Although my son Kyle, 13, is autistic, he has some phenomenal abilities. His memory is amazing. If you asked him the capital of any country in the world, or any state in America, he would answer instantly.
Kyle the Geography Wiz
What is the capitol of Mongolia? "Ulaanbaatar."
What is the capitol of Mozambique? "Maputo."
What is the capitol of Kazakhstan? "Astana."
What is the capitol of Mauritania? "Nouakchott."
Honestly, it's fascinating. He will name the capitol of any country within a fraction of a second. You can't stump him. He can also calculate all kinds of mathematical equations in his head, as long as they contain repeated digits, such as "66 x 999" or "55 x 33." Additionally, he has beautiful handwriting and can draw very well. He read words at a college level, but when you ask him abstract questions about meaning, he gets lost. In other words, he could read "The Wizard of Oz" quite easily but if you asked him, "Why did Dorothy want to see the wizard?" he would struggle with an answer.
What is an Autistic Savant?
"Autistic Savant" is a term meaning a person with autism who has a special ability or skill. "Savant" comes from the French word for "knowing" and means "a learned person." About ten percent of people with autism have remarkable abilities. Often this becomes apparent in childhood. As I discussed in a previous blog, Kyle was displaying amazing memory skills at the age of two, where he lined up bottles and knew the numerical placement of at least twenty, without counting.
And this is an example of why autism is NOT classified as mental retardation. With mental retardation, the individual has low intellectual functioning across the board. Autism has peaks and valleys of intellectual abilities.
Why does it occur?
We aren't exactly certain. We do know that the brain is divided into two hemispheres, bridged by a band of nerve fibers called the corpus callosum. While the left brain hemisphere (often called the Analyzer) controls skills associated with symbolism and interpretation (such as understanding words and body language), the right brain hemisphere (often called the Integrator) controls skills which are more specific and concrete, (such as memory). It has been suggested that in autistic savants, the right brain is over-compensating for damage or deficiency in the left brain.
When Richard Wawro was three years old, his parents were told that he was severely mentally retarded. He did not have any meaningful language until he was eleven. He also walked in circles, played single piano notes repeatedly, and spun objects. It later became clear that he was autistic. As a child, he was given crayons, and he demonstrated a remarkable ability to draw. By the age of twelve, a professor of art proclaimed him gifted. Today, Richard Wawro's paintings sell in the $10,000 range. He is an excellent example of an autistic savant. (Click on his name to learn more or to see his paintings.)
Daniel Tammet is an autistic savant who excels in mathematics. He is able to calculate phenomenal equations at astonishing speed. His abilities surfaced as a child after numerous battles with seizures.
He explains that on one occasion, his brother asked him to do an equation. "He asked me to multiply something in my head - like 'What is 82 x 82 x 82 x 82?' I just looked at the floor and closed my eyes. My back went very straight and I made my hands into fists. But after five or 10 seconds, the answer just flowed out of my mouth. He asked me several others, and I got every one right. My parents didn't seem surprised. And they never put pressure on me to perform for the neighbors. They knew I was different, but wanted me to have a normal life as far as possible." Last year Daniel Tammet broke the European record for recalling the mathematical constant pi to the furthest decimal point. 22,514 decimal places, from memory. Yes, you read that right. (Click on his name to learn more.)
I believe it is our duty as parents to help our children discover their talents and do what we can to foster them. When an autistic child is determined to have a special gift, we should provide him with opportunities to use and stretch this ability. However, we must be careful not to treat these kids like performing pets. There's nothing wrong with appreciating their unique strengths as long as equal focus is given to improving their areas of deficit. The ultimate goal is to enhance the child's overall quality of life.
Every child comes to this earth with gifts. Some are mental gifts, some physical, and others spiritual. I've been impressed at how even the most profoundly disabled child can touch people and transform lives. Certainly these are spiritual gifts. Kyle has many unique and amazing gifts, but his tender, gentle heart is my most favorite.
Oh...and Kyle, what is the capitol of Uzbekistan?
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