Conversations on Creativity with Darold Treffert, Part VIII:

Darold Treffert, M.D. on lessons learned and recent advances

Posted Apr 25, 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 eighth and final part, we discussed lessons he has learned from a lifetime of studying savants, recent advances, and looking to the future.

SCOTT: You wrote in your book, "My voyage with savants has changed drastically. My more pessimistic view of central nervous system renew and regeneration that I, along with many of my colleagues, mistakenly harbored based on our earlier training." What has your incredible voyage taught you about the plasticity of the human brain?

DAROLD: Well, I think I've had my own epiphany about the issue of the central nervous system and its capacity to renew itself. When I went to medical school, we learned that if a liver cell or a heart cell died, they could be regenerated, but if the neuron went, that that was the end of it. It's sort of as if we started out with a whole suitcase full of neurons when we were born and gradually they dissipated in one way or another until finally with dementia there are few left, and it completely ignores the fact that the central nervous system is continually renewing itself.

That shouldn't come as any surprise, but it almost does in the field because the cells that I'm using as I'm talking with you today are not the same brain cells that I was using three months ago when we first corresponded. Those cells have changed, just like my skin cells, or my liver cells, and so the brain is continually renewing itself. I think we haven't thought of that as a renewal process. We sort of thought of it as a loss or a deteriorating process.

So with that comes all sorts of implications for repair, post-stroke. Now we're talking about using techniques with paralyzed people to be able to renew the spinal cells, we hope, with stem cells. So I think we've had an awakening of the renewal capacity of the brain and the plasticity.

If I were to sum up what is the neuropathology, neurophysiology, or neuroanatomy of savant syndrome, I put it into the three R's. There first is damage and some rewiring into that area of the brain which is still intact and recruited and then coupled with the release of dormant capacity. So, rewiring, recruitment, and release and all of that, and that speaks to brain plasticity in volumes because that is a renewal and recruitment process.

So I have almost a different idea. In fact, I may be wrong about this, but I think that for Alzheimer's disease, and for that matter Parkinson's disease, we've tended to have the idea that what's happening is that neurons are dying, and they probably are and being replaced by plaques and spindles, but I wonder whether Alzheimer's disease is not there because neurons are dying, but it is rather because the brain has ceased replacing them. And if that's the case, that would be a whole different pharmacologic intervention.

In other words, if the process is not one of deterioration and death, but rather the real culprit is the failure of the brain to renew one's cells, that's a whole different kind of therapeutic situation. I'm not expert enough, but this whole brain plasticity and renewal thing has jarred my thinking even to go to that kind of degree to say, well, maybe some of the diseases that we consider to be degenerative may not be so much a degenerative process as rather a failure of regeneration. That's a whole different phenomenon.

SCOTT: I've never heard that perspective before.

DAROLD: Well, I don't think it's generally around, but I wonder the same thing about Parkinson's disease. It may not be those cells that have stopped producing the dopamine that's necessary. It may not be just that they have died because those cells have been dying all along. It's rather that the brain has stopped replacing them, and if that's the case, I think it would be a different intervention. Anyway, the plasticity issue has got me thinking even to that degree.

SCOTT: How have your experiences led you to realize the importance of love and compassion as part of the therapy process?

DAROLD: Well, that's just by watching firsthand the interaction with the savants and their parents. I've been so impressed by their ability to be patient, to be hopeful, to look at what's there instead of what's missing, and the therapeutic effect that that has. Now, that ought not to come as any surprise, because I think we see that in our own children, with love and with the reinforcement, what that does just with our children, and our spouses, and so forth and so on.

But I think when you see it in the capacity that some of these parents have to accept the problems that these people present, or the 24/7/365 effort, or the infinitely slow progress that sometimes is seen, it's just been as impressive to me to see that in relief against each other as it is to see some abilities and disabilities in the same person. So, it's simply reinforced something I already knew, but it's seeing it amplified.

SCOTT: You've had all of these experiences. I wish everyone had all of these experiences so everyone could have the same sort of view in the world as you do. Do you know what I mean?

DAROLD: Yeah, I've tried to convey that somewhat in the book, and tried to generate that sort of thing, or at least to share it, but I think people who have been around some of these savants and their families have come away with that same inspiration, really, and it's a reinforcement of what we already know, but it's really powerful when you're part of it.

SCOTT: You've mentioned Allan Snyder's work. I really like his work a lot. Do you think his idea of a "thinking cap" that allows people to tap into their inner savant will be possible some day?

DAROLD: It may well be. I think that we already know that it's not called the thinking cap, but for people who are paralyzed by what's called the man machine, the person actually wears a helmet and is actually able to move a computer cursor merely by thinking about it.

Because just before I move my finger, for example, my index finger on the left hand, there is a pre discharge, and if one can capture that, as already has been done, then by harnessing that pre discharge, you can actually have the person move a cursor on a computer by thinking about it. The helmet is different than what Allan is talking about, because here we're talking about a paralyzed person being able to control his or her limbs, and there are applications of that already out there.

What he's talking about is a thinking cap which would allow one to tap into some more primitive circuitry, and a lower level processing, which he feels is part of the savant process, and I agree with that. I think the problem with the rTMS, on which he's basing his work, is that it probably is not targeted enough, and it probably is not deep enough yet.

And Dr. Robyn Young, who has replicated some of Allan Snyder's work, she is a psychologist in Australia, makes the point that probably one is going to have to be more targeted than rTMS is at the present time to really zero in on the kinds of things that Allan is thinking about. But I think the possibility of technologically releasing some capacity, that may not just be science fiction. I think that time may come.

SCOTT: Yeah, that's exciting. And maybe even has potential for helping savants have some of the skills we have.

DAROLD: Yeah, the reverse of that could also be true. Absolutely.

SCOTT: You argue that improved imaging techniques that measure brain function, rather than just structure, hold promise for better visualizing the brain function of savants in the process of creating. Could you please elaborate on this potential and whether there are any potential risks involved with these new approaches?

DAROLD: Right. Up until, oh, ten years or so ago, when I was in medical school all we had were skull X rays. That doesn't tell you very much because the skull is very thick, so if you're looking for the kinds of things we're looking for now, tumors, and so forth, skull X rays are not particularly useful. Well, then came the CT scan and that certainly was an improvement because you could see the structure in much better resolution.

And then came the MRI and there, my goodness, you can get all the deep structures, and you can look at the hypothalamus, and you can look at whatever you want, the pituitary gland, or whatever, and that's amazing with respect to all the parts there. But a lot of the diseases that psychiatry deals with, including schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder, for example, as far as I'm concerned, are not diseases of structure, but they're diseases of function.

if one looks for what structural abnormalities exist in schizophrenia, there is no real consistent place that one can look for, as opposed to finding a brain tumor, for example, where you can see there it is, and I think the same is true in autism, and in savant syndrome. These are disorders of function, and so now we have the functional MRI, and we have PET scans, and we have something called SPECT imaging.

The problem with PET scans and SPECT imaging, which can look at function, is that they use isotopes. And the isotopes are very short lived so the availability of that kind of imaging is limited to certain centers where they can use those isotopes. Plus one wonders about the exposure of radioactive isotopes. So functional MRI does not rely on isotopes, and that's a good thing. It simply relies on magnetic forces, and sometimes with a contrast medium that's injected, but it's not a radioactive or isotope, so a functional MRI is certainly giving us good information.

And then the next step was what's called the diffusion tensor imaging, or diffusion tensor tracking, called DTI or DTT. This looks at brain connectivity, and you can actually see the fibers as they're connected, or the areas of the brain as they're connected. It's sort of like taking the cover off your computer and looking at the circuit board itself. So now, there's some reason to believe that autism may be a disorder of connectivity. And so we now have that availability, and that's good now. With respect to savant syndrome, there is a limitation of those techniques because it's pretty hard to play a piano in a MRI machine.

If you're wanting to look at what's happening to the savant when they're doing their thing, whether it's art, or music, one is going to have to develop a technique that allows the person to be studied when they're doing their thing. Now, the others can work for mathematics people are doing in their head and so forth, but I think the breakthrough will come when one has other techniques.

There is a technique now to measure hemoglobin levels in the brain as opposed to blood flow, and by doing that the person wears a helmet. It's used mostly in the newborn nursery now to determine oxygen levels in newborns, when you're concerned about that, so you can do that test while the baby is in its mother's arms, rather than an MRI machine. It's called NIRS, near infrared spectroscopy.

And that may have some usefulness in studying, not just savant syndrome but language disorders, for example, or other kinds of things. So with imaging, we continue to make those kinds of advances.

Now, is there any risk involved in there with those? Not particularly, except I think people are getting a little more concerned these days about the amount of exposure with CT scans in terms of light time exposure, and that's not a risk with MRIs. There may be risk associated with the isotopes, and people have that concern, so that limits, somewhat, the PET scan and SPECT scan.

In fact, I have some of the savants that I would like to get imaging on to answer some of the questions that I have. Some of the parents draw the line at the isotopes, particularly, for fear that it might take their skill away. I mean, they really have the fear that maybe that procedure, or maybe the heavy magnet, the magnetic forces in the MRI are massive and people worry it might rearrange things and so forth. That hasn't happened, but it has been a little bit of an impediment, and I respect that.

When a parent says that's where they draw the line, certainly I respect that because I think if it were a matter of finding a tumor or had some application for treatment, that one might feel differently about it than just a pure research point of view, but, in general, the risks are low for these kinds of technologies.

SCOTT: Cool. Do you see a lot of potential in neuro-enhancement drugs and software-training programs for increasing savant-like skills in all of us, or even helping people with savant-like skills cope better with everyday life?

DAROLD: Well, I think that there may be some usefulness in both of those. I think with the neuro-enhancing drugs, we're coming on to some of those now. With a search for treatment for Alzheimer's, we're always looking for drugs that will help that memory disorder but then it raises the question of, are there drugs out there that will enhance normal memory capacity, and there may well be.

I think the problem is that with those drugs, or with the neuro-enhancing drugs that we have so far, including those used to treat ADHD, for example, there are some kind of tradeoffs. There's a risk of dependency, particularly with some of the stimulant drugs, and some of the earlier, LSD was originally a mind-expanding drug which was supposed to be useful, and some people say is useful for the treatment of certain kinds of conditions, but, obviously, there are some risks with LSD.

So, I think there may be a role for neuro-enhancing drugs, but it's going to have to be a very delicate balance between risk and benefit and with the antidepressant drugs which have been to psychiatry what penicillin was to infectious disease. But there are problems with anti depressant drugs in terms of side effects of various types.

The same thing is true of the major tranquilizing drugs and the anti-anxiety drugs. We keep looking for those drugs that can treat anxiety disorders, such as Valium or Xanax, which can be very helpful, but there always are tradeoffs with risks of dependency, or other kinds of things.

So there may be a role for neuro-enhancing drugs, but what we need are rifles instead of shotguns to really target the particular area. But I wouldn't be surprised if we were able to enhance memory without some dreaded tradeoff, but that's going to be a delicate search.

SCOTT: Did you say without the dreaded tradeoff?

DAROLD: I mean side effects of some sort, the tradeoff between benefit and risk.

SCOTT: Gotcha. It's exciting. Will advances in technology one day allow more of a fusion between man and machine, enabling new ways to remediate many of the difficulties found in savants?

DAROLD: Well, I think that some of the machines may have that useful effect. I mentioned already the man-machine which is displayed in one of the documentaries, that's really good showing the man-machine at work, so I think that there may well be, and maybe Snyder's work may have some implications as well. We know, also, that the technique that Snyder uses for his work, rTMS, is being used increasingly now in the treatment of depression and has replaced, to some degree, shock treatment and even anti depressants. And there are others. Parkinson's disease is treated with deep brain stimulation, for example, as are some other disorders, so I think that whole area of man and machine may be a very useful one.

It's interesting that, back in the 1960s, there was a fair amount of work being done on brain electrodes and brain stimulation. And at Tulane, particularly, there was some work being done with implanting electrodes to treat epilepsy, and what happened is that certain forms of epilepsy sometimes will be rage disorders where the person simply has an uncontrolled rage and that can be a form of seizures, in particular, of temporal lobe epilepsy.

So they were planting electrodes at that time, and if the person felt one of these rage episodes coming on, he or she would push a button and it would abort the episode, and it was really quite dramatic. But there was concern at that time. This was the time of the Cold War and communism and so forth, and there was a concern on the part of the government that, okay, that's great, if you could control somebody's deviant behavior, but what if you have the technology that could instill thoughts, you know, reverse that.

So there was a real worry about thought control. In other words, what if you went to work, for example, and instead of getting a paycheck, you had an electrode implanted into the pleasure center of the brain, and so your reward would be a continual pleasure sensation instead of a paycheck. What if then, you had a way of reinforcing people with this sort of technology with beliefs, or thoughts, or politics, and so anyway, that whole area was sort of shut down at that time because of the ethics questions about thought control.

Well, we seem to have softened on that now to where planting electrodes to control certain kinds of behavior are fairly commonplace now. We have a lad in our area here with severe Tourette's syndrome. His schooling, and his life, is just disrupted by this severe Tourette's, and now he has some microchip planted, and by changing the dials and so forth, has controlled his Tourette's.

So, the whole area of that kind of man-machine kind of thing, electrodes controlling certain kinds of Parkinson's, is fairly common now and deep-brain stimulation for a variety of disorders, so I think we're going to see more of that. It still does raise some ethical issues, or some concerns, but I think they're not as dangerous as some people think they might be.

SCOTT: Interesting. Do you think we are on the verge of an autism 'epidemic', and if we are, what are the implications for a savant-syndrome epidemic?

DAROLD: Well, I think the word epidemic is overstating the situation.

SCOTT: I put it in scare quotes.

DAROLD: I think that there is an increase in autism. I don't think it's at epidemic proportions, and the reason I say that is because, if you look at the increasing incidence of disorders in childhood, in general, and we're talking about language disorders, we're talking about cerebral palsy, we're talking about other kinds of conditions, chronic brain syndrome, those are increasing overall, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that the premature birth rate has gone up markedly because we're able to keep the little shavers in newborn intensive nurseries now and keep them alive, whereas before they would never survive. There is a certain price tag attached to some of that in terms of brain disorders and autism.

So you have to look at increase in autism cases over against the general increase. We keep changing the definition of autism, to where it is now a spectrum disorder so that there are more cases being called autism that formally either would not have been called anything, or else might have been called forms of retardation, or other kinds of things. But even leaving that aside, what I call diagnostic creep, is where it's like bipolar.

Nowadays, you get picked up for speeding and, oh, I'm bipolar. I mean, that's sort of the disease of the day, and the same thing a little bit with autism, where we're saying, you know, maybe Einstein was autistic.

But I think even that aside, there is an actual increase in autism, and with that will come an increase in savants because I still think our figures, I say 1 out of 10 persons with autism, others say that number is even higher than that, but I still think the 1 in 10 is probably pretty close.

And so if autism goes up, we will be seeing more savants, and I think to some extent that's probably already occurring because I'm getting reports from people, through the website, from parents, or teachers, or therapists, and those seem to be coming in at a higher frequency. I think part of it is because it's sort of recognized now. Somebody will see the movie Rain Man, and say, oh, I know somebody that, you know, they didn't think of it before, but I think even beyond that, we will be seeing more savants.

SCOTT: Cool. That'll be very interesting to see how that connection plays out.

DAROLD: Right.

SCOTT: In your view, what are some of the most important unanswered questions surrounding savant syndrome?

DAROLD: There are more than several. I think one of the most interesting, or productive is why is savant syndrome more common in autism. We addressed that to some degree the other day having to do with left-hemisphere dysfunction, and so forth, but I think that I would like to be able to explore much more this link between autism and savant syndrome because that may give us some clues to both disorders.

Secondly, why calendar calculating? That continues to come up with such regularity, and yet it's such an obscure condition. But I think you can't just dismiss it and say, well, I don't know why calendar calculating, but there again, there may be some clues.

Third, whether my hypotheses, or theories, about left-brain damage, right-brain compensation, how generalized is that, or is that only applicable in some cases or not. It raises the whole question of what is the connectivity in savant syndrome in the brain of people with savant syndrome, and I think now we have some technology to look at that.

The fourth thing would be, how is it that savants do know some things they never learned, and the whole area of genetic memory. I think savants may provide the most in-relief model because of the cognitive dysfunction that many have and which make it almost impossible to be learned or learning alone. It has to be something else, so that one.

And then finally, is there a little Rain Man within us all, and if so, how can we tap that or actualize that. Those are sort of the questions I'm intrigued with.

SCOTT: They're not too shabby. I mean, that's like solving world hunger. It's up there with that, I think! Anyway, as you mentioned, the availability of new cases of savants is exciting because it means we can start to go beyond single case studies, and increase our scientific understanding of high ability. However, you also note that there's currently no formal registry of savants around the world. What will it take for such a registry to come about, and how can people help out with this endeavor?

DAROLD: Well, I have some good news there. There is a savant registry now, as of this summer.

SCOTT: Oh, great!

DAROLD: I had the opportunity to have a medical student working with me this summer on a fellowship, because for all these years, when these cases came to my attention, I stuffed them into a folder that said new savants. And that folder kept getting bigger and bigger, but it was not organized in any way. I mean, they just were in there, and not even in chronological order.

So what we did this summer was to look at the savants I already knew about and had a fair amount of data on, and we put these new savants together in a spreadsheet based on geography, ability, disability, age, handedness, you know, whatever we could think of, and we have 320 cases now in this registry and that number is growing.

And we're in the process now of trying to analyze that sample of savants, what is the male female difference, what percent of those are acquired, and what percent of those are congenital, and what is the most common savant skill, and how many patients, how many of these people have multiple skills instead of single skills, and so forth. So, we're just in the process now.

Granted, that registry is put together in a sort of random kind of way. In other words, we didn't do a survey of a population trying to find how many savants. These are cases that simply have come to our attention through the website, but at least it's a start, and what we're doing. So we're in the process of analyzing this data.

And, secondly, the information that we have on some of these cases is not all that in depth, so we're doing a second part of the study. We're sending out a Gizmo survey with, I think there might be 90 variables, and asking the caretaker, or the savant, or the therapist to return that to us giving us a much more standardized kind of information.

And those surveys are beginning to come back now. So there'll be a preliminary report on the first phase of the registry, but then, as we get more and more of the surveys back, it will be more in depth, so that is under way. And the main source for those cases is through the website. It's indicated on the website that if people know of someone, or would like to be included in the registry, that they should send the information.

SCOTT: That's really exciting. I absolutely loved your ideas for an institute for the study of savant syndrome, prodigy, and genius. What's your vision for such an institute?

DAROLD: I have two ideas that I'm working on. One is to increase the scope of the website and the information gathering, collecting data, and distributing it through the website, about savant syndrome in general, and posting more and better information, and so forth, to keep people aware of that, and having them send me cases and listing them on the website and so forth.

So it would be sort of an information-gathering and information-disseminating project which actually could be pretty much carried out by just intensifying what we're already doing with the website through the medical society.

But I have a much more grandiose idea that there would be established somewhere a savant institute. It doesn't have to be a building. I'm not even talking about a whole separate department, but a place of multidisciplinary team, including a neuropsychologist, psychiatrist, neurologist, geneticist, biochemist, and imaging people. Now that we've identified this larger sample of savants worldwide, we could put those savants in touch with such a center.

Savant syndrome is distributed around the world, so sometimes when they envision the way I practice, people assume that I make rounds every morning on a unit of savants that are housed somewhere, and that's not the case. They're all over the world.

And yet there are foundations that have expressed an interest in supporting imaging on these folks, or standardized testing, so that we could come up with some actual criteria for what is savant syndrome, and then the three levels of savant, standardizing those. So this would be a place to which savants could come and be studied by this multidisciplinary team. And many of the savants are willing to do that, and have the resources to do that, and others would be glad to do that.

So the question is where is that going to be. And I've been searching or trying to summon interest. It would have to be in a medical center somewhere with this capability for this team and the imaging and so forth. I'm in the process now of trying to seek out some sites for that.

Here in Fond du Lac, I have this tremendous collection of savant videos which would allow one to trace people through the years, along with savant art, and with the registry. I need someone to carry on my work, and I wouldn't want all that information just to be lost.

SCOTT: I love it. If I ever get resources or anything like that to, I'd love to start my own center for creativity, more generally, not just savants.

DAROLD: I think when I talk about it, my vision for the savant institute extends over to prodigy and genius, because the more cases that I come across, the more geniuses and prodigies I come across as well. And so I think that this institute would not be just of savants, but it would be of prodigy, genius, and creativity, indeed, because I think that would be a natural quest as well.

Now, there are institutes to look at human emotions, and depression, and Parkinson's disease, and Alzheimer's, and so forth, but there is no place in the whole world devoted to the study of savants. And maybe it's because I've been defining that too narrowly and not emphasized enough the cross over between prodigy, genius, savants, and creativity. I think I'll broaden my definitions a little bit.

SCOTT: I completely agree with your goals of increasing public acceptance, accommodations, and inclusiveness of people with this ability. What ways can others who share these goals help out?

DAROLD: Well, I think one of the things that seems to be happening is that, in the art world, for example, and in the musical world, savants have tended to be seen as outliers. In fact, in the art world, their art is referred to as outsider art and sort of a how dare they without, no training, no credentials, they consider this to be art. This is, in fact, the term outsider art is applied in the art world, and I'm trying to break that barrier down and I think have some success.

There are some museums and art institutes now that welcome that art and don't display it in a separate section, say, now we'll show you outside. In other words, there are galleries that display Alonzo's sculptures sitting next to other people who are not disabled, without a sign saying, this is done by someone who is disabled.

So, I think we can welcome them into our world of art and music, and there are savants now who are making a living with their music, not because they're disabled or their music is seen differently, they are simply expert musicians. For example, Matt Savage, who Dave Brubeck called the Mozart of jazz, has his own group now and going around the world, no way easy, and he's not saying, you know, here I am an autistic artist, here I am a jazz artist; without having to make that sort of a qualification. So that's one thing.

I think that in the work world, there are some tremendously talented people with Asperger's, for example, who are, let's say, in computer programming. I mean, they can program in an afternoon what it takes somebody else a week to do and I have examples of that.

But the work world has not necessarily welcomed these people because they tend to be not very social. They do sometimes have obsessive compulsive sorts of habits, and they come to work late, not because they oversleep and are lazy, but because they have to do their rituals each morning, and then you have to explain to other people how come they can come to work late and I can't, and so the workplace needs to really accommodate.

And, I know of two, and there probably are more, placement agencies now, one in Canada, and one in Sweden, where it's a place specifically for people with Asperger's trying to hook up their particular skills with a willing employer, and they've had a good deal of success in making that kind of transition. I think there's an effort now to, in some universities, at least two, to make accommodations for people with special skills and savant skills to take over the curriculum, and there are some tremendous examples of that.

There's a fellow by the name of Taylor Crowe who was accepted to the California Art Institute, I think it's called, or California Institute of the Arts, or whatever, anyway, it's a very prestigious, hard to get into school, where all of the Disney graphic people and animators have gone and all the big names, they've all went through this place, and Taylor was accepted, and now he's doing that kind of animation for Disney.

So, I think the workplace and some of the colleges have sort of recognized that some of these people would make remarkable contributions. I know of several people who are now in universities that have some substantial, well, not limitations, but substantial behavioral traits that make it difficult to make it in a regular college, but they're doing well there, and I think they're going to find their niche. So, I think in the art world, music world, the work world, and the university world that we can make some progress in really welcoming these people and not seeing them as outsiders any longer.

SCOTT: Splendid. So when teaching people with special abilities, do you think we should focus on eliminating their deficits or training their talent?

DAROLD: Well, it's interesting. Some years ago, back in the '30s, there was this argument that was being waged in the literature whether you try to eliminate the defect or train the talent. And to some extent I think that same argument continues, although with less intensity, but the answer is to train the talent. And I just have example after example where you recognize the talent, and you don't see it as frivolous, or you don't see it as sort of freakish, but as a legitimate part and strength of that person that you take it and run with it.

And with that, you not only improve the person's ability, whatever it is, whether it's music, art, or mechanics, or programming, but at the same time the person develops better language, better social skills, and better daily living skills, and I just have remarkable examples of that, so that's what one wants to do.
In the past there was some concern based on the case of Nadia that we talked about, that if you did that, if you concentrated on those other elements that they might lose their special ability, but I just have not seen that, what I call the dreaded tradeoff. So, training the talent, I think that is the clear answer to that debate.

SCOTT: How accurate was the movie Rain Man?

DAROLD: It was very accurate, actually. Rain Man was, as you know, not based on the life of a single savant, or an individual savant. Even though it was inspired by Kim Peek, the movie was not Kim Peek's life. It was to depict a composite savant. But all of the scenes that you see in the movie, the square-root scene, and the toothpick scene, and the memorizing the the phone book, and the amazing abilities that Raymond Babbitt had, are based on real life savants, the eating cheese curls with a toothpick, and Judge Wapner at 3:00, all of those things are real.

I think what people have to realize, though, in answer to your question, I thought the movie was, for Hollywood, remarkably accurate and sensitive. The producers did not want to offend the parents of people with skills or autism, and they certainly didn't. It was not a kind of a freak show or some sort of a comedy. It really was a serious program about two brothers, and so it was very accurate in depicting that.

Secondly, it was accurate in it depicted that there was no six-day, cross-country cure of autism. I think some of the producers would have liked, at the end of the movie, to have Raymond and his brother going to the Dodgers ballgame and Raymond being entirely normal.

Well, you don't do that in a six-day, cross-country, so he went back to the institution, and a lot of people felt, gee, you know, it could have had a different ending, but I think that was more accurate. If there was a sequel, then Raymond would leave the institution and be integrated into society, but you can't do that in six days.

And the other thing that was accurate about it was that, if you looked at who really changed, Raymond didn't change that much in six days, but his brother sure did. And I think there's a message in that for us, that we can't expect the savant to change and meet our expectations, that we need to, instead of calling him names, you know, a moron or a whatever, that we change our expectations and our appreciation and so forth, so I think the movie did all of that.

If I have any caveats about the movie, one is that some people left the movie with the impression that all people who are autistic are savants. In other words, they saw Raymond Babbitt and say, oh, I know what autism is, and they expect all autistics to be savants, and that's not true. Or, on the other hand, that all savants are autistic, and that's not true either. Some savants are not autistic. And the third thing, I would hope they would understand that the movie is really about two conditions.

One is autism, the Judge Wapner, and the underwear at K Mart, and those obsessive compulsive, salt shakers have to be in a certain order, and pancakes on Thursday, that's all part of the autism, and then the special skills that you saw, those are savant skills grafted onto the autism, and so you're really seeing two conditions, and it was portrayed accurately, that the savant skills in his case were superimposed on the autism. So I thought the movie was very well done.
I had the opportunity to be a script consultant to the movie, and when the first script came, there were some things in there that I, and others, suggested needed to be changed and they were, and so I thought it turned out pretty well.

SCOTT: What was it like being an advisor to a Hollywood movie?

DAROLD: Well, it was interesting. I wondered, first of all, why are you calling me here in Fond du Lac. Well, they knew that I was, at that time working on my first book, Extraordinary People, and I had been on 60 Minutes, and Oprah, and some of those other programs, and so they knew that I knew something about savant syndrome, and, so they sent me the script. So they called, and I said, well, why are you calling me? And the executive producer said, we want the movie to be accurate, and we want it to be sensitive. And I thought, well, that's commendable.
And they did take into account things that I and several of the other consultants advised that should be changed and they were, including the ending. So, I was complimented to be part of that, but more important than that, I was really pleased with what they did with the final product.

SCOTT: Which documentaries about savantism are your favorite?

DAROLD: Yes. There are a number of documentaries out there, and I think I have copies of all of them which would be a valuable resource for anybody that wanted to study the condition over time. I think my favorite one is Beautiful Minds: A Voyage Into the Brain.


It was done by ColorFIELD Productions in Bremen, Germany, and originally was in German, but it's now in English. It is three hours in length, and it is a real exploration of savant syndrome, and special abilities. And there are clips of the man-machine, for example, in action and in motion, so I think it's the best one that is out there. And I think it has been running on the National Geographic Channel in this country, and it's run in many other countries, but it is, if somebody wanted to purchase it, it would be through ColorFIELD Studios in Bremen, Germany.

The second one is Brainman, which was the story of Daniel Tammet, and it's by Focus Productions in London, and it's really well done.

And the third one I think would be what's called The Real Rain Man, which is the story of Kim Peek, and it's also done by Focus Productions in London (watch full movie here):

Now, there are many others. I think one of the best programs on savant syndrome was the October 1983, 60 Minutes program, entitled "Genius," and it presented Leslie Lemke, Alonzo Clemons, and George Finn as three savants, and that's where a lot of people in this country were introduced to savant syndrome, and many of them still remember Leslie, particularly, because of his mother May Lemke. And it's interesting that Dustin Hoffman was watching that program and was persuaded to play the part of the savant based on, he said he was moved to tears by Leslie, particularly. It's 18 minutes long, but I think it's the finest 18 minutes of savant syndrome that exists.

SCOTT: Excellent. Would it be worth it for me to remark that you're looking for a producer to make a documentary about Leslie Lemke-- that maybe this could be an impetus for someone to contact you?

DAROLD: Well, I have somebody who I think is working on that, but it has to come about. There is no really good documentary on Leslie, and there ought to be. I'm also working on a DVD of Leslie that I call, "And Sings my Soul", which is taken from How Great Thou Art, which is one of his favorite pieces, and it's what I call The Best of Leslie Lemke.

And two of the clips that I'm going to be sending you are of Leslie, and what I want to do is put that together, so I am looking for a producer there that could help me. I mean, I've got all the footage, I've got all the permissions, I just need somebody to help me put it together in a classy way.

I think a lot of people would be interested because so many people remember Leslie from that 60 Minutes program. It takes in from the first concert that I saw him in, in 1980, here in Fond du Lac, to the present-day concerts that he's giving and it shows a remarkable transition. So that's separate and would simply be the best of Leslie Lemke kind of thing. It's not a documentary. It just gives the best pieces of his performance seen through the years. But then I do want to do a documentary.

SCOTT: Excellent. And, of course, I'm going put some very small clips of Leslie on this, embedded through this interview. So where can people go to learn more about the various strategies and interventions available to help savants reach their maximum potential, as well as more generally where people can go for further resources about savantism and autism?

DAROLD: Well, I think certainly the savant syndrome site, but there are some others that I'll send you that people can follow up on.

SCOTT: Great. Thanks. So do you have anything you want to add to this interview?

DAROLD: You might mention that the Discovery Channel is going to be doing a series. They already have filmed the savants, a series about these four programs looking at eight savants in depth, and that should be coming out with fall. And if that's successful, which I think it will be, then I think they will do some more because there are so many stories out there.

SCOTT: Are you being interviewed in that?

DAROLD: Yes. They were here to do the interviews and will, hopefully, be continuing, because as I said, there are so many me-too stories. I mean, they're different skills and looking at the world of the savant, not just the mind of the savant. They're really trying to see, well, okay, so this person has this special skill, how does that affect their life, and how do they use that. So it's looking at their world not just their skill. And, that's really what I want to get across, that it's not just what savants do, but who they are, which is what we need to be focusing on as well.

SCOTT: Yeah. I agree. And I really look forward to seeing that. I think understanding savants really can help us appreciate all different kinds of minds, not just savants.

DAROLD: Exactly. Right.

SCOTT: Well, that concludes our interview, unless you have anything else to add. And, I just want to thank you for being so generous with your time and for all the important work you've done for so many.

DAROLD: Well, I appreciate your interest, Scott, in the topic, and helping to spread the word. It's so much fun for me to talk to somebody who has done their homework compared to a lot of the interviews I do where people say what is autism, you know, let's start there, and they haven't a clue, so this is fun. And I think we really covered things.

As I said, my long term goal is to establish an institute somewhere, not with my name on it, in fact, I probably would not even be a part of it, but some place that can carry on this, because I've got a ton of information here, which I think are very valuable, and the registry work. So, that's really what I'm hoping to accomplish. So anyway, I appreciate your interest very, very much.

SCOTT: My pleasure. And I wish you all the best.

[Note to readers: thanks for making it all the way through this series. I hope you found this interview as thought-provoking and inspiring as I did!]  


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 VI, What Savants Reveal about Greatness

  Part VII, The Inner Savant in All of Us


© 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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