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Thursday, 7 October, 1999, 08:24 GMT 09:24 UK
Tuning in to genius
Autistic savants' brains function differently
An Australian scientist is hoping to switch off the part of his brain that analyses information and recover mathematical and artistic skills associated with the autistic savant, according to the New Scientist.

Professor Allan Snyder says he will use carefully timed magnetic pulses to interfere with the way his brain works and stop it from analysing and editing information.

Professor Snyder and Professor John Mitchell, of the Centre for the Mind at the Australian National University in Canberra, believe that everyone possesses the skills of autistic savants - the small number of autistic people who have amazing mental abilities.

The condition was made famous by Dustin Hoffman in the Oscar-winning film Rain Man.

The Australian scientists think the average person's brain just goes one step further than the autistic savant's and unconsciously processes and edits information to give it meaning.

Using brain imaging experiments on savants, they have been able to see the unconscious processing of the brain before people become aware of their thoughts.

He told the New Scientist: "In normal people the brain takes in every tiny details, processes it, then edits out most of the information, leaving a single useful idea which becomes conscious.

"In savants, the suppression doesn't happen so they see the picture in fantastically detailed components, like individual pixels in a photograph."

Da Vinci

Professor Snyder, who is director of the Centre for the Mind, says autistic savants often have incredible artistic or mathematical skills.

Even as infants, they can show tremendous talent, for example, for drawing.

He says that even as a three-year-old, an autistic artist called Nadia could draw "with the detailed perspective normally associated with the classical masters like Leonardo da Vinci".

However, she could not recognise her parents or describe what she was drawing.

"Autistic children seem to be innately aware of shape from shading and other details that we suppress in order to instantly identify an object," said Professor Snyder.

He says the average person may have these skills.

He also believes that savants can lose these skills as they acquire language abilities since these trigger the development of a part of the analytical part of the brain which dominates in most people.

Experts on autism say there are many theories on savants.

For example, some believe that parts of their brain have become highly developed, but in isolation so that no connections are made.


Darold Treffert, author of Extraordinary People: Understanding Savant Syndrome, says he believes prenatal interference with the way the brain develops is responsible for savants.

He thinks testosterone may play a role in stunting the growth of the half of the brain linked to language skills, explaining why men are about six times more likely to be autistic than women.

However, the Center for the Study of Autism in Oregon USA says no-one really knows why some autistic people have savant skills.

"There are many theories, but there is no evidence to support any of them," said Dr Stephen Edelson.

The National Autistic Society says more than 500,000 families in the UK are affected by autism.

Autistic people have difficulty relating to and communicating with others.

It says no-one yet understands what causes the condition.

Rita Carter:"We all have this amazing ability, but we can't get at it"
See also:

30 Jun 99 | Health
Immune link to autism
11 Jun 99 | Health
Parents reassured on vaccine
29 Aug 99 | Health
Measles and mumps vaccines banned
16 Sep 99 | Health
MMR: A needless dilemma?
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