The autistic spectrum: From theory to practice
The autistic spectrum: From theory to practice

This free course is available to start right now. Review the full course description and key learning outcomes and create an account and enrol if you want a free statement of participation.

Free course

The autistic spectrum: From theory to practice

3.3 Savant skills

Savant skills – exceptional talents in a specific area – pose a particular puzzle for attempts to map the autistic spectrum. They may occur with Asperger's syndrome, as with the early mathematical skills of Asperger's astronomer, but, as noted in Section 2, they also occur with classic autism. No diagnostic subgroup has been proposed for people with such skills, possibly because they are very rare and ‘cross-cut’ other sub-groupings. However, these skills are so striking that it does not seem right to classify them just as an atypical manifestation of ASD.

Stephen Wiltshire's drawing of the Kremlin Palace and a photograph taken from the same view
Top: A. Chumichyov/Novosti (London); bottom: Wiltshire, S. (1991) Floating Cities, Michael Joseph ©
Top: A. Chumichyov/Novosti (London); bottom: Wiltshire, S. (1991) Floating Cities, Michael Joseph
Figure 3: Stephen Wiltshire's drawing of the Kremlin Palace and a photograph taken from the same view

The young artist Stephen Wiltshire has attracted much interest with beautiful architectural drawings such as the one in Figure 3. Stephen first demonstrated his talent at an early age, when he was also showing symptoms of classic autism. It is not just the accuracy, detail and perfect perspective of his finished drawings which has attracted such wonder and admiration, but also the manner in which he executes them, as described in this extract from an article by Oliver Sacks:

Stephen bestowed a brief, indifferent glance at my house – there hardly seemed to be any act of attention – glanced then at the rest of the road, the sea, then asked to come in … Stephen started at one edge of the paper (I had a feeling he might have started anywhere at all), and steadily moved across it – as if transcribing some tenacious inner image or visualisation. It was not quite like ‘ordinary’ drawing, but as if he had a camera lucida in his head which every so often he would pause over and consult.

(Oliver Sacks' foreword to Cities by Stephen Wiltshire, 1989, p. 6)

Another 11-year-old boy, Tito Mukhopadhyay, has recently confounded experts by showing savant skills that involve not only an outstanding grasp of vocabulary but the ability to write poetry and reflections that are full of imaginative images:

Wish my legs had the wings of a bird

And fly me to afar

I would gather the raindrops from every cloud

To wash my every tear

(Beyond the Silence, Mukhopadhyay, 2000, p.55)

Tito's autobiography documents how he struggled to overcome his problems and express his talents. This underlines the importance of considering what factors may influence outcome when people with ASDs grow up.

DSE232_1

Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has over 40 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to university level study, find out more about the types of qualifications we offer, including our entry level Access courses and Certificates.

Not ready for University study then browse over 900 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus