus one that he created himself. He also has a remarkable talent in working with numbers.

Daniel Tammet linguistic savant languages genius
By jurvets via Wikimedia Commons

Tammet has described his abilities as “involving mental calculations and numbers in terms of a landscape of colors and shapes.” One strange downside to his abilities includes possessing an incredible ability to remember numerous aspects of an individual’s facial features. But he lacks the ability to recognize the face of a person he’s previously met.

11)  Ellen Boudreaux  (Memory, Echolocation Ability)
Ellen Boudreaux is a savant with a number of remarkable gifts and talents. First of all, she has a seemingly endless catalogue of songs that she knows by heart - music and lyrics.

At eight-years-old, Boudreaux’s mother had her listen to the clock time and date via telephone to help her get over her fears of using a telephone. From that day on, she had had the ability to determine time, despite never viewing a clock - ever.

Ellen Boudreaux

Perhaps most remarkable of all was Boudreaux’s ability to combat blindness. She can avoid colliding with things through the self-taught technique of echolocation. This is where she makes chirping noises and thereby determines where things are by how the sound bounces back at her.

10)  George Widener  (Numerology, Artistic Ability)
George Widener spent his early years in rural Appalachia. With little understood about autism, Widener lived in a variety of shelters before his condition was officially diagnosed.

George Widener

After receiving the appropriate treatment, it was discovered that Widener had a great talent for both numbers and art. When he began combining the two, he produced numerous, intricate works of art.

art of george widener autistic artist

9)  Tony DeBlois  (Musical Ability)
After a premature birth in 1974, it appeared that Tony DeBlois would struggle with both blindness and severe autism that was caused by his treatment immediately following his birth. However, when he was two-years-old he began playing the piano, displaying a natural talent for the instrument.

Tony DeBlois blind autistic musical genius music savant performer

From thereon, DeBlois’ musical talents have grown rapidly. He’s since developed the ability to play over 20 different instruments in various styles. He has also managed to memorize more than 8,000 pieces of music, which he pieced together completely from ear.

8)  Stephen Wiltshire  (Memory, Artistic Ability)
West Indian Londoner, Stephen Wiltshire, is a savant known for his remarkable talent for illustrating (in meticulous detail) expansive landscapes, even after viewing them for a brief period of time.

Stephen Wiltshire the human camera drawing autistic artistic savant

Some regard Wiltshire as the “human camera.” He gained worldwide attention in 2005 when he illustrated a precise, 10-foot-tall, panoramic of Tokyo He had only seen the view while on a brief helicopter flight over the city.

Stephen Wiltshire the human camera drawing autistic artistic savant

7)  Jedediah Buxton (1707-1772)  (Numerology Ability)
Jedediah Buxton was born in Derbyshire, England. Although he never received formal education in his youth, he displayed that he possessed a remarkable ability to work with numbers.

Jedediah Buxton math mathematical calculations calculator

Buxton was reportedly was able to measure the entire Lordship of Elmton just by wandering over the grounds in question. He also detailed the measurement in acres and counted the space in square inches.

He was such an expert in numeric counting that he was ahead of his time. He ultimately had to create names for some numbers, as no one else had ever had use for such large quantities of things.

6 – 5)  George and Charles Finn  (Memory Ability)
Savant syndrome is rare. What’s even rarer is when twins share the condition. This is the case for George and Charles Finn. They both possess the ability to count the calendar, which means that either of them can remember any date in history and tell you what day of the week it was. In this photograph his father had just asked him what day of the week December 7, 1941 was and just to be clear it was a Sunday. They are referred to as the "Calendar Calculator Twins". 

George and Charles Finn calender calculator twins

4 – 3)  Flo and Kay Lyman  (Memory Ability)
Katherine and Florence Lyman are savant twins that also possessed the same calendar counting ability as the Finn twins. What makes the Lyman twins even more remarkable is that they are female twins, given that female savants are so rare. Often these tremendously tactful twins are called the "Rain Man Twins".

Like the Finn’s, the Lyman twins can recall events of any day they’re asked. This is in regards to weather, what they ate and where they were. They also possess an encyclopedic memory for pop music of the 1960s and 1970s.

Flo and Kay Lyman

On a personal note, the twins have a long held obsession with Dick Clark, and can list in meticulous detail, everything he ever wore on the television series ‘$100,000 Pyramid.’

2)  Tom Wiggins (1849-1908)  (Musical Ability)
Tom Wiggins was born a slave in the 19th century. While he was initially destined for a life of hard labor, his owner soon discovered that he had an astounding talent for music. Despite the fact that he was blind, by the age of 13, Wiggins was able to perform the feat of playing two different songs at once on different hands!

"Blind Tom Wiggins" Tom Wiggins

The owner of Wiggins saw his money-making potential and began touring the autistic musician and he was soon a nationally recognized. Wiggins made a fortune and he was known by the nickname “Blind Tom.”

Over the years, Wiggins’ talent increased. He developed the ability to copy almost every sound he heard. He was also said to be able to precisely make the sound of any animal. Furthermore, Wiggins had the talent to play the piano beautifully with his back to the instrument. He would play two separate pianos, while singing a third song at the same time!

1)  Kim Peek (1951-2009)  (Memory, Numerology Ability)
Kim Peek is perhaps the biggest reason the average person has some understanding of savant syndrome. Peek was the primary inspiration for the character Dustin Hoffman portrayed in the film ‘Rain Man’ (1984).

As remarkable as his performance was, Hoffman’s depiction of Peek was somewhat altered for artistic effect. In the film, Peek is depicted as having autism, whereas in real life, he most likely had FG Syndrome. This is a very uncommon genetic disorder leading to physical anomalies.

Kim Peek rain man dustin hoffman spokesperson for savant syndrome
By Dmadeo via Wikimedia Commons

Whatever Peek truly suffered from, he was well known because of his remarkable memory. He possessed an ability to remember calendar dates and codes. The main cause of his condition is assumed to have involved damage to the corpus callosum (the absence of connective nerves to the hemispheres of his brain). Experts have suggested that it was because of this damage that Peek’s brain compensated by creating an astounding memory.

Kim Peek rain man dustin hoffman spokesperson for savant syndrome
By Dmadeo via Wikimedia Commons

After the release of ‘Rain Man,’ Peek’s life changed quite dramatically. Beyond raising awareness of his condition, he managed to improve his social skills after becoming a spokesperson for savant syndrome.

Despite the numerous cases over the years, savant syndrome is still surrounded by questions, many of which are unlikely to ever be thoroughly explained. It is the contradictory nature of the condition that generally gives and takes so much all at once. One thing that is clear with all the cases that have made history is that savant syndrome is a significant condition for a number of reasons. It will always be regarded with ambivalence from those who have the condition and ones who see it from the outside. Perhaps the one certainty with savant syndrome is that those with it will continue to achieve great goals and inspire each one of us with their incredible determination, talents and accomplishments.





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