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Autistic savants

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Not specifically dance-related, but there's an interesting article about genius and the wiring of the brain in Wired magazine.

The Key to Genius

By studying the minds of people like Matt, neuroscientists are discovering that savants are more like the rest of us than the medical world once believed. We're learning that the extraordinary skills of savants tap into areas of the mind that function like supercomputers, compiling massive amounts of data from the senses to create a working model of the world. The traditional conception of the brain - two hemispheres that are hardwired from birth - is yielding to an understanding of the ways the regions of the cortex learn to function together as a network.

"We used to have this idea that we were born with a magnificent piece of hardware in our heads and a blank disk called memory," says Treffert. "Now we have to acknowledge that the disk comes with software, that we were wrong in many of our assumptions about intelligence, and that the brain is much more capable of healing itself than we thought. By finding out how savants work, we learn how we work."

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I feel very sorry for Matt's parents - they must be exhausted!!!

A very interesting article for anyone concerned with creativity, children and the arts.

A story apropos the article - My son of 21 months adores the Baby Mozart video, which shows toys and "real-world objects" moving to "baby friendly" adaptations of Mozart. As he is only allowed to watch this video once a day, I am lucky that we have his absolute favourite piece of music from the video - ROndo Alla Turca - on a CD of classical music excerpts". However, on the CD the ending is different, it's probably not as "adapted" as on the video. He has such a tantrum every time the CD music diverges from the video music. Now I will tell myself that these "terrible two" tantrums are a sign of great musicality and genius :)

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Are there savants in dance? That is in the technical sense of someone who could master a particular step after it was demonstrated once. If there aren't any such dance savants, then it would suggest that muscle memory is of a different order than the regular memory.

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Yes, there are indeed savants in dance. They aren't as frequent, however, as John Adams once said of his brother-in-law, Richard Cranch, "I hear that Mr. Cranch & family have taken the services of a dancing-master. If so, it is to be regretted, as I have never known a good dancer who was good for anything else!" :(

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I have now idea why this thread ended up in Aesthetic Issues.

I find the article somewhat sensationalistic and somewhat short on serious discussion about autism. I might point out that no matter what you think about this kid, he IS a Jazz phenomenon --- and you and I are not. That simple fact SHOULD give one pause before using terms like "damaged" in reference to his frontal lobes.

No, I do not feel sorry for Matt's parents. Not at all. It's like feeling sorry for the parents of Albert Einstein or Thomas Edison, both of whom were also autistic. Anyway, autism is hereditary and parents of autistic children are often autistic to some degree themselves. And that helps them better understand how to raise these children.

As far as dance goes: yes, there are genius autistic professional dancers. No, autistic dancers do not master steps after they are demonstrated once. But a great intelligence, photographic memory, etc. can help one progress through the levels of the academy a LOT faster than for most students. I have seen it twice now. Adherence to the technique and structure of ballet is the autistic dancer's great strength.

Autistics are visual thinkers. One autistic dancer with photographic memory imagines how she wants the step to look and then makes her body do it in the mirror.

Also, autistic dancers tend to know better the details of what the choreography is SUPPOSED to be --- there is less slip or slide in their minds as in the minds of other dancers. Never just "oh let's do a tombe pas de bourree and get on with it." And they know what the steps were last year and what changes were made between last year and this year, and how the dance developed from the year before as well.

The weaknesses come in the dramatic aspects of the art: the on-stage relationships, what the dance is trying to portray, the nuances of meaning in the movement, even working with a partner. And especially maintaining a focused attention. With care, all these aspects of the art can be mastered over time.

However, the typical ballet academy or company is typically NOT a good environment for the autistic dance student or professional dancer. There are many reasons for this.

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Cliff, my guess is that there is no such person, at least none that would qualify as autistic savant. There certainly are a lot of people who have a step memorized after seeing it just once. I know a couple folks like that myself. And the same two people also remember the steps forever. They never forget a combination or a variation they learned even decades ago.

But of course the body has to have been trained - the muscles shaped and strong, the flexibility in place, etc., before we could say that the person can execute the step with mastery. And that takes years to develop. I'm not sure that savants can manage that kind of slow training. Certainly many folks on the autistic spectrum are dancers but the savants rest in a different part of the spectrum. Their world, according to our terms, is a constricted one.

I've worked a lot with autistics. One has an amazing artistic ability. She can draw, with extreme accuracy, anything from memory. She can accurately reproduce an image in detail that she'd seen only for seconds. In cleaning out my files earlier today, I came across some of her artwork. I marveled once again at the tremendous talent and the peculiar intelligence of this girl. That great gift, and yet she can't manage day-to-day living with anything approaching normalcy.

Anyone interested in really understanding the perspective of an autistic should read

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon. It's written in the first person by a 16 year old autistic who, while not technically a savant, has many of those mathematical abilities.

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It's like feeling sorry for the parents of Albert Einstein or Thomas Edison, both of whom were also autistic.

I have to take issue with this statement, at least as far as it affects Thomas Edison, as I have no idea of Albert Einstein's childhood. Edison's childhood does not readily suggest an autistic subject. He worked as a "news-butcher" on railroad trains, had a special corner of the baggage car set aside for him by the local line's owner so that he could publish a newspaper of his own, and learned the telegraph system intimately, and all the code associated with it, so that he could communicate readily with the other railyards near Port Huron, Michigan where he lived. All this communication would seem to argue against a diagnosis of autism. Psychohistory is a very murky and marshy study, and fraught with peril.

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Mel, I don't know much about Edison's life but it IS possible for him to have been on what's known as "the autistic spectrum". Nowadays, that includes many people with a collection of personality traits and a certain kind of cognitive functioning who can still lead normal lives. In the past, autism was known only in its severest form, with retardation and institutional living the usual reality.

Most, but not all, of the kids I tutor are on that spectrum and many of them wouldn't strike anyone as being autistic. They all share a difficulty with language processing and a very disabling difficulty understanding social cues. It usually, but not always, makes it hard for them to acquire reading skills which is when I get involved. Later in their lives, organizational strategies become critical because many autistics tend to get bogged down, focusing narrowly on one field of interest and disregarding everything else.

But that ability to hyperfocus is the cause for countless inventions that have enhanced all our lives. Many inventors are "spectrumy" individuals because it takes that kind of scientific mind and dogged pursuit against all odds - what lots of folks would describe as a pursuit lacking in common sense - to see what's essentially just a vision through to completion.

So, while I don't know Edison's personal history, I do agree with Citibob that it's possible and also that it's likely, since it's such an inheritable trait, that parents in many cases are also on the spectrum. In Edison's case, the communication you speak of, Mel, could simply be a fascination with the science of communication rather than the connection among human beings.

Many researchers now say that one could describe autism as the male personality in the extreme. It's not meant disparagingly and, in fact, the speakers I've heard who've made this case have all been male. I get concerned when we talk about wiping out autism because if that were done, I think we'd end up wiping out our future as human beings. We can credit the autistics with so many of the scientific discoveries that have afforded us longer and healthier lives.

I get the very same feeling when the idea of stamping out bipolar disorder comes up. Right there, we'd again lose the art world's creative geniuses, many of whom may also be spectrumy people - think of it: the AD or choreographer who's so singleminded that he ignores the feelings of the individuals he's working with. Finding a way to help these creative geniuses make better social connections while still maintaining what makes them unique should be our focus.

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Question: what do you think accounts for someone's ability to reverse any combination without thought, no matter how complex? I knew one student who begged to reverse every combination in center (while almost everyone else groaned at the request). I kidded her one time that she must have exited her mother's womb backwards. I understand that some have a greater facility than others for reversing, and of course this often factors in just how much training they've had to reach a certain comfort level with this. But what about the person who thrives on this, and seems to do it automatically?

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Are you so sure the person you're talking about is not thinking? In my youth, I had a reputation in my classes for never making mistakes in combinations (I remember the day when, after several years at one studio, I finally made a mistake in class, and there was a cheer!) and being able to reverse combinations easily. Once when I was in college, we'd just completed a long, complex petit allegro, and the teacher told me to stand in 5th with the left front. He motioned to the accompanist to play, and during the 4-count intro, said "Reverse it." I did, with no mistakes, and it's possible that people might have thought I did it without thinking. It's true that for the most part I just reversed the feeling of doing the combination. But it did take some thinking -- some very, very quick thinking -- at a few points.

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Well, the jury's still out for me on this one, as I'm interested in points of view on this topic. I, too, find focusing and memorization to come easily. The reverse aspect is what intrigues me because the person to whom this came so easily was not a very talented dancer (I'm being kind), but at the same time had this one particular asset.

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There are people who can reverse images with ease. It's believed that in those individuals, the right and left hemispheres of the brain synthesize better than in the rest of us. Sometimes, in academic issues, it can get in the way. One of my students struggles greatly with this. She's tremendously talented spatially and, at the age of 8, can create 3 D images with her hands that would defy my capabilities even though I'm a fairly creative person when it comes to arts-and-crafts. But she automatically mirror-writes without realizing it.

I know of a neurosurgeon who does the same. It was a problem for him as a writer his whole life but he was a very well-respected Harvard-trained neurosurgeon. I'd put my brain in his hands any day :)

Einstein had that ability too. I think it was decided that his corpus callosum, which separates the two hemispheres of the brain, was thinner than in most people, therefore the two sides could work together more freely. If only he'd turned his attentions to dance! Come to think of it, I wish Balanchine's brain had been studied. I have a feeling it would've resulted in some very interesting discoveries.

But it's also possible that the people in dance who are compelled to reverse combinations are left-handed or SHOULD be so. Their bodies would simply be wanting to favor their stronger side.

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Edison's only problem with communication was a progressive deafness that proceeded from a chemical experiment he made at age 10, which caused the family barn to burn down, and young Tom to be yanked from school in 4th grade. His mother boxed his ears so hard, they bled from the ear canal. Perfectly okay in antebellum Michigan. I'll go with abused child, but autism isn't in it.

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Meaning no disrespect, citibob, but retrospective diagnosis is risky. I attended a symposium just last week on autism and Asperger's syndrome, and the presenter -- an Ivy League professor who heads an autism clinic -- specifically addressed this issue. He named another celebrity that people often characterize as being on the spectrum, and said simply, "I've never met the man, I've never had a chance to examine him systematically. I cannot make a diagnosis."

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Wait -- what's wrong with talking to furniture? As in, "Blast you, you @#!$@#!S!!!" when I cut the corner too sharply in walking by a desk. I talk to walls too. The ones I clip with my shoulder. I can't be the only one people chide, "Dance much?" I know, I know, off topic ...

However, in reading through this thread, it seems that because, as vagansmom pointed out, autism was once recognized only in its severest form, there seems to be a hazy blend of the effects of autism and abuse. In other words, there are many souls whose problems were exacerbated by others' lack of understanding as to just what was 'wrong' with them. These are the people who may have seemed relatively functional, but somehow didn't fit in. As a consequence, the problem worsens.

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I hesitate to add to this conversation, but I wanted to underline a couple of things. The young man in the Wired article is not typical of most autistic people, as the author points out. Very occasionally savantry comes with autism, but most often not. As other people here have noted, there is a wide spectrum of autism, from "high functioning," where the person may appear slightly disoriented or spacey, to profoundly affected, where the person cannot function without significant support. Temple Grandin, whose book "Thinking in Pictures" is very readable, is an excellent example of someone who could be classified as "high-functioning."

I have not read everything in the field, but as far as I know, it is not universally accepted that autism is hereditary.

There have certainly been savants in dance, if by that you mean someone who can learn an extended sequence by seeing it once. In "Dance to the Piper" Agnes de Mille said that Frederick Franklin could learn a tap routine the first time he heard it.

"Like conversations with furniture, the psychological profiling of dead persons is seldom productive."

Is this anything like hen dentistry?

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I have some non too reliable memories from going to the Edison museum in NJ a few times in my childhood...

I remember something about him being home schooled... I believe there was something about his teacher telling his mother he couldn't learn ('too stupid to learn' comes to mind) and his mother refusing to accept that and taking his education into her own hands...

I also remember a story about his deafness that when he was working on the railroad... or as a child... or some such thing... that he was running for a train and the conductor picked him up by his ears... and his deafness resulted... Now, admittedly, I heard this as a child, and children can often not quite get right all the details of a story... but I'm sure I was told it... I can almost picture the old lady tour guide (who had worked for him) telling the story.... and I certainly thought about it a lot as a child.

There was also something about his liking to take catnaps... and having a cot in his study and ?lab? for that purpose... that he preferred to take short catnaps and work rather than sleep all night...

Now my father who was an engineer in NJ had heard from older colleagues that he was a narcoleptic... and that while it might have seemed inspiring that he would work without normal sleep that it was no picnic to work for him because he expected all his key engineers to be awake and working when he was.

So I think there may have be something to the theory he was autistic.

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About the only useful knowledge gained from an analysis of a subject who was not directly examined was WWII Intelligence profiling of Adolf Hitler (who may have been within the autistic spectrum, too)! "Wild Bill" Donovan of the Office of Strategic Services offered that in the closing months of the war, it was unwise to try to target Hitler, as his autocratic management of the war was so incompetent that his removal would only prolong it by facing the allies with actual German generals who would no longer be overruled from Berlin.

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Mel, why is it so important to discredit any autistic diagnosis for Edison? And also, why not Einstein?

It's true, most autistics are not savants. But there are many very bright autistics. "High functioning" autism is defined by a score of 70 or better on an IQ test (that is, within 2 standard deviations of "normal" score).

Temple Grandin is much more than "high functioning". She is actually quite a brilliant woman with a PhD, one who has had a significant effect on an important industry. No she's not a savant, but most brilliant people who have made significant contributions to our world are not either.

It's likely that autistic people span the range of intelligence, just like others do. Many things that others take for granted, the autistic person must learn carefully. The most intelligent autistics with a keen eye for observation and analysis will eventually figure these things out and can go on to great things in life. They maybe be labeled "high functioning" or not even labeled at all. Just because they've figured out how to deal with the world does not mean they're no longer autistic; it just means they've figured out how to pretend to be normal.

The story is very different for less intelligent autistics. If they never achieve certain skills --- such as talking --- then they will fall further and further behind their peers as time goes by. They will consequently score very low on IQ tests and require institutionalization, no matter what their intelligence could have been. It's like being locked inside a box with no way out at that point. These people get all the press because they're so obviously "disabled".

The education of the autistic child must focus on unlocking the box and teaching the child to deal with the world. If that can be done, then the autistic child will grow into an autistic adult whose gifts can be recognized by the larger society --- whether those gifts are great or small. Raw intelligence can never hurt in this process.

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With all due respect, I think that trying to decide whether or not Edison fit an autistic profile is similar to trying to decide whether or not FDR actually had some other disease rather than polio (what disease did they mention in the news recently as the possible real cause of his paralysis?), whether Woodrow Wilson's encephalitis lethargica and possible resultant Parkinsonism was responsible for his erratic behavior, whether Lincoln had Marfan Syndrome, etc. We humans need to categorize and we like to do so with familiar figures of the past and present. I don't think there's any harm in such conjecture, especially when we're not stating anything negative about the individual under discussion.

And I don't think of the highest-functioning autistics as being disabled. In fact, for those people I don't even like the term "high-functioning". For that matter, I'M a high-functioning ADD'er, but we don't use the term that way for folks with ADD. I think it's time to move past that term for people with certain autistic traits. It's a negative connotation.

The genius of some autistics gives me great wonder and I feel privileged to know them. Others, though, are among my most challenging and difficult students and I'm often handicapped in trying to figure out how best to help them cope with school. So, like any collection of personalities, there are positive and negative behaviors among autistics and a huge range of capabilities. Temple Grandin herself, in her books, mentions various public personages and wonders if they fit an autistic profile. Because she has Asperger's, she's incapable of lying and she's also incapable of expressing an opinion that hasn't been researched to the max! So I would weight her opinion highly in any such discussion. (But I've loaned my Grandin books out so I can't look up Edison in them).

Because the word autism still brings to mind severely disabled individuals, many people think of it as a very debilitating disorder. I think that eventually we will be better able to tease out the distinctions between those individuals and the others on the autistic spectrum (aka autistic continuum), most likely through genetic studies, and at that point we'll probably give them separate names. And then perhaps no one will feel uneasy at the idea of naming certain collections of personality traits. Because, really, that's all it's about, giving some traits a name.

And I still like, respectfully, to try to figure out which people, past and present, fit what kind of profile. I especially like to do that with personalities in the dance world because they ARE so colorful! It doesn't alter my respect, or lack of, whatsoever of them. Being a people watcher, it just affords me the opportunity to engage in another activity I'm drawn to: classifying.

Happy Thanksgiving ALL - my break time is over and the guests are soon to arrive.

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