Aim of the project

People with savant skills have at least one area of exceptional talent. For example, a savant skill may include have highly developed musical, artistic, mathematical, memory or spatial abilities. People with savant skills are sometimes autistic. This pilot study represents the first step in disentangling what the neuroanatomical and functional similarities and differences are between autistic individuals with and without savant skills, as well as people with savant skills who are not autistic and people who are neither autistic or have any savant skills.

Several psychological theories have attempted to explain why autistic individuals are predisposed to talent. Happe and Vital (2009) suggest that autistic people are more likely to process information locally with superior attention to details, rather than globally (O'Riordan, Plaisted, Driver, & Baron-Cohen, 2001), predisposing autistic people towards talent. This may in part be a result of mind-blindness, freeing up cognitive resources that are usually dedicated to monitoring social interactions and re-allocating them towards to nurturing of restricted interests. The hyper-systemizing theory (Baron-Cohen, Ashwin, Ashwin, Tavassoli, & Chakrabarti, 2009) proposes that autistic individuals have an increased drive to systemize (that is, the drive to analyse and construct systems) and that the detail-focus and bias towards local processing facilitates hyper-systemizing, leading to talent. Another view is that autistic people have enhanced sensory hyper-sensitivity, which may be a pre-requisite for excellent attention-to-detail (Baron-Cohen, Ashwin, et al., 2009), leading to talent due to superior visual, auditory, and tactile sensory perception in autism (Blakemore et al., 2006).

To date, there have been few neuroimaging studies of savants with or without autism. However, abnormalities in brain regions and neurochemistry have been suggested to be associated with learning and memory in neurotypical individuals. Larger samples of savants are needed for neuroimaging studies to investigate common brain features that may underlie the exceptional cognitive capabilities characteristic of savants. Early developmental changes in brain regional connectivity, chemistry and morphometry may have long-lasting effects on neural organization that could confer special abilities.

Researchers will use fMRI to conduct a pilot study to observe structural, diffusion tensor imaging, resting state and activation differences (during two cognitive tasks) in autistic individuals with savant skills compared to autistic individuals without savant skills, as well as neurotypical individuals without savant skills. Data from this pilot study will be used to inform and refine the protocol for a larger study.

Importance of research

This study is the first step in understanding the common brain features that may underlie the exceptional cognitive capabilities characteristic of individuals with savant skills. Given the high co-occurrence of savant skills and autism, elucidating the underlying neurophysiological basis of savant skills may also lead to a better understanding of the strengths and capabilities of autistic individuals.

Researchers involved

  • Professor Simon Baron-Cohen
  • Professor John Suckling
  • Dr Carrie Allison
  • Dr Amber Ruigrok
  • Dr Richard Bethlehem
  • Nazia Jassim
  • Paula Smith

Key findings

This study will run until December 2021