Conversations on Creativity with Darold Treffert, Part I: De

Darold Treffert on defining autism, savantism, and genius

Posted Apr 11, 2011

Darold Treffert, M.D. is considered one of the foremost experts on savantism in the world. Dr. Treffert has published two books on savant syndrome: "Extraordinary People: Understanding Savant Syndrome" in 2006 and "Islands of Genius: The Bountiful Mind of the Autistic, Acquired and Sudden Savant" in 2010. He has been a contributor to numerous articles in professional journals and has participated in many broadcast and documentary television programs around the world. In his efforts to raise public understanding about autism and savant syndrome he has regularly appeared on programs such as 60 Minutes, Oprah, Today, CBS Evening News and many others. Dr. Treffert was a technical consultant to the award-winning movie Rain Man that made "autistic savant" household terms and he maintains a very popular website at hosted by the Wisconsin Medical Society.

Dr. Treffert was gracious enough to have a wide-ranging conversation with me. Over the course of a few days, we had a delightful time chatting about autism, savantism, genius, nature, nurture, intelligence, creativity, lessons he has learned, recent advances, and the future. This was one of the most satisfying and elucidating conversations I have ever had. I learned many things and it is my pleasure to share our in depth conversation with all of you. In my view, this interview demonstrates quite clearly the need for more compassion and research on all different kinds of minds and ways of achieving greatness.

In this first part, we discussed the definition of autism, savantism, and genius.

SCOTT: The title of your book is "Islands of Genius". What did you mean by that?

DAROLD: When I met my first savant in 1962, I was impressed by the abilities in these youngsters who had severe disabilities. They appeared to me to be islands of genius in the sea of disability. So I've maintained that word picture since that time, of these islands of genius that are so striking and so jarring when you see them, especially in people who have severe disability.

SCOTT: What is the definition of a savant?

DAROLD: Savant syndrome is a rare but remarkable condition in which people with developmental disabilities, including autism or other central nervous system disorders, have some remarkable islands of genius that stand in stark contrast to their overall handicap.

SCOTT: What is the difference between a prodigy, a genius, and a savant?

DAROLD: A savant, by definition, is somebody who has a disability and, along with that disability, has some remarkable ability. Prodigies and geniuses have the remarkable abilities that the savant shows, but they do not have a disability. So, by definition, a savant includes someone with a disability, and a prodigy or genius are people who have these remarkable skills but they do not have a disability.

SCOTT: You refer to these abilities as islands of "genius", so you do use the word genius in that context.

DAROLD: Mm-hum.

SCOTT: We throw around the word genius a lot in popular writing. Do you think we need a tighter definition of genius? Would you necessarily equate savant ability with genius, or just the seeds of genius?

DAROLD: I think there are three levels of savant syndrome. One level are what I call splinter skills. And these are youngsters, or adults, who memorize sports trivia or birthdays or may even do some calendar-calculating. Their skill is conspicuous, but it doesn't rise to what I would call a genius level.

Then there's a second level of savants that I call talented savants. These are people whose skills are also conspicuous, but conspicuous against not only people with disabilities but even within their non-disabled peer group. Generally, they are more highly honed into one particular skill, such as music or art, for example.

And then there's a third level, which I call prodigious savants. These are people whose skills are so spectacular that, if they were not disabled, they would be at a genius level. So what you're pointing out is important, that not every savant who has a splinter skill is functioning at what I would call a genius level.

And in that sense, I think maybe that you're right, that it may be a little bit too fluid a description to use that term "genius" with respect to all savants. But the prodigious savants are a rather small group; so you're quite right in pointing out that not everyone who has a savant skill I would equate with a genius.

SCOTT: Doesn't everyone in this world have at least some sort of disability? Clearly not everyone is proficient in everything. Do people really exist who have extraordinary special abilities and no disabilities? It seems as though many prodigies and geniuses would also fall within your definition of savant. So, how do you conceptualize or define the term "disability"?

DAROLD: Well, I guess I use a fairly narrow term for disability. I would say that these are conditions that would appear in DSM-IV or the DSM-V, which is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, an official classification of mental disorders that would include disabilities such as mental retardation or autism.

So when I talk about disability, I'm talking about something which would meet criteria for DSM-IV, and would be generally considered to be a disability or disorder.

Now, I think one of the problems is that, just like we've lost the specificity of the term genius-- we do throw that label around too liberally-- there's sort of a move now to say, well, wasn't Einstein a savant, and wasn't Rembrandt, and even Mozart and Picasso, anyone who's ever had any spectacular skill, we're wondering: maybe they were really savants? Well, no. There is such a thing as genius, and these are people who do not have a formal disability, DSM-IV-type. They may have liberal eccentricities or quirks in their personality, but they don't rise to the level of a disability.

To some extent, we all have quirks or idiosyncrasies, and some geniuses, because of how bright they are and how focused they are, may have liberal eccentricities, but they're not at a disabling level. So when I talk about savants and I talk about disability, I'm using a rather formal definition of disability that would rise to the level of a disorder in our Diagnostic and Statistical Manual or other classifications of disorders.

SCOTT: I appreciate that clarification. However, I think a lot of things that we call "quirks", or maybe even some things we call "disabilities", can turn out to be some of the determinants of high levels of creativity that we never could plan ahead of time. I'm a big advocate of not putting objective labels on things, but I see your point completely. I mean, we do have DSM IV, or DSM V guidelines.

DAROLD: Yeah. And it's important that we not lose sight of the fact that genius and prodigies exist. And the kind of people that come to my attention, because of their spectacular skill, a number of them are prodigies or geniuses and they simply have a spectacular skill. And a couple of the adolescents that I know now, who were prodigies and now are in adolescence, they're just really normal, neurotypical kids, and if they do have any particular hang-ups, they don't rise to the level of a formal diagnosis, and nor are they in any sense disabling.

SCOTT: You just used the word "neurotypical". Could you define what the word neurotypical means?

DAROLD: Well, we used to be able to use the word normal, and I think everybody sort of acknowledges that normal means within the limits of a certain standard deviation. To some extent we all may be a little forgetful, but that doesn't mean that we have Alzheimer's, or we may all have some tunes running through our head and some obsessiveness, or be an anal character, but that's within the range of normal.

We can't use the word normal anymore because it's sort of come to be politically incorrect, because normal implies a classification, and categorizations, and exclusions, and so forth. So neurotypical is the word that we now have to use for what I call normal behavior. Neurotypical behaviors are those kinds of behaviors within the range of usual human conduct that do not rise to the level of a disorder.

SCOTT: What do you think of the proposed DSM-V changes in regards to autism?

DAROLD: Well, there's concern that Asperger's will disappear and it'll be inculcated into autism. I'm concerned that the DSM in general tends to lose its specificity for conditions, and they become more spectrum disorders, or disease-like disorders. We have medicalized a lot of things that I think are not really medical conditions.

For example, there is such a thing as adolescent shyness-- adolescents who are shy-- and they don't all have social avoidance disorder. We continually are diluting what are conditions that we need to maintain the specificity along the lines in regards to autism. As we dilute it more, that may be useful for public education and early intervention, but from a research point of view, we're losing the specificity that ought to remain.

SCOTT: I agree, because you have personality disorders on the other end of the spectrum like schizotypy, which is a milder form of schizophrenia.

DAROLD: Right.

SCOTT: Which might be analogous in the way that Asperger's is a milder form of autism, but both schizotypy, and Asperger's, as you know, are individual difference variables. There's a little bit of those traits in everyone.


SCOTT: So I really like your point.

DAROLD: Yeah. We have to be careful that we don't keep multiplying disorders and diluting them. I think there is a difference. People talk about Asperger's as high-functioning autism, which I think it is. But it does have some of its own characteristics, like the preservation of language, particularly, which may be right brain dysfunction instead of left brain dysfunction, and we lose something in that, as things lose their specificity, and we keep diluting things. I'm not sure that's helpful.

SCOTT: You refer to savantism as a "syndrome" in your book. You say "savant syndrome". Do you think this is an appropriate label?


SCOTT: Okay.

DAROLD: Savant syndrome is not a disorder in the same way as autism is a disorder or dementia is a disorder. Savant syndrome are some conditions that are superimposed and grafted on to some underlying disability. So savant syndrome is not a disease or disorder in and of itself. It is a collection of characteristics, or symptoms, or behaviors that have grafted on to the underlying disability.

The term syndrome generally appears to be a constellation, or collection, of similar traits or behaviors within an individual. So, savants do have sort of a constellation of symptoms, which is characterized by some spectacular skill, or skills, coupled with this massive memory which is grafted on to some underlying disability. So those three conditions quantify, in my mind, the term syndrome.

Actually, some years ago I wrote a paper called "Epidemiology of Infantile Autism" in the Archives of General Psychiatry, a review of what then was called "idiot savant". I suggested in that paper this it was time to put "idiot savant" to rest and suggested the term savant syndrome and that caught on. I think "savant syndrome" is an appropriate term in the sense that it represents this constellation of symptoms grafted on to some underlying disability.


Other parts of the series:

  Part II, Dispelling Myths about Autism

  Part III, Inside the Savant Mind

  Part IV, The Origins of Extraordinary Savant Skills

  Part V, The Acquired and Sudden Savant

  Part VI, What Savants Reveal about Greatness

  Part VII, The Inner Savant in All of Us

  Part VIII, Lessons Learned and Recent Advances


© 2011 by Scott Barry Kaufman

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Dr. Treffert completed both medical school and a psychiatric residency at the University of Wisconsin where he is presently a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry. Following his training he developed the Child-Adolescent Unit at Winnebago Mental Health Institute. It was there he met his first autistic savant in 1962. He then was Superintendent of WMHI until 1979 when he became Director of Community Mental Health services in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin where he now lives. Dr. Treffert has received honorary awards from the Wisconsin Mental Health Association, the Office of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. He has been listed in The Best Doctors in America, by peer selection, beginning in 1979. He resides in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin and is on the staff of St. Agnes Hospital in that community. His web site can be accessed at

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