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The Mystery of Savant Syndrome

by Janice DeBlois and Antonia Felix

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[The following is an excerpt from the book "Some Kind of Genius: The Extraordinary Journey of Musical Savant Tony DeBlois" by Janice DeBlois and Antonia Felix. (Published by Rodale; October 2005;$22.95US/$30.95CAN; 1-59486-273-7. Copyright © 2005 Janice DeBlois.) In this excerpt from Chapter Three, Darold A. Treffert, MD, an expert on savant syndrome, explains some of the research that has been done on autistic savants -- and how parents can make a difference.]

While brain physiology makes up the first aspect of the triad of savant syndrome, the second part involves the skill itself and the savant's obsessive relationship to it. Whether expressed as mathematical calculating, calendar calculating, or artistic or musical skill, the talent takes over the life of the person. Savants are unilateral in their interests, and their day revolves around their particular skill. "The unique nature and almost forcefulness of this obsessiveness makes the savant's talent as much of a force as a gift," said Dr. Treffert. "They have to play; they have to practice; they have to calculate."

The third part of the phenomenon is the family or caregiver who provides a safe, loving, nurturing haven for the savant. Positive reinforcement, praise, and unconditional acceptance are vital to creating an environment in which savants are able to thrive and develop closer relationships to their families and interact with the world. Everyone likes positive feedback, of course, but the emotional needs of savants are as unique as their gifts.

The neurology of the savant, like that of the autistic person, includes more limited access to the emotional centers of the brain. Parents of savants express their love and give reinforcement often without the benefit of the typical feedback that a child gives in response to affection. Praise and encouragement increase the savant's self-esteem and add joy to his or her life. This joy is evident during Tony's performances, for example, when he claps along with the audience after a piece, grins, and asks, "Isn't it good?"

Some people have criticized the practice of putting musical savants onstage as a form of exploitation. But it is difficult for others to put this negative connotation on the experience when it clearly brings so much joy to the performer. Tony, like other musical savants, does not suffer from performance anxiety; he never gets nervous before a performance. "It isn't exploitation because Tony loves applause and a satisfied audience," said Dr. Treffert. "It's tremendously reinforcing. The quality of that sort of reinforcement and the family's investment in it is terribly important."

While savant syndrome encompasses the three elements of brain dysfunction, obsessive behavior with the skill, and nurturing support, another triad comes to light specifically in terms of the musical savant. Throughout the literature, from Blind Tom to the current day, the condition of the musical savant entails the three elements of blindness, cognitive difficulty, and musical genius.

In Tony's case, blindness occurred as a result of oxygen therapy that kept him alive as a premature infant, while Leslie Lemke's blindness was the result of glaucoma in infancy. Cognitive difficulty, in Tony's case, is the result of brain lesions that show up on his CT scan, but the left-hemisphere dysfunctions of musical savants have also been the result of accidental injury and other causes.

The source of musical genius, surprisingly, does not come from an obvious genetic inheritance; the literature does not contain family histories in which the savant was born into a musically gifted family, as is often the case with musical prodigies. Tony's mother played the clarinet in school, and her siblings also played musical instruments in junior high, but they do not consider themselves musically gifted, nor have they played their instruments since that time.

The triad of blindness, cognitive disability, and musical genius shows up with uncanny regularity in musical savants, although the interrelationship of these three elements is not yet clear. Their appearance in the musical savant is one of the ongoing mysteries of the syndrome that physicians such as Dr. Treffert continue to ponder and study.

The old adage states that we utilize only 10 percent of our brains, and savants remind us of this fact with startling clarity. The insights about brain hemisphere functions and memory that come out of savant research are expanding our ideas about who we are and what we are capable of. For Dr. Treffert, one of the most valuable benefits of this knowledge is a new appreciation for right-brain functions that we have tended to dismiss as frivolous or unessential compared with work, relationships, and other aspects of our day-to-day lives. As a start, he observes that corporations have begun to value the visionary qualities of the right brain. This is evidenced by the popularity of Betty Edwards, PhD,'s weeklong workshops based on her book, "New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain," which offers methods for slowing down left-hemisphere dominance in order to release right-hemisphere abilities.

In the business world, these abilities include seeing the big picture and solving problems from a more creative, holistic perspective. "It's interesting," said Dr. Treffert, "that up until a few years ago, when most of the organizations went looking for a CEO, they looked for a good left-hemisphere management-by-objectives kind of person. Now, they're saying they want someone with vision, and that's really a right-brain skill."

The issue of practical versus artistic, right-brain skills came up in Tony's experience at various schools, where well-intentioned educators and occupational therapists thought it was more important for him to learn how to feed himself, tie his shoes, and learn vocabulary than to play the piano. But Dr. Treffert believes that Tony's music is his pathway to learning language and other skills and that allowing him to develop his gifts opens up a "conduit to normalization" that is the unique pathway of the savant. In a clinical assessment, Dr. Treffert described this conduit as essential to Tony's development.

The musical gift that Anthony DeBlois shows is more than a curious and conspicuous talent. Like other savants, in his case it can be the conduit to further socialization, amelioration of some of his autistic symptoms, and a mechanism to raise considerably whatever hindrances his basic mental handicap produce. While continual attention to the specific talent of the savant may at times seem optional or even frivolous, it is through training that talent that the savant can move beyond the defect toward better attention to daily living skills, enhanced socialization, better communication skills, more interactive relationships, and even intimacy . . .

Such skills become a mode of expression through which others can reach and interact with the savant, and consequently those skills lead to the development of other related skills and human communication. The skills serve as a window to the world for the savant, and they serve as a window to the savant for the rest of us.
This practical aspect of Tony's musical genius echoes the practical functions of studying savant syndrome to enhance science's understanding of the brain. But Dr. Treffert is quick to point out that attempting to understand the physiology of the syndrome as a scientist in no way takes away from the miraculous nature of the condition, one that inspires awe at the mysteries of nature. Dr. Treffert believes that savant syndrome must be understood in order to fully understand the brain and the human mind and that no model of cognition or behavior is complete without incorporating the unique pathways of the savant.

Even when science reaches this understanding, Dr. Treffert believes that there will still be plenty of room for wonder at the complexity of it. "I still marvel at it, I'm still in awe of it, but it's no different than the phenomenon of a miraculous medical recovery and eventually finding the underlying cause. The body's ability to do what it did can still be considered miraculous. You don't detract from the miracle by trying to understand how it happened."

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About the Authors: Tony DeBlois and Janice DeBlois live near Boston, where Tony performs regularly with his jazz ensemble. He also plays solo shows and has appeared in concert halls from Dublin to Taipei to Washington, DC's Kennedy Center. Tony released his sixth CD, also titled 'Some Kind of Genius,' in the fall of 2005. Antonia Felix is the bestselling author of sixteen nonfiction books, including biographies of Laura Bush, Condoleezza Rice, and Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli.

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