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Autism's Connection to Exceptional Abilities

Autism is a complex disorder affecting brain development that causes difficulty in social interaction as well as verbal and nonverbal communication, and often produces repetitive behaviors. Interestingly, savant abilities spring from those who are autistic to a far greater degree than the general population -- as high as 33 percent with autistic individuals, compared to less than 1 percent in the non-autistic individuals. "Savant" refers to exceptional abilities not exhibited by most persons, such as musical, artistic, mathematical, or mechanical ability, coupled with extraordinary memory.

The autism-savantism connection is a mystery. In recent years, however, a fuller picture has begun to emerge. The current line of thinking goes something like this: Much of the brain dysfunction marked by autism occurs in the left hemisphere of the brain. Many of the savant skills originate in the right hemisphere. The brain redirects neural activity from the left hemisphere to the right hemisphere to compensate for the dysfunction of the left hemisphere. Alternate neural pathways are developed to accomplish tasks, and in some instances enhanced perceptual abilities are produced. This re-organizational capacity of the brain produced by autism, plus elevated perceptual skills, plus knowledge or expertise may potentially equal savant abilities.

Savantism may also develop in those who have suffered traumatic brain injuries, or who have experienced stroke or neurodegenerative diseases. Brain imaging confirms the changes in blood flow and neuronal activity in the brain compared to the general population.

The brain is a wondrous, exceedingly complex organ. The autism-savantism connection is one avenue to unlocking a few more of its secrets.

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