Monday, February 9, 2009

Savant Skills

I have been putting some thought and discussion into savant skills for many reasons. First a friend of mine asked me to read "Al Capone Does my Shirts". (OK I think that's the title and this just goes to show my complete lack of memory for titles and names.) She is a graduate student at our local Big Ten University and the book is used as a discussion in the class she is teaching. While there are parts of the book that I really liked which included how families of workers on Alcatraz lived there, out of convenience, in the 1930's. I found that part interesting. But in terms of a book to give information about autism, it is not necessarily one I'd recommend. The book has brought some interesting conversation between said friend and I. She wanted my perspective of the book from a parent of a child with autism's view. It's hard because it's the 1930's so (most) people in the book are not doing what we now think are the correct things to help a child with autism. In my reading this for entertainment value only, I understand that. For a bunch of college age students who don't know much about autism, this could be a problem.

The character in the book, Natalie, is autistic in 1935, so of course no one realizes this is autism and as I mentioned her family lives on Alcatraz. She is a savant, and therefore my first negative of the book. It is so stereotypical it annoyed me. I did, however, end up really liking all of the kids in the book, even Piper the bratty girl in charge of all, even her father. I just felt sorry for the mother of Natalie, where most people, I assume, wouldn't like her or just thought she was awful for some of the ways she handled her daughter. I really feel that it being 1935 and not having any idea what the heck was going on with her daughter, she was doing the best that she could, and that's all any of us can do. So I don't judge this character in a book, and in my life I have moved on past judging people. We all have our own reasons for the decisions we make. Even if I don't understand it, or it isn't the choice that I would make, I can now respect their outlook. This is something I would have, I am certain, never achieved had I not been down this road of autism. It is something that, I think, makes me a much better person, and a better friend.

My fellow blogger, Mama Mara, suggested that this reverse memory of Daniel's that I have discussed in two previous blogs, may be some sort of savant skill. Which prompted me to do what I usually do in this situation, I "googled it". I haven't come up with much yet, but I did find the following paragraph in an article from the Wisconsin Medical Society.

Other skills that have been reported less often include: prodigious language (poly-glot) facility; unusual sensory discrimination in smell, touch, or vision, including synesthesia; perfect appreciation of passing time without benefit of a clock; and outstanding knowledge in specific fields such as neurophysiology, statistics, or navigation14. In Rimland's sample of 543 children with special skills, musical ability was the most frequently reported skill, followed by memory, art, pseudoverbal abilities, mathematics, maps and directions, coordination, calendar calculating, and extrasensory perception.8

To me most of these do not seem like savant skills but "autistic characteristics". Maybe they are on a different level than what I am thinking. But doesn't pretty much every autistic have "unusual sensory discrimination?" The one that got me in this was "Perfect appreciation of passing of time without benefit of a clock". I have not heard this framed in this manner and it is a huge thing in our house. For us it can be very inconvenient! No matter where we are, with or without a clock, at 12:25, "it's lunchtime". That is his lunch time at school (this year, it will change year to year if his lunch changes and he'll know the exact time). But if you are out doing errands, heaven forbid if it's 12:25 and lunch isn't there. He also is very good with navigation as noted and can tell you how to get anywhere, (that he's been before) and of course gets annoyed if you change it. For instance, I am stuck at a light and can't turn left, so I go straight to cut through a neighborhood, he gets very upset with me. I have however, for the most part managed to turn it into a joke and say that "I'm going the sneaky way" and we sneak sneak around until we end up on the correct straight and narrow path, for my little Pinocchio.

We have discussed musical ability. He doesn't seem to be any sort of genius, but he does have perfect pitch, can listen to a symphony and pick out which instrument is playing by ear and has picked up his baritone with some ease, seemingly playing the music "by ear". I have also on more than one occasion been CERTAIN he has esp. When this was referenced above it took me by surprise. I would normally never put that out there as that sounds really "crazy". But there it is in the article. A lot of people don't even believe in esp, but I, in fact, do. I swear there have been times that I am SURE Daniel has known exactly what I'm thinking in a very, Twilight Zone sort of way. It seems so ridiculous, I usually put it out of my mind. But think about it. He wouldn't realize that not everyone can do this, sort of like his repeating backwards. The brain is very mysterious and we know their brains function differently, so why not esp is some cases?

I just don't see some of the skills in this article as being savant. Am I missing something? If Daniel was playing his music backwards, that would be a savant skill. He doesn't do the crazy math thing or know that May 11, 1985 was a Thursday (I'm making that up). These are what I think of as savant skills. Or the kid in "Born on a Blue Day" who sees numbers in color. Amazing.

None of it really matters. He is who he is. I love who he is. I really don't think (and I get this question often) that I'd change who he is. The magic question of "if you could make him a nt (neuro typical) today, would you?" That is difficult, because as a mother, he wouldn't be Daniel if he was nt. Also as a mother, there are a lot of things that would be a whole lot less frustrating for him if he were nt. Part of me would love to help him by taking that frustration away, but then again, wouldn't he have a whole set of new issues to deal with? I really hate that question, although it is thought provoking. Doesn't the thought of being able to change him into a neuro typical kid judging who he is? Who he will become? As I said, I'm past that. I'm not judging. If we as parents can't accept our kids for who they are, how do we expect the general population to? It was a long painful road to get to this non-judgemental place. I've worked very hard to get here. I've been told I make it look easy. Here's a shocker, it isn't easy. But I'm here and I'm looking forward to all of the possibilities ahead for Daniel, savant skills or not.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

hi my son is nine he was recently diognosed autisim he dosent speak except a couple words no sentances i started looking up savants after my doc mentioned it to me i came across youre page tyler understands everything he hears he was labled severly mr but he is amazing with computers and things his strongest skill is directions and does the same thing you described with your son we call him our little gps i think this is amazing becouse i have horrible since of directions i just wanted to share