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.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Baron-Cohen, S. (2006). The hyper-systemizing, assortative mating theory of autism. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry, 30, 865–872.
Baron-Cohen, S. (2008). Autism, hypersystemizing, and truth. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 61, 64–75.
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.
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.
Bennetto, L., Kuschner, E. S., & Hyman, S. L. (2007). Olfaction and taste processing in autism. Biological Psychiatry, 62, 1015–1021.
Bölte, S., & Pouka, F. (2004). Comparing the intelligence profiles of savant and nonsavant individuals with autistic disorder. Intelligence, 32, 121–131.
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.
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.
Cohen, M. J. (1997). The children’s memory scales. San Antonio, TX: The Psychological Corporation.
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.
Dunn, W. (1999). The sensory profile manual. San Antonio, TX: The Psychological Corporation.
Frith, U. (1989). Autism: Explaining the enigma. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Happé, F. (1999). Autism: Cognitive deficit or cognitive style? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 3, 216–222.
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.
Heaton, P. (2003). Pitch memory, labelling and disembedding in autism. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 44(4), 543–551.
Heaton, P., Hermelin, B., & Pring, L. (1998). Autism and pitch processing: A precursor for savant musical ability? Music Perception, 15(3), 291–305.
Heaton, P., & Wallace, G. L. (2004). Annotation: The savant syndrome. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 45(5), 899–911.
Heavey, L., Pring, L., & Hermelin, B. (1999). A date to remember: The nature of memory in savant calendrical calculators. Psychological Medicine, 29, 145–160.
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.
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.
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.
Kanner, L. (1943). Autistic disturbances of affective contact. Nervous Child, 2, 217–250.
Kline, P. (1986). A handbook of test construction: Introduction to psychometric design. London: Methuen.
Lord, C., Rutter, M., DiLavore, P. C., & Risi, S. (1999). Autism diagnostic observation schedule (ADOS).. Los Angeles, CA: Western Psychological Services.
Miller, L. K. (1989). Musical savants: Exceptional skill in the mentally retarded. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum and Associates.
Miller, L. K. (1998). Defining the savant syndrome. Journal of Developmental and Physical Disabilities, 10(1), 73–85.
Miller, L. K. (1999). The savant syndrome: Intellectual impairment and exceptional skill. Psychological Bulletin, 125, 31–46.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
O’Connor, N., & Hermelin, B. (1991). Talents and preoccupations in idiots-savants. Psychological Medicine, 21, 959–964.
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.
Pring, L., Hermelin, B., & Heavey, L. (1995). Savants, segments, art and autism. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 36, 1065–1076.
Pring, L., Woolf, K., & Tadic, V. (2008). Melody and pitch processing in five musical savants with congenital blindness. Perception, 37(2), 290–307.
Profita, J., & Bidder, T. G. (1988). Perfect pitch. American Journal of Medical Genetics, 29, 763–771.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Rutter, M., Bailey, A., & Lord, C. (2003). Social Communication Questionnaire. Los Angeles, CA: Western Psychological Services.
Sacks, O. (1995). An anthropologist on mars. London: Picador.
Selfe, L. (1977). Nadia: A case of extraordinary drawing ability in an autistic child. London: Academic Press.
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.
Sloboda, J., Hermelin, B., & O’Connor, N. (1985). An exceptional musical memory. Music Perception, 3, 155–170.
Spitz, H., & LaFontaine, L. (1973). The digit span of idiots savants. American Journal of Mental Deficiency, 77, 757–759.
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.
Tacheuchi, A. H., & Hulse, S. H. (1993). Absolute pitch. Psychological Bulletin, 113(2), 345–361.
Treffert, D. A. (1989). Extraordinary people: Understanding ‘idiot savants’. New York: Harper & Row.
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.
Wechsler, D. (2004). The Wechsler intelligence scale for children (4th ed.). London: Pearson Assessment.
Wechsler, D. (2005). The Wechsler individual achievement test (2nd ed.). London: Pearson Assessment.
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.
Witkin, H. A., Oltman, P., Raskin, E., & Karp, S. (1971). A manual for the embedded figures tests. Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists.
Young, R. L., & Nettelbeck, T. (1995). The abilities of a musical savant and his family. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 25, 231–248.
Appendix: Special Skills in Autism Questionnaire
Appendix: Special Skills in Autism Questionnaire
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
- Autism spectrum disorders (ASD)
- Special skills
- Weak central coherence