Conversations on Creativity with Darold Treffert, Part VI: W

Darold Treffert, M.D. on the nature and nurture of intelligence and creativity

Posted Apr 21, 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 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 sixth part, we discussed what savants reveal about the nature and nurture of intelligence, creativity, and greatness.

SCOTT: What can savants teach us about human intelligence and creativity?

DAROLD: They teach us that intelligence is multiple rather than single, that we probably make a mistake relying too heavily on the general intelligence (g)factor as an assessment of overall possibilities for people and that you can have these multiple intelligences rather than just the g factor.

Savants have shown me that they can be creative and that is not just dependent on their g score or their general intelligence, but one can have some limited general intelligence and yet still be creative within their field of their multiple intelligences.

SCOTT: I think that's beautiful, and I actually think that's a very important lesson that we can learn from savants and it's really important that we get that message out there.

However, some intelligence researchers would retort that savant skills are not intelligences, but they're abilities. The would argue that they are isolated talents while intelligence is more a domain general sort of ability that recruits lots of different brain regions. Actually, recent research does show a connection between the general factor of intelligence, the so-called g factor, and wide distribution of brain activations, including the parietal and frontal areas of the brain, that draw on many circuits.

DAROLD: Right. Well, as we talked about earlier, my definition of savant abilities includes more than talent. It includes domains. Leslie's IQ measured at 58, but within the musical area, if one had something to measure that comparably, not just musical talent, but musical knowledge and domains, he would be off the charts in that area of intelligence. So with savant abilities, I include more than just the talent component to that.

How independent are savant abilities from IQ?

DAROLD: They seem to be quite independent of IQ. In fact, I think one of the myths about savant syndrome is that if you have a normal, or above-normal IQ, that disqualifies you as being a savant. The fact is that some savants have very high IQs within their area of expertise and sometimes even in general intelligence. But I think, in my experience at least, about 70% of savants have IQs below 70.

Now, that figure may change as I look at that more closely and have a larger sample, but a high IQ is not a disqualification for a savant. Or to say it the other way, one doesn't have to have an IQ below 70 in order to be called a savant.
I think the reason for that is that, as far as I'm concerned, we are a series of what I call multiple intelligences as opposed to a single intelligence. Of course, that's not unique to me. I mean, Howard Gardner and others have written about that, but I've come to the conclusion that there's a musical intelligence, and there is an artistic intelligence, if you like, or math intelligence, and a sea of different intelligences.

The problem with IQ testing is that it depends so heavily on verbal skills and many of the savants are deficient, specifically in verbal skills, so they may score very low on that portion of the test. I mean, typically in a savant, the performance skills are going to be higher than the verbal skills, but I think in some instances that is even more discrepant, because the savants simply are not going to do well on the verbal scales, so, there's certainly not any disqualification based on IQ.
On the other hand, I suppose if I looked at the sample of savants that we have, there may be some general correlations that those with higher IQs tend to have, perhaps more quantity of abilities.

SCOTT: So a low IQ isn't a requisite for savant syndrome-- you can still have a high IQ and still be labeled a savant, right?

DAROLD: Absolutely, right. In fact, for some savants, I've seen the formal IQ testing as high as 140. Now, I've seen some at 114, and these are people who are clearly savants based on the definition and description of savants, but they may have a very high IQ, Kim Peek being one, for example. And, of course, he has high verbal skills, so in some areas he's off the chart. Temple Grandin-- I don't know what her IQ is, I'd have to look, but I think hers might be in the 140s. But I'm not sure. It's recorded somewhere. So they certainly do exist.

SCOTT: Yeah. So it's a good thing we got rid of the label "idiot savant" then.

DAROLD: Absolutely. That was actually a misnomer in the very beginning because the term at that time, "idiot", referred to an IQ below 25, and savants generally have IQs between 50 and 70, so the idiot classification was a misnomer from the beginning.

SCOTT: I know the answer is going to be yes, but I'll ask it point blank, can savants be creative?

DAROLD: Yes, they can be. In my first book "Extraordinary People: Understaning Savant Syndrome", I said that savants were not very creative, and I sort of made that as a statement that they're not very creative, but I was wrong. And I think I was wrong based on the fact that I hadn't observed them over a long enough period of time. In the period of time that I saw them, and saw the kinds of cases that were reported, there was not a great deal of creativity, but now I see them going through these three stages of replication, improvisation, and creation and have seen enough of them and have seen that sequence to realize that yes, they can be creative.

SCOTT: What do you think savants teach us about the role of nature and nurture in sculpting high abilities in all of us, because we are talking about a special population, and some devil's advocates might say that we shouldn't generalize from extreme cases.

DAROLD: Mm hum. Well, what I think the savants teach us, and what I think generalizes beyond the savants, is that both nature and nurture are involved. It's not either/or with savants, nor is it with non savants. I think that we've talked about innate talent, and then the practice effect, and learning, and reinforcement, all those things, so it's not either/or.

The second thing that I think savants teach us, which can be generalized, is that such a thing as innate talent does exist. It's not just confined to savants but they show it. I think the savant condition shows us that more conclusively, or more dramatically, than when people do not have some disability associated with it, and I think it makes a very firm argument for any talent not just in savants but in everybody.

The other thing that we learn is that, aside from nature/nurture, our surroundings and the people around us have a lot to do with it, to the extent to which we are able to be successful in some of these measures. So there's that aspect to it too, and I think that, at least from my standpoint, that generalizes beyond the savant.

SCOTT: You give multiple cases of prodigious savants who seem to know things that they never learned. For instance, you give the case of Leslie Lemke who never had a music lesson in his life, and cannot read music because he is blind, but knows the rules of music. In the words of an experienced music professor, Lemke just "seemed to know things that are beyond his own existence." This seems to counter the whole deliberate practice is always essential argument right? I mean, there is this big shift in popular discussions of innate talent and practice, emphasizing the important role of deliberate practice.

DAROLD: Right.

SCOTT: But this idea kind of blows it out of the water, doesn't it?

DAROLD: It does. It blows it out of the water because the skill that the savants have whether it's musical, or artistic, or even mathematical, often literally explodes on the scene. So it has a suddenness about it, and they know things they never learned. They know the rules of music, or the rules of math, or the rules of art. They know those innately, and these are people who have not been exposed to whatever their craft is.

And in the case of Alonzo's sculpting, for example, he had never learned how to sculpt. He just knew innately how to sculpt. He knew innately how to alter his sculptures eventually to put them in motion which some people spend semesters at a conservatory trying to learn.

And Leslie is perhaps one of the best examples. Maybe it's because he's closest to me, geographically, and I spend the most time with him, but Leslie clearly knows the rules of music and yet he has never had a music lesson in his life. He is blind, so he cannot read music, and yet I know music professors have said, you know, that lad knows what I spent my lifetime trying to learn about music. To me that knowing things I never learned is an element of many, many savants.

It gets into the area of what I call genetic memory that some people will actually say that Leslie remembers things he never learned as opposed to saying that he knows things he never learned, the implication being that his musical information is stored and came factory installed when he was born. That he was remembering that as opposed to knowing that. I think both of those are true. You can use the term remember.

So it's led me to, particularly the prodigious savants, and particularly the calendar calculators, to think that they do know things they never learned and that the only explanation for that is what I call genetic memory, which means the genetic transmission of knowledge along with talent.

If you'd see a musical performer, those people simply have musical talent which is sort of an inborn gift and which we all have some differential endowment. Some of us are more mathematical than others, some of us are more musical than others, others are more athletic than others, some of us are more artistic than others, and we sort of accepted that along the way that there's maybe a genetic endowment of talent or sort of innate ability which often runs in families.

But I go a step further and say it's not just the talent which is transmitted, it is the  actual rules of music, the knowledge of music, math, or art that are transmitted.So we are not just transmitting the color of my eyes, and the color of my hair, and how tall I'm going to be, and maybe even whether I'm mathematically inclined or not. I'm saying that along with that comes actual intelligence or knowledge or whatever word you want to use for what I call the rules of music or math.

And Leslie, to me, is the best example because he has never had any musical training at all. Now, Derek Paravicini, for example, who's a world-renowned musician in London, with the same triad, had Adam Ockelford as a teacher, and he's learned a great deal and advanced in many ways into different styles of music and so forth. And Tony DeBlois has the same triad, and he actually was admitted to the Berklee School of Music in Boston and graduated summa cum laude from Berklee. They had never had a blind student there and they never had an autistic student, and they never had anybody under age 18 before Tony got there, and he blew them away with his musical ability.

In terms of the nature-nurture argument, some people say give me a child with enough training, and enough discipline, and enough practice and that person can become a musical genius, and that's simply not true. That's not to say that practice doesn't help. I think Tony has become more skilled, and more versatile, and has different styles, and certainly Derek practices, but Leslie never practices. He doesn't practice in the sense that he will do a piece over and over to get it right. He just plays and to him, what he plays happens to be nearly perfect. But he doesn't practice it. He won't sit and do the same piece over and over to get it right. He'll do a series of pieces because he wants to play the piano.

So I think that savants, especially the prodigious savants, argue loudly for what I call genetic memory. I used to call it ancestral memory because ancestral has sort of an evolutionary, or a transmitted kind of quality to it, but I think some people saw the term ancestral as being a little bit soft, or eastern, or I don't know what. You know, sort of not as scientific as genetic memory. But maybe ancestral memory may actually be the better term.

SCOTT: It's interesting that he only plays songs that he's heard before. Obviously, Michael Jackson songs weren't included in his DNA, so it makes me wonder what his ability is. Some people have a photographic memory when they read things, maybe he just has a photographic memory for music?

DAROLD: Well, I think that's true in the early stages of the musical savant. What's happened with Leslie, and I've been able to follow him now for 20-some years, and other savants like Tony, or Derek, is that when I talk about that they have more than a photographic memory for art or music, they actually know the rules of music, or art, or math. There are bodies of knowledge and rules attached to music, and math, and art, for example.

Math and music are very closely related. Some people say music is just unconscious counting anyway. So I think in the initial stages, the photographic memory would be sufficient to say, okay, he has a musical photographic memory for music instead of for images, and that's the way it starts.

But then as time goes on, savants tend to get a bit bored with just repetition. In fact, recently Stephen Wiltshire, who has a photographic memory, can do a cityscape after a 20-minute helicopter ride and spend five days drawing what he saw. When he did New York City, he told me that that was the last one he was going to do. And I said, how come, and he said because I'm bored. So he wanted to move into what I call the second stage of savant ability which is improvisation.
And with Leslie, for a long time, you could play a piece for him, and he would play it back dutifully, and accurately, but over time he would complete what he heard but then he would launch into an improvisation on what he heard.

I have a clip of him, at one of the concerts a young girl came up, and she played the Mississippi Hot Dog and Leslie dutifully plays that back, including a mistake that she made, but when he was done playing it back, then he did probably a five-minute improvisation on Mississippi Hot Dog with just a beautiful piece, changing pitch, changing tempo, and improvising on that and ending with a huge ending.

And then more recently, in the last five or six years, he actually begins to compose some of his own pieces. When I was told originally he was composing pieces, I'd listen to them and they seemed kind of familiar to me, sort of an amalgamation, perhaps, of a couple of pieces that he had heard, but now he's really doing some actual creating of pieces.

So all the savants tend to move through these stages. The first stage is replication, then improvisation, and then creation. So the point is it's more than just a photographic memory for music. It is this transition that takes place which I think means that they have access early on to the rules of music, art, or math.

SCOTT: The reason why I'm really pressing this is because I think in a lot of ways we're at the crux of a lot of controversies in the nature nurture issue and that is: what exactly is built in, right?


SCOTT: I'm fascinated with this question, and I really just want to think of all sorts of potential alternative explanations and to really understand what exactly is built in. So we know if we link this to the literature on, say, Jerry Fodorian modules, or evolutionary modules which are a little bit different than evolutionary psychologists modules. Evolutionary psychologists posit a lot more modules than Jerry Fodor posited. But still your conception of genetic memory does fit within that structure because the modules are the rules of the domain---some researchers like Gregory Feist call them "domains of mind" and music is definitely a domain of mind that evolved a rule system.

So could it be that nature kind of endowed Leslie with a greater readiness to soak up, maybe even through implicit learning mechanisms---the rule structure, so he is faster at learning? So he has a greater readiness to learn it coupled with an extraordinary memory for the music? When you talk about a factory chip installed, could that be what's really going on there?

DAROLD: Yeah. Well, I think you are right, that when I talk about the musical chip, it probably is equivalent and it may be a little easier to understand the calendar calculating chip which is indeed, you know, a certain rule. There are rules for that, and there are rules for prime numbers, and there are rules for square roots, and so forth. For a period of time, when I talked about genetic memory, people were saying, well, yeah, Leslie may have inherited the musical template, the musical structure on which, or the structure on which music is constructed in, and the rules and so forth.

And I still think about that, and maybe I'm parsing terms too far. But if that were the model-- that Leslie has this advanced musical template fully formed, and as soon as he is exposed to any music, whether it's his mother playing simple tunes, or listening to the television set, he's able to rapidly advance, and construct things on that template, and that accounts for the rapidity, and the explosion, and so forth, so on, I'm open to that. That may well be, but there's some part of me that says that there's even more.

I'm not enough of a musician to be able to say what that more is based on my own musical experience, or art, but it seems that with the calendar calculating, especially these people who are really severely disabled and almost unable to comprehend a calendar, they are able to calendar calculate and do that sort of spontaneously. I mean the parents are startled to find out that the child is able to do that.

So, to me, that means that it's more than just the template. There must be some knowledge attached to it, but that may be parsing things too closely, I don't know. I think what you described, just before, in terms of having that readiness coupled with a photographic memory may be sufficient.

SCOTT: I think there needs to be more research on this. In our society we're scared of the word "genes". In popular treatments of this stuff, journalists that write about this topic just sweep genes under the rug because they're afraid of even openly discussing that genes could facilitate any type of learning, that there could be individual differences. But I'm not convinced that that is doing us a service by sweeping it under the rug. And I think that openly discussing the ways that different minds can be affected by neurology, and different wirings, I think only allows us to appreciate individual differences more and I hope will lead to future research to really understand this.

DAROLD: Well, I think it will. Especially now, the epigenetic research is beginning to explain what had sort of just been assumptions before that, that genes could carry some very sophisticated differences. Some of the epigenetic work demonstrates that past events can influence present behaviors within the individual.

The classic one that people talk about are the studies of this particular isolated population that kept impeccable records of famines, and when, good years, bad years, phases of the moon, and so forth, and so on, and they were able to demonstrate that earlier years of famine could affect longevity several generations later.

So I think we're beginning to realize, and that, of course, fits in much more with genetic memory before this kind of thing, that genes can be modified. That we are not just a recipient, so to speak, of our DNA and RNA. I think the fear of the genes is that those are un-modifiable, and if you happen to get some bad genes there's nothing you can do about it, and that's not true.

So I think we're much more open to looking at that, and to me it fits much more into this whole idea of how's it possible that people can know things they never learned. To me that's not at all mysterious, or preposterous, or science fiction. I think that, to me, that makes perfectly good sense.

SCOTT: Perhaps a major source of the problem, which you hinted at, is our public description of what it means for something to have a biological basis. Because the researchers themselves realize that it's an interaction of nature and nurture and that just because something has a biological basis doesn't mean it's not malleable, but it seems like maybe if we increased public understanding of epigenetics we would be less scared of the word genes.

DAROLD: I think that's true, and I think we would be less scared and be much more optimistic about gene pools and modification of gene pools and the ways that they're not static. But I think you're right that there has been sort of a fear of genes or that attributing certain kinds of learnings, or traits, or abilities to biological factors, instead of psychological factors is frowned upon. The fact that some people are mathematically inclined and others are not, to me that's not a fatalistic or a pessimistic view.

It may explain how come I don't get math. Not that I'm lazy, or that I'm dull, but it's just that particular formula, or those particular rules, I just don't have much access to those and that's not my fault, and it's not my teachers' fault, or my parents' fault. It's just that we're differentially endowed, and to me that's a good thing.

SCOTT: How is Carl Jung's notion of the collective unconscious related to your notion of genetic memory?

DAROLD: When I was in training as a psychiatrist and we studied Jung, I was very skeptical of the collective unconscious because it implied not only a collection of memories from ancient times, but implied kind of a cosmos of such memories that was existing out there and that some people were able to tune in, like a television tunes into all the waves out there.

I probably didn't read Carl Jung as closely as I should have at that time, but the collective unconscious seemed to me a little bit fuzzy, a little bit too Eastern for me, and a little too vague, especially the cosmos sort of idea. He may not have said that, but I came away with that impression. But now when I look at his work more carefully and read it a second time, I think he's talking much closer to what I'm describing as genetic memory. Which means that we don't start with a blank disk with respect to these rules of music, art, and math that we've talked about, nor do we start with a blank disk in terms of our past, and our generations' past, and our sort of collective wisdom throughout ages. I think when I talk about transmitting knowledge genetically, I'm talking not just about the rules of music, and math, but I am talking about transmitting cultural themes, ancestral themes that we carry on from our ancestors.

So I think to the extent that Carl Jung would describe the collective unconscious as a genetic transmission of those traits, I think we're in agreement. To the extent that he would describe the collective unconscious as sort of a cosmos or atmosphere of collective wisdom and knowledge that some people are able to tune into, and others cannot, that's where I think we might part.

Although, I must say, I met a savant yesterday that is a fellow whose only able to read and write upside down. He mirror writes everything, but he has a book of poetry and prose, which I'm now reading, which is stunning. When I talked to him, he talked in terms of being able to tune in to where his thoughts come from, where do you get the idea to write these kinds of things. Others have been brought to my attention.

And some people, with respect to autism and Asperger's people, are able to tune in to some kind of collective wisdom or atmosphere or cosmos out there, so I don't know.

SCOTT: The way I view it is that we have something that is the total human genome, that is the total cumulative evolved nature of human nature, but each one of us is born with a packet of that DNA of the total human genome, and that explains a large part of individual differences but not every one of us is born with the total human genome at its most optimized level. I think that's probably the most reasonable conclusion here.

DAROLD: Yeah, that makes sense to me. And as I said, maybe what they're tuning into is their endowment of the human genome and some have a much larger endowment of that, in terms of past and so forth than others. I guess I've been sort of limited to thinking in terms of the television cosmos model. But the concept of tuning in to a collective genome in greater or lesser degree-- that makes a lot of sense to me. So when this gentleman was talking to me about tuning in, and he kind of looked up the information, I guess I was thinking in terms of my model, but maybe tuning in is looking down at your endowment, and that makes a lot of sense to me. I think that may help me over some hump here.

SCOTT: Can non-savants learn to do what savants can do? Is there even a point for a non-savant to attempt to do what savants can do? When I interviewed Daniel Tammet, I asked him if, through deliberate practice I could learn to recite as many digits of pi as he could, and he said, that's a very interesting answer which really opened my mind up a little, but he said why would you want to, why don't you just be yourself.

DAROLD: Right. Well, I think one can learn some of the savant skills, but often they are so off the charts, that, although I think Daniel set the European record for memorization of pi, I think there's a Chinese record of a non savant who bested his 22,500.

People can learn to calendar calculate but usually without the speed and the breadth of a span of years that calendar calculators can. Certainly one can learn music, and learn art, and learn lightning calculating, but generally, especially if we talked about the prodigious savant, does not reach that level.

Now, Rudiger Gamm, in Germany, is not a savant although his mathematical ability exploded on the scene very suddenly, but he probably doesn't have any disability. In fact, he's sort of a memory coach for people who want to expand the memory, and his lightning calculating is simply phenomenal. He's one that says that he works at it. You have to practice like an athlete in order to keep your craft current.

So people can learn savant skills, but generally they don't reach the kind of speed and they tend to have wider interests. I mean, savants like Kim Peek, for example, had probably the most spectacular memory of anyone that I've ever met or read about, and yet he was very clear to point out that that's within 15 areas of expertise, so don't ask me about math, or don't ask me outside his areas of interest, whereas I think people who learn savants skills are more likely to be more versatile within other areas than the savant is.

SCOTT: You mentioned the case of Nadia, which I actually first came across in Ellen Winner's fascinating book "Gifted Children: Myths and Realities". Nadia is a precocious artist with early infantile autism who has drawings since age 3 that are phenomenal but who also had great difficulties in language. In what ways do you think this "dreaded tradeoff" is necessary? What's the factual basis for this myth based both on research and your own personal clinical experiences?

DAROLD: I learned about the case of Nadia early on, when I was looking at savant syndrome, and wondered whether there was this dreaded tradeoff. Now, in Nadia's case, she was a very gifted childhood artist and they decided to send her away to school to learn better language particularly, and then all the kinds of things better associated with school, and she lost her ability. And I think the assumption was that she had to give up her savant skills as a tradeoff to her language sills.

So I've been looking for that, but that has not been my experience. In fact, to me it would be an anomaly. I have not seen savants where there's been that dreaded tradeoff. For example, Derek Paravicini, had formal training, and his music ability has continued to expand, and expand, and expand, yet at the same time, so has his language skills, and his social skills. Now, he's not cured of autism. It's still evident and prominent. But he's much more social, he's much more verbal, and that is what happens, in my experience, with all of the savants.

Leslie Lemke, the same thing. Now, he's not autistic, but has brain damage, and his musical ability has simply continued to increase, and excel, and move from replication to improvisation to creation, and meanwhile, his verbal skills have increased and certainly his social skills have, without any dreaded tradeoff.
I could give you example after example. Alonzo Clemons is a sculptor, and I first met him, I don't know, 20 years ago, I think, and now he and I, we talk on the telephone, and he is much more verbal than he was. And he is certainly much more social, and he's into the Special Olympics, he's a weight-lifting champion, and he works at the YMCA part time, and he does some other kinds of things, and so, there's been no diminution of his ability at all.

Some people have speculated that, I think Nadia's case, I don't know that case firsthand, but apparently I think her mother may have passed away or something during that same time, and so there was a chronological, or a temporal relationship between some things and her loss of skills, but that, now many of the parents that I deal with, and many of the teachers and others, fear that, and they're afraid that those skills are going to disappear as suddenly as they are appeared, but that has not been my experience.

In fact, I would have a hard time thinking of a case where there has been the loss of the skills. I'm thinking of one savant who used to be a lightning calculator and was marvelous and amazing at his lightning calculating ability, and if you ask him to do that now, he can do it, but it's not nearly as rapid. But, if you ask him why, he simply has gotten interested in other things, and so if you don't use it, you lose it, and he began to work at a library where he instead memorized the Dewey Decimal System from the library and found that to be more useful than lightning calculating.

So you occasionally will find somebody whose skill is not used as much, or has diminished, but sometimes the parents are concerned even if we do certain kinds of testing, imaging, and they have not wanted to do imaging for the fear what if the skill disappears, but that has not been my experience, and that's the good news. I can say that with confidence that that doesn't happen.

SCOTT: I think that raises an issue if some of these savants don't practice the skills, it deteriorates. What are the implications there for this idea that there's this factory chip pre installed, I mean, it seems like they still have to learn throughout the course of their lifetime.

DAROLD: Right. Most of them, in my experience, will continue to learn. Kim Peek is a good example. Instead of simply having this astronomical store of facts, in recent years he has begun to Google those, put them together in a way that it wasn't just a store of facts, but he began to put them together in some very creative sorts of ways, and his witticisms, and his puns, and so forth, became almost legendary.

And yet, when you met Kim, he almost automatically would ask what was your birthday, and then he would tell you what day of the week that was, and what day of the week it'll be when you turn 65 and retire. And so he continued to do that, even though he had expanded. And others that I can think of tend to stay within their area of skill and expertise because it brings them a lot of satisfaction.
The musical savants don't generally move away from music, because it's what they do as well as what brings them a lot of praise. But, I can think of several instances in which somebody sort of lost interest and didn't practice the skill as much, and in that sense it didn't disappear, but it wasn't quite as proficient as it had been. But I don't think that detracts from the fact that it was there, or that it is still there, but it usually speaks to the fact that the person has sort of generalized to something which they found to be more useful, and that's a good thing.

SCOTT: While we were mentioning Kim Peek for a second, one of my colleagues and friends Lynne Soraya is a very big fan of yours, and she does a lot of work on autism advocacy. She had a question about the death of Kim Peek and how Kim's family is coping.

DAROLD: Yeah. Of course. Kim's death was, obviously, you know, a tremendous loss to his father. Kim always said, my dad and I share the same shadow. And Fran Peek, his worry was that, I mean, he's in his 80's now, and his worry was that he was going to pass away and what's going to happen to Kim, since he's been such an integral part of Kim's life, I mean, not just emotionally, but just, you know, helping him, as I said, dress, brush his teeth, and all that kind of thing.
So, when Kim died, it was in a sense, bittersweet isn't quite the word, but there was a certain sense of relief, in the sense that, now I don't have to worry about what's going to happen to Kim, and yet at the same time it's been a great loss, and I think that sort of has softened the loss to some degree.

But Fran himself is doing very well. He continues to stay very active and still talking about Kim in some presentations. And Kim's dad has had some interest of his own in the past, in terms of certain kinds of engineering endeavors, so he keeps himself very active. I talk with him probably once every six weeks or so, and he's coping. It's been a huge change in his life, obviously, but he's coping with it remarkably well.

SCOTT: What role do parents, teachers, and caregivers play in fostering the talents of savants?

DAROLD: Well, I've been impressed by the role that parents and teachers and others have in discovering the gift, where the gift sort of surfaces, and then they realized it and appreciated it, whereas other people might sort of discard it and say, well, that's kind of silly, you know, okay, so you can remember everybody's birthday, but, you know, what has that got to do with the price of bread, or musical or artistic skills, they tend not to appreciate them as much.

But I've got so many case examples where somebody was mute. Stephen Wiltshire is a good example. He was severely autistic, had a lot of mannerisms of an autistic nature, and one of his teachers discovered, and then nourished and encouraged him. When he began to draw art, I think it was buildings at first, or cars, I forgot which it was, she just sort of glommed on to that and began to reward him, and reinforce, and to praise, and to what I call train the talent.

And so in each of these instances, certainly with Leslie, May Lemke, his foster mom. He had severe deficits of many sorts, and yet she was able to recognize this musical part of his brain, as she called it, that was spirit, and just praised him and gave him lots of reward and reinforcement. Kim Peek, the same thing with his mom and his dad, and Stephen Wiltshire and his family, so they are a critical part of this equation as far as I'm concerned.

And I keep saying, in my journey with savants, I've learned as much about matters of the heart as I have about circuits in the brain, because I can see the power of faith, and the power of patience, and the power of looking at what's there instead of what's missing, and reinforcing, and nourishing, like you would a little seedling in the ground. What a powerful effect that can have.

I've written elsewhere that the savant syndrome seems to be kind of a three legged stool. One part of that stool is idiosyncratic brain function. A second part of it is a fascination with that particular ability and the practice of active reinforcement. And the third part of the stool is the family, what I call the cheerleaders, and the believers. You have to understand, I think many times when people look at savants and they see their skills on display, so to speak, they don't realize what a colossal effort 24/7/365 it is to deal with whatever that particular disability is.

I mean, Kim's father had to help Kim brush his teeth, and tie his shoes, and yet what we see, you know, are the abilities, and so they are a crucial part of this equation, and in my "Islands of Genius: The Bountiful Mind of the Autistic, Acquired, and Sudden Savant" book I tried to balance the science with the heart and the healing element, because in each of these cases I met some along the way. These savants and their families are just terrific people.


Other parts of the series:

  Part I, Defining Autism, Savantism, and Genius

  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 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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