Monday, July 23, 2012

Autism Diaries XXXVI: Non-savant skills

J is not a savant. But he's related to one. His deaf and autistic first cousin twice removed (my mother's first cousin) can tell you which day of the week you were born on a split second after you tell him your birth date.

Temple Grandin, herself autistic and highly intelligent, has argued that savant skills in autism may arise when language deficits allow specialized subconscious processes to prevail that would normally be overridden by a more generalized (linguistic) consciousness. J's first cousin twice removed is verbal, but not very. He cannot, for example, explain how he calculates birthdays.

As for J, aside from his memory for the specs, locations, and rotational statuses of the hundreds of ceiling fans he's observed on thousands of specific dates and times (down to the specific resting positions of specific stationary fans at specific times of day), the one savant-like symptom I've witnessed was early on in his language development. Early on is his sign language development, I should say, for this was back when sign language was our deaf, autistic child's primary mode of communication.

He was toddling around his grandparents' living room, flicking out the fingers of his right hand into different configurations, and it slowly dawned on me that what he was doing was signing the sign language alphabet--smoothly, steadily, and backwards. (People who think this is easy should try saying the alphabet backwards--smoothly and steadily, without pausing between letter names.) When I asked him to do this years later, he couldn't.

"Maybe J is a savant," J's older brother casually proposed at a recent family reunion dinner.

"I don't think so," I replied. I explained to the extended family why I thought so, contrasting J with his first cousin twice removed (who wasn't in attendance).

"Have you tested him?" asked one family member.

"J," called out another, "I was born on March 6th, 1970. Can you tell me what day of week I was born on?"

J turned his back to the table, and about 30 seconds later, announced "Friday."

"He's right."

And around the big round table we went. Birth dates from 2007 down to 1938 were tossed out; birthdays were calculated after a 15-60 second pause. Not one leap year was missed; he was right every time. But unlike the split second duration of J's first cousin twice removed's calculations, J's seemed to correlate with how far in the past the dates were (and whether he could short-cut from one date to the next). It seemed quite clear that he was deliberately deploying straightforward arithmetic algorithms rather than deferring to the sort of subconscious, rapid lookup process that autism experts have proposed is the basis for split-second calendrics.

There's something magical about savant skills--maybe too magical. Or maybe this is only the impression of a biased mother who also has a special predilection for that which can be called to consciousness and expressed in words. But I actually find J's 15-60 second deliberate calculations more impressive than the automated ones of a split-second savant.

If language interferes with savant skills, perhaps it does so specifically by involving the consciousness in mental processes that would otherwise be purely subconscious. Generally the deliberated processes of the conscious mind are considerably slower than the automated processes of the subconscious. But, because they involve the person as a conscious being, they're in some sense more meaningful--both to the person him or herself, and to all his extended family.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

According to my kid's pre-school teachers, it is fairly common for young kids to think about letters and write them backwards. Both my kids went through stages where they would write in mirror image, right to left with all the letters backwards. The teachers, wisely, made nothing of it and it lasted about 6 months. They speculated that it has something to do with handedness, and that it is more natural for right handed kids to see read right to left instead of left to right. I thought it was fascinating, although it freaked me out at the time.