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Extraordinary People.

Extraordinary People

In the movie Rainman, we are astounded by Dustin Hoffman's virtuoso performance as Raymond, an autistic man of great limitations -- but also extraordinary talents. Although Raymond cannot subract fifty cents from a dollar, he can compute square roots to the seventh decimal in his head, can beat the house by counting cards at a casino, and quite literally commits to memory everything he experiences, sees, or reads (even the phone book). All the more astonishing is that the fictional Raymond is a very good mirror of reality -- for he is modelled on a real-life individual.

According to psychiatrist Dr. Darold A. Treffert, consultant to Rainman, Raymond is a lifelike portrayal of Savant Syndrome: a rare condition in which persons with serious mental handicaps have spectacular islands of ability that stand in startling contrast to the handicaps. In Extraordinary People: Understanding the Idiot Savant (Harper and Row, $17.95) Treffert explains the possible causes behind this strange contradiction between deficiency and superiority.

From the savant we can "learn something about memory, intelligence, and creativity that applies not only to them, but to us as well," says Treffert, and learn how to "tap some of that buried capacity that I am convinced lies in each of us." By acquainting us with a few of the dozen or so savants living today and their families, Treffert passes on the lesson they provide about unconditional love and acceptance, and the miracles they can work.

Extraordinary People is the result of Dr. Treffert's 25 years' experience observing savants and studying everything that has been written about them over the past 100 years. From Blind Tom, a retarded slave boy who toured the world with his master to play the piano before presidents and kings at the time of the Civil War, to that of today's Leslie Lemke, also blind, retarded, and a genius on the piano, Treffert brings together for the first time tales of savants past and present and recounts our effort to explain their extraordinary talents.

The Profile of the Savant

Savant Syndrome is a rare condition that occurs in individuals with substantial mental defects and is most commonly linked to autism, which is itself very rare. Only 100 have been reported world wide in the last century; a dozen or so are known to live today.

The superior talents savants possess and how they express them follow a strict pattern. The talents occur almost exlusively in the areas of music (especially piano), art, lightning, calculating, and remarkable memory (such as the ability to memorize everything that is read).

It is true that in the expression of these talents, the savant's more general limitations are evident: an inflexible need for routine or sameness; failure to think abstractly or conceptually; limited originality; little expression of emotion.

Yet as Treffert acquaints us with these extraordinary people, the miracle touches us: Leslie Lemke, blind, palsied, retarded, but a musical genius who can play back perfectly on the piano any piece he has heard once; Alonzo Clemmons, brain damaged by a terrible fall at age 3, but a professional sculptor whose work is exhibited and sells from the hundreds to the thousands of dollars; and George Finn, autistic, who can tell you in seconds on what day of the week your birthday will fall in the year 3000.

How Do They Do It?

When asked to explain his remarkable skill, George Finn says: "It's in my head and I can do it ... It's fantastic I can do that." And it is. But now Extraordinary People provides clues to understanding that miracle. Treffert shows how several different factors are at work. In some cases, certain talents like musical and mathematical abilities can be inherited separately from general intelligence. In others, the brain compensates for other limitations. There is the savant's own drive to win praise and feelings of worth. There are cases in which an attention defect causes an individual to concentrate intensely on skills within a very narrow band. However, the most important factors are biological and neurological. The same damage to the left side of the brain that can cause autism and retardation, Treffert has found, actually can allow brain circuitry to migrate to the right side of the brain, enhancing that side. This explains the special talents of the savant, usually confined to a few areas -- music, memory, art, lightning calculating -- all of which are right-brain talents.
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Publication:Nutrition Health Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1989
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