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Communications and Updates   |    
Islands of Genius: The Bountiful Mind of the Autistic, Acquired, and Sudden Savant
Sally J. Rogers, Ph.D.
Am J Psychiatry 2011;168:860-861. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.2011.11020297
View Author and Article Information
Sacramento, Calif.

The author reports no financial relationships with commercial interests.

Book review accepted for publication March 2011.

Accepted March , 2011.

Copyright © American Psychiatric Association

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Darold Treffert's Islands of Genius provides a fascinating and richly detailed account of the clinical and neuropsychological aspects of savant syndrome, the presence of very unusual abilities in persons with developmental disabilities. Treffert shares his lifetime of interest and learning, through clinical work and research, about persons with savant syndrome in this well-organized, timely, and respectful work. His goals are not to lay out the differences or distances between typically functioning people and those with savant syndrome but rather to emphasize the ties among us all, ties involving brain plasticity, the depth and richness of talents, the importance of family love and support in developing talent, and the potential capacity in all of us for developing high levels of skills or expertise.

He begins by describing the phenomenon of savant syndrome, its presence in both autism spectrum disorders and in other developmental disorders, particularly intellectual disability. He sees the syndrome as evidence of the multiple intelligences available to all people. The second and third chapters review various theories about the underpinnings of savant syndrome. Treffert places considerable emphasis on habit memory, or procedural memory processes, developed to an amazing degree and supported through ongoing self-initiated practice that is enjoyable for the person and thus self-reinforcing. He also cites evidence of some familial components, including presence of such components in female identical twins with autism and in a number of other persons with multiple family members with particular strengths in the same area as their own talent. He suggests that some level of isolation or deprivation through sensory impairments, as in blindness, social impairment in autism, or institutional deprivation may facilitate the development of the talent. He suggests that what happens at a neuropsychological level is brain rewiring by either recruitment or release of dormant capacity of right hemispheric functioning in the presence of left hemispheric abnormality. In Chapter 4, he brings in original ideas about the role of genetic memory, perhaps accomplished through epigenetic changes as a result of various experiences in each generation, which allows a person to "know" things that he or she has never experienced.

In Part II, Treffert provides a number of case studies of persons with savant syndrome, beginning with very early reports of people from the 1800s and moving up into current examples, including Matt Savage, an American teenager and jazz musician who currently heads his own band and composes his own music, Temple Grandin, a well-known animal scientist and autism advocate, and Alonzo Clemens, an extraordinary sculptor in Colorado. These reports are fascinating accounts of the talents of the people he features—often multiple talents—the development of their special abilities and their disabilities during their childhoods, and the family members and mentors who supported their developing talent. Importantly, he describes the ways they used their talents as adults, their vocations, their creativity, their continued adult development of social and language skills, and their own ways of framing their life stories, often in their own worlds, since he has met and interviewed many of the people he describes. He does not dismiss their talents as splinter skills or "gee whiz" tricks. He honors the family members and mentors who helped each person develop his or her talent, and in doing so gives demonstration of their capacities for relationship and the importance of nurturing talent—"training the talent," in his words—when it appears.

The final set of chapters explores the relationship between savant syndrome and the capacity for talent in each of us. Treffert suggests that the same mechanisms are at play in all of us—right hemisphere capacities and procedural memory capacities—and further, he suggests that similar capacities are potentially in each of us as well, that these abilities are not the result of abnormal functioning but rather the result of normal brain capacities, although the level of talent that can be developed varies across people as a result of normal distribution of skills in the population. His belief that these capacities are much more widely available to people than what is generally thought is buttressed by the case studies of persons who function normally with greatly reduced brain capacity as a result of illnesses or brain surgery, examples that add to his belief that we have far more capacity to draw on than we typically use.

Here is a respectful, humanistic, optimistic book written by a master clinician-scientist who sees the whole person: history, gifts and challenges, environment, relationships. The book is a fascinating read that can be easily accessed by college students, professionals, and people in the general population who are interested in savant syndrome, including parents. The author is deeply respectful of the talents of those with savant syndrome and sees these as evidence of great talent to be more fully developed, as a source of satisfaction and meaning for the talented person and a source of betterment of others. He understands people with savant syndrome as part of the whole of society—not as separate, interesting "cases" but rather as growing, developing, immensely talented people involved in relationships, loved by others, and demonstrating the brain plasticity and capacity that is available to all of us.

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