What's Real About Savant Syndrome Is Something 'The Good Doctor' Should Explore

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ABC's new series, The Good Doctor revolves around Dr. Shaun Murphy, played by Bates Motel's Freddie Highmore. Along with having autism, Shaun Murphy has savant syndrome on The Good Doctor. According to an article for Wisconsin Medical Society by Darold A. Treffert (who has studied savant syndrome for over 50 years), it's a syndrome that manifests itself in "islands of genius," or specific skill sets that are superior to that of their peers, in an otherwise developmentally disabled person. As is common with complicated medical conditions such as this one, the myths and realities associated with savant syndrome are often confused.

Though Dr. Murphy on The Good Doctor is a new example of this condition being put in the spotlight, the Pacific Standard reported that this syndrome has been explored in entertainment before like in the movie Rain Man. In the 1988 film (based on a real man named Kim Peek, according to The New York Times), Dustin Hoffman plays a man with autism, who has an exceptional memory, which he uses to count cards in Las Vegas with his brother, played by Tom Cruise. In the movie, Hoffman's character is autistic, but according to a Psychology Today article, the real life inspiration behind the character didn't have autism. He did have developmental disabilities due to an absence of the corpus callosum, a strip of fibers that separates and allows communication between the two hemispheres of the brain. The Psychology Today article reports that the portrayal of savants being on the autism spectrum in some way is a common misconception, and it's just one of many.

Reality: Savant Skills Are Presented In Different Categories

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According to the above Wisconsin Medical Society article, Dr. Treffert said that the skill sets associated with savant syndrome can be separated into three categories: Splinter skill savants, talented savants, and prodigious savants. Splinter skills include an obsessive memorization of "music and sports trivia, birthdays, license plate numbers, historical facts, train or bus schedules, navigation abilities or maps, for example." Talented savants are skilled musically, artistically, or otherwise, even when compared to peers without developmental disabilities. Prodigious savant, however, is a term for cases that are not only extremely rare but also represent a skill set that is in Dr. Treffert's words, "So outstanding that were it to be seen in a non-impaired person, such a person would be termed a 'prodigy' or 'genius.'" According to a February 2014 article in Scientific American, there are fewer than 100 documented prodigious savants.

Myth: Savant Syndrome Is Always Present With Autism

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This syndrome is usually represented in film and television (like in The Good Doctor and Rain Man) as being associated with autism. Dr. Treffert's article for Wisconsin Medical Society clears up this myth by stating that only one out of 10 people with autism actually have savant syndrome. But, one in 1400 people with other developmental disorders (not including autism) and with central nervous system deficits has savant syndrome as well. So, as Dr. Treffert stated, "Not all autistic persons are savants, and not all savants are autistic."

Myth: The "Nadia Effect"

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In the Wisconsin Medical Society article, Dr. Treffert relays a story about a 1974 case where a savant named Nadia was immensely artistically skilled. She was sent to receive more formal training at school, where she could gain experience with social skills, daily living, and language building. In gaining knowledge in these other areas, though, her savant abilities diminished. But, Dr. Treffert believes that Nadia's story is the exception and not the rule, as he has seen many cases where language and social skills were enhanced by formal training in a savant skill. The previously mentioned Scientific American article states that there is "almost always no 'dreaded trade-off' between the incredible skills of savants and their development of language, social skills, and daily living functioning."

Reality: Savant Skills Can Be Suddenly Acquired

Not everyone with savant syndrome was born with it. There is a phenomenon that manifests sometimes when a cerebral injury such as a stroke, blow to the head, dementia, or other central nervous system issue occurs and savant skills are gained as a result. In one example reported in Business Insider, a man suffered a severe concussion after hitting his head while diving into a pool. He suffered memory and hearing loss but suddenly found himself being able to brilliantly play the piano and even compose original pieces of music.

Myth: All Geniuses Have Savant Syndrome/Are On The Autism Spectrum

ABC/Liane Hentscher

According to Dr. Treffert's Wisconsin Medical Society article, geniuses and prodigies of the past like Albert Einstein and Issac Newton are often speculated to have been on the autistic spectrum, like this New Scientist article reports. But, Dr. Treffert said that it is hard enough to diagnose someone when you are face-to-face with them — there is not way to accurately diagnose it on long-dead patients. He also claimed that some people can just be gifted savants without any developmental, cognitive, or central nervous system disabilities.

It will be interesting to see how The Good Doctor brings savant syndrome into play, and whether it adds to or dispels these myths. Find out for yourself when it premieres Monday, Sept. 25 on ABC.