Skip to main content

Is Talent in Autism Spectrum Disorders Associated with a Specific Cognitive and Behavioural Phenotype?

Abstract

Parents of 125 children, adolescents and young adults with autism spectrum disorders completed a newly developed questionnaire aimed at identifying cognitive and behavioural characteristics associated with savant skills in this group. Factors distinguishing skilled individuals were then further investigated in case studies of three individuals with exceptional skills for music, art and mathematics. The findings from the case studies largely confirmed the results from the questionnaire study in showing that special skills are associated with superior working memory and highly focused attention that is not associated with increased obsessesionality. Although intellectual impairment and a local bias have been widely associated with special skills in the savant literature, neither the screening nor case studies provided strong evidence for such associations.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2

References

  1. Baron-Cohen, S. (2006). The hyper-systemizing, assortative mating theory of autism. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry, 30, 865–872.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Baron-Cohen, S. (2008). Autism, hypersystemizing, and truth. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 61, 64–75.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Baron-Cohen, S., Ashwin, E., Ashwin, C., Tavassoli, T., & Chakrabarti, C. (2009). Talent in autism: Hyper-systemizing, hyper-attention to detail and sensory hypersensitivity. Philosophical Transactions of Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 364, 1377–1383.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Benjamini, Y., Drai, D., Elmer, G., Kafkafi, N., & Golani, I. (2001). Controlling the false discovery rate in behavior genetics research. Behavioural Brain Research, 125, 279–284.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Bennetto, L., Kuschner, E. S., & Hyman, S. L. (2007). Olfaction and taste processing in autism. Biological Psychiatry, 62, 1015–1021.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Bölte, S., & Pouka, F. (2004). Comparing the intelligence profiles of savant and nonsavant individuals with autistic disorder. Intelligence, 32, 121–131.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Booth, R., & Happé, F. (2010). “Hunting with a knife and… fork”: Examining central coherence in autism, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and typical development with a linguistic task. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 107(4), 377–393.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Charman, T., Pickles, A., Simonoff, E., Chandler, S., Loucas, T., & Baird, G. (2010). IQ in children with autism spectrum disorders: Data from the Special Needs and Autism Project (SNAP). Psychological Medicine, 41, 619–627.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Cohen, M. J. (1997). The children’s memory scales. San Antonio, TX: The Psychological Corporation.

    Google Scholar 

  10. DeLoache, J. S., Simcock, G., & Macari, S. (2007). Planes, trains, automobiles—And tea sets: Extremely intense interests in very young children. Developmental Psychology, 43(6), 1579–1586.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Dunn, W. (1999). The sensory profile manual. San Antonio, TX: The Psychological Corporation.

    Google Scholar 

  12. Frith, U. (1989). Autism: Explaining the enigma. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

    Google Scholar 

  13. Happé, F. (1999). Autism: Cognitive deficit or cognitive style? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 3, 216–222.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Happé, F., & Frith, U. (2006). The weak coherence account: Detail-focused cognitive style in autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 36, 5–25.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Heaton, P. (2003). Pitch memory, labelling and disembedding in autism. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 44(4), 543–551.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Heaton, P., Hermelin, B., & Pring, L. (1998). Autism and pitch processing: A precursor for savant musical ability? Music Perception, 15(3), 291–305.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Heaton, P., & Wallace, G. L. (2004). Annotation: The savant syndrome. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 45(5), 899–911.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Heavey, L., Pring, L., & Hermelin, B. (1999). A date to remember: The nature of memory in savant calendrical calculators. Psychological Medicine, 29, 145–160.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Hermelin, B., & O’Connor, N. (1990). Art and accuracy: The drawing ability of idiot-savants. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 31(2), 217–228.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Horwitz, W., Deming, W., & Winter, R. (1969). A further account of the idiots savants, experts with the calendar. American Journal of Psychiatry, 126, 1075–1079.

    Google Scholar 

  21. Howlin, P., Goode, S., Hutton, J., & Rutter, M. (2009). Savant skills in autism: Psychometric approaches and parental reports. Philosophical Transactions of Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 364, 1359–1367.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Kanner, L. (1943). Autistic disturbances of affective contact. Nervous Child, 2, 217–250.

    Google Scholar 

  23. Kline, P. (1986). A handbook of test construction: Introduction to psychometric design. London: Methuen.

    Google Scholar 

  24. Lord, C., Rutter, M., DiLavore, P. C., & Risi, S. (1999). Autism diagnostic observation schedule (ADOS).. Los Angeles, CA: Western Psychological Services.

    Google Scholar 

  25. Miller, L. K. (1989). Musical savants: Exceptional skill in the mentally retarded. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum and Associates.

    Google Scholar 

  26. Miller, L. K. (1998). Defining the savant syndrome. Journal of Developmental and Physical Disabilities, 10(1), 73–85.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Miller, L. K. (1999). The savant syndrome: Intellectual impairment and exceptional skill. Psychological Bulletin, 125, 31–46.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Mottron, L., & Belleville, S. (1993). A study of perceptual analysis in a high-level autistic subject with exceptional graphic abilities. Brain and Cognition, 23, 279–309.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Mottron, L., Belleville, I., & Me′nard, E. (2000a). Local and global processing of music in high-functioning persons with autism: Beyond cerebral coherence? Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 41, 1057–1065.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Mottron, L., & Burack, J. A. (2001). Enhanced perceptual functioning in the development of autism. In J. A. Burack, T. Charman, N. Yirmiya, & P. R. Zelazo (Eds.), The development of autism (pp. 131–136). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

    Google Scholar 

  31. Mottron, L., Dawson, M., & Soulières, I. (2009). Enhanced perception in savant syndrome: Patterns, structure and creativity. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 364, 1385–1391.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Mottron, L., Dawson, M., Soulières, I., Hubert, B., & Burack, J. A. (2006). Enhanced perceptual functioning in autism: An update, and eight principles of autistic perception. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 36, 27–43.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Mottron, L., Peretz, I., & Me′nard, E. (2000b). Local and global processing of music in high-functioning persons with autism: Beyond central coherence? Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 41(8), 1057–1065.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Nurmi, E. L., Dowd, M., Tadevosyan-Leyfer, O., Haines, J. L., Folstein, S. E., & Sutcliffe, J. S. (2003). Exploratory sub-setting of autism families based on savant skills improves evidence of genetic linkage to 15q11-q13. Journal of American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 42, 856–863.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. O’Connor, N., & Hermelin, B. (1987). Visual memory and motor programmes: Their use by idiot-savant artists and controls. British Journal of Psychology, 78, 307–323.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  36. O’Connor, N., & Hermelin, B. (1991). Talents and preoccupations in idiots-savants. Psychological Medicine, 21, 959–964.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Poirier, M., Martin, J. S., Gaigg, S. B., & Bowler, D. M. (2011). Short-term memory in autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 120(1), 247–252.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  38. Pring, L., Hermelin, B., & Heavey, L. (1995). Savants, segments, art and autism. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 36, 1065–1076.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Pring, L., Woolf, K., & Tadic, V. (2008). Melody and pitch processing in five musical savants with congenital blindness. Perception, 37(2), 290–307.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Profita, J., & Bidder, T. G. (1988). Perfect pitch. American Journal of Medical Genetics, 29, 763–771.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  41. Rimland, B. (1978). Savant capabilities of autistic children and their cognitive implications. In G. Serban (Ed.), Cognitive defects in the development of mental illness (pp. 43–65). New York: Plenum.

    Google Scholar 

  42. Rimland, B., & Fein, D. (1988). Special talents of autistic savants. In L. Obler & D. Fein (Eds.), The exceptional brain: Neuropsychology of talent and superior abilities (pp. 341–363). New York: Guilford Press.

    Google Scholar 

  43. Rimland, B., & Hill, A. (1984). Idiots savants. In J. Wortes (Ed.), Mental retardation and developmental disabilities (vol. 13, pp. 155–169). New York: Plenum Press.

  44. Ropar, D., & Mitchell, P. (2001). Susceptibility to illusions and performance on visuospatial tasks in individuals with autism. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 42, 539–549.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  45. Rumsey, J., Mannheim, G., Aquino, T., Gordon, C., & Hibbs, E. (1992). Neuropsychological characteristics of calendar calculating savants with pervasive developmental disorders. Clinical Neuropsychologist, 6, 320.

    Google Scholar 

  46. Rutter, M., Bailey, A., & Lord, C. (2003). Social Communication Questionnaire. Los Angeles, CA: Western Psychological Services.

    Google Scholar 

  47. Sacks, O. (1995). An anthropologist on mars. London: Picador.

    Google Scholar 

  48. Selfe, L. (1977). Nadia: A case of extraordinary drawing ability in an autistic child. London: Academic Press.

    Google Scholar 

  49. Shah, A., & Frith, U. (1983). Why do autistic individuals show superior performance on the block design task? Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 34, 1351–1364.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  50. Sloboda, J., Hermelin, B., & O’Connor, N. (1985). An exceptional musical memory. Music Perception, 3, 155–170.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  51. Spitz, H., & LaFontaine, L. (1973). The digit span of idiots savants. American Journal of Mental Deficiency, 77, 757–759.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  52. Suzuki, Y., Critchley, H. D., Rowe, A., Howlin, P., & Murphy, D. G. (2003). Impaired olfactory identification in Asperger’s syndrome. Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience, 15, 105–107.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  53. Tacheuchi, A. H., & Hulse, S. H. (1993). Absolute pitch. Psychological Bulletin, 113(2), 345–361.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  54. Treffert, D. A. (1989). Extraordinary people: Understanding ‘idiot savants’. New York: Harper & Row.

    Google Scholar 

  55. Treffert, D. A. (2009). The savant syndrome: An extraordinary condition. A synopsis: past, present, future. Philosophical Transactions of Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 364, 1351–1357.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  56. Wechsler, D. (2004). The Wechsler intelligence scale for children (4th ed.). London: Pearson Assessment.

    Google Scholar 

  57. Wechsler, D. (2005). The Wechsler individual achievement test (2nd ed.). London: Pearson Assessment.

    Google Scholar 

  58. Williams, E., Thomas, K., Sidebotham, H., & Emond, A. (2008). Prevalence and characteristics of autistic spectrum disorders in the ALSPAC cohort. Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology, 50(9), 672–677.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  59. Witkin, H. A., Oltman, P., Raskin, E., & Karp, S. (1971). A manual for the embedded figures tests. Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists.

    Google Scholar 

  60. Young, R. L., & Nettelbeck, T. (1995). The abilities of a musical savant and his family. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 25, 231–248.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Emily Bennett.

Appendix: Special Skills in Autism Questionnaire

Appendix: Special Skills in Autism Questionnaire

 

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Bennett, E., Heaton, P. Is Talent in Autism Spectrum Disorders Associated with a Specific Cognitive and Behavioural Phenotype?. J Autism Dev Disord 42, 2739–2753 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-012-1533-9

Download citation

Keywords

  • Autism spectrum disorders (ASD)
  • Special skills
  • Savants
  • Weak central coherence
  • Memory
  • Intelligence