S is for Stop Saying Savant Syndrome and Splinter Skills

SThis is an entry for the Blogging from A to Z Challenge. I didn’t quite make it in April. I moved in May. I’m finishing the alphabet in June.

Great news! The ABCs of Autism Acceptance series has been picked up by Autonomous Press and will be published in book form, with additional material, in June 2016! Watch for it!

S is for Stop Saying Savant Syndrome and Splinter Skills

When you see an Autistic person who is very talented at something, are you tempted to call them a savant? Don’t. I realize you mean to compliment them but the word is loaded and ableist. You may already realize that talking about splinter skills is ableist (or, if you aren’t deeply involved in the medical aspects of autism, you might not be familiar with the term.)  I’m going to unpack them both, showing why these are words you should never use to describe people’s abilities. Let’s start with “savant.”

Joseph Straus, a professor at CUNY, examines the history of the term “savant” in a paper published in Disability Studies Quarterly. As Straus points out, the original term was “idiot savant” and it was generally applied to people who were intellectually disabled yet could perform in one area brilliantly. Sometimes that area was math, sometimes music, sometimes art. The point of the label was to highlight the juxtaposition of “extreme incompetence” and “extreme competence.” Not only were the term and the ideas behind it offensive and ableist, it was a way of stating what society finds valuable or worthless about a person. The brilliant musicianship, for example, was valuable because people liked to hear the music and would pay money to listen. The “idiot” nature of the rest of the person’s life was considered worthless.

As Strauss points out, the idea of the “autistic savant” is fairly new and can largely be attributed to the popularity of the Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise film, Rain Man, in which  Hoffman plays Raymond Babbitt, an Autistic adult. Hoffman’s character was modelled after two people – Kim Peek, a non-autistic “savant”, and William Sackter, a non-autistic man with a learning disability who was institutionalized (the state said he would be a “burden on society” otherwise) in the Faribault State School for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic after his father died of Spanish Flu. Sackter, who was portrayed by actor Mickey Rooney in a film about his life, Bill, was tested after 44 years of institutionalization, and found to have an I.Q. in the normal range. He had been a victim of the over-institutionalization of “problem people” that was rampant in the 1920s.

Bear in mind, the largest outrage is not that Sackter was not actually “feeble-minded.” The largest outrage is that anyone was locked away in such a state school. People who complain of over-diagnosis of children today are forgetting that so many of today’s mainstreamed children with IEPs and classroom aides would have been invisible behind the walls of an institution in the past. Chances are, Sackter had something like dyslexia or ADHD. Do not mourn alleged overdiagnosis; rejoice at de-institutionalization.

Hoffman’s portrayal of autism, modelled after two non-autistic people, set the tone for decades. Public understanding of what autism looks like has, until recently, largely been centered around Hoffman’s portrayal. The “Rain Man” concept of adult autism still lingers, though it has largely been replaced with a blend of Temple Grandin and the fictional character Sheldon Cooper from television’s Big Bang Theory. Raymond Babbitt was institutionalized, exhibited repetitive speech, needed supervision and assistance, and could count things at a very high level. In one scene, a server in a restaurant drops a box of toothpicks on the floor and Raymond instantly counts them. At first, his count is believed to be in error but when the server reveals that 4 toothpicks were left in the box, everyone is amazed. As you can see in the clip, Raymond has also memorized the phone book, halfway through the Gs, after his brother, Charlie, gave it to him in frustration, telling him “here, read this!”

Charlie notices Raymond’s impressive memory and counting skills and teaches him to illegally count cards so that he can take him to Vegas and win lots of money. Charlie doesn’t really like Raymond. He is frustrated with Raymond’s echolalia, with his need for structure in little things like what brand of underwear he wears or whether the maple syrup is on the table before or after the pancakes. But Charlie does value Raymond’s ability to count and remember because it can be monetized.

And this is where the notion of an “autistic savant” is dehumanizing. Have you ever heard someone called a savant because they collect bus transfers (as I used to do in my early teen years) and know every detail about the transfers and the use of them? Or what about someone who has memorized every detail of every episode of Dr. Who, all the way back to 1963? No, I’m pretty sure you’ve never heard those folks called savants and there’s a reason. “Savant” is code for “can do something society finds useful.” That’s why people called savants do things like make music or art or count fast, memorize well, calculate very large numbers accurately and so on.

To say that someone is a savant is to say several things:

  • that they are incompetent in every area of their life except one
  • that they have value that is contingent on their heightened skill in that one area
  • that others who are judged incompetent and do not have a “savant” skill are not valuable
  • that this person is a “freak,” a social outsider, an Other

When someone can do a thing that you find amazing, do not discount their competence in other areas of life. They may need guidance or assistance from friends and other helpers. That does not mean that they are incompetent. If you value their ability to multiply five digit numbers in their head and devalue the rest of their life because they are unable to work or because they need accommodations or assistance, you are setting yourself up to miss the very real humanity and joy of knowing that person. You are commodifying their mathematical abilities and dismissing their personhood. You are reducing them to a biological adding machine.

People have inherent value and should not be valued solely on whether they are “useful” or not. Nazi Germany called disabled people “Nutlos Esser” (useless eaters) and said they lived a “ballast existence,” holding the rest of the country back with their needs for extra care and their lack of useful productivity. As a result, disabled people were the first to die. The Aktion T4 program was a trial run for the larger exterminations of Jews, Romany, Homosexuals, Polish, etc. This is what happens to disabled people who are valued only for what they can produce.

You may be tempted to invoke Godwin’s Law and say I am going too far in speaking of Nazi death camps when I talk about why the term “savant” is dangerous. Don’t forget that the Nazis did not invent eugenics — it was an American export. Don’t forget that disabled women and women of color were being involuntarily sterilized in the United States  as recently as the 1970s. Don’t forget that Kissinger’s National Security Study Memorandum 200, written in 1974, described “overpopulation” in less developed countries as a security threat, saying that U.S. policy should include, “pay[ing] women in the LDCs to have abortions as a method of family planning or to pay persons to perform abortions or to solicit persons to undergo abortions.” In other words, “soft” genocide of poor, non-white people. Poor women all over the world, including in the United States, are offered money to be sterilized. I was offered $300 to be sterilized in 1991, solely because I was on food stamps. I turned the offer down.

This is a world where the poor are blamed and punished for their poverty. Politicians campaign on a platform of taking food stamps away from “those who refuse to work,” despite the fact that at least 40% of food stamp households do have at least one working member and 75% of food stamp households have children. Sixteen percent of food stamp households include a disabled person and 9% include seniors. [source]

If this doesn’t help clarify why it is dangerous to predicate people’s value on their usefulness, I don’t know what else to say.

Promoting the idea of the autistic savant harms Autistic people. I know someone who endured a person throwing toothpicks at their feet and asking them how many there were. Seriously. The idea that some Autistics are “savants” impairs many people’s ability to see us as human beings. Yes many of us are really, really good at some things. That is not because Autistics are savants but rather because the Autistic mind latches on to things it loves and savors them thoroughly. Some Autistics love animals. Some love Thomas the Tank Engine. Some love industrial deep fryers. Some love the work of Neil Gaimon. Some love languages. Some love flags. It’s okay. It’s not “savant syndrome.” It’s people who are hard-wired to really get into the things they love. Focusing on the things we love gives us immense joy. If you have never gotten really deeply into something, so far that you were eating, breathing, and dreaming about it, you will not understand this joy. You don’t have to be Autistic to experience it, but it helps.

“It’s that the experience is so rich. It’s textured, vibrant, and layered. It exudes joy. It is a hug machine for my brain. It makes my heart pump faster and my mouth twitch back into a smile every few minutes. I feel like I’m sparkling. Every inch of me is totally engaged in and powered up by the obsession. Things are clear.

“It is beautiful. It is perfect.”

Julia Bascom

This is not a separate competence in a desert of incompetence. This is an Autistic way of being. It is whole and to call it “savant syndrome” is to cut us into little pieces so you can say that you approve of this piece but that piece has just got to go.

And that is exactly what the phrase “splinter skills” does. It cuts us into little pieces, into splinters. It says “this part of you is good but those parts of you are bad.” It splinters us into fragments of worth and worthlessness. It declares us incomplete people, less than fully human, splintered.

How would you like it if your ability to bake amazing brownies were called a splinter skill — you are judged incompetent, except when it comes to brownies. You can solve partial differential equations? Great splinter skill. Too bad you don’t know how to change the oil in your car or you would be a real person.

Ariane, the mother of Emma, a fabulously Autistic young woman, writes, “If we did the same thing to those who are born without Autism, if we talked about our non-Autistic neurology as a deficit and identified all the ways in which it would cause us problems and difficulty, would we not despair when our non-autistic child was born as well?  Take your own life as an example and imagine that when you were born you were seen as a great disappointment.  Think about how each time you did something well it was dismissed as a “splinter skill” and was seen as yet another example of all that was “wrong” with you.”

Mayer Shevin, who just passed away last year, wrote an iconic poem, The Language of Us/Them. In it, he writes, “We have talents /  They have splinter skills,” highlighting how differently ability is viewed among the Autistic compared to the general population.

And if you were wondering how you should refer to Autistic people with talent, now that you know that “savant” and “splinter” are unacceptable words, there it is. We have talents. We have abilities. Speak of our skills as skills, not as freakish anomalies. Discuss what we can do the way you would discuss what any other human being can do. Whether it is Roadrunner cartoons or astrophysics, call it a talent, a skill, an aptitude. And celebrate it, whether it is a marketable skill or not. Because these are the things that bring the most joy into our lives.

To discover what an Autistic loves, listen to what we know.

To value an Autistic person, value who we are, not who we could be or what we could make of ourselves.

It really is that simple. Be with us as we are. Know us without agenda and value us without a price tag.

If you do this, you will surely come to love us.





14 responses to this post.

  1. Thank you for writing this Sparrow! I have wondered about this topic and never been bold enough to ask anyone. Because my kids are twice exceptional, the savant and splinter skills language has been brought up by many therapists/autism professionals that we’ve seen. As I described one of my children’s strengths to a therapist, she actually said “we call those swiss cheese brains”. That is one of a million reasons we no longer participate in “therapy”. It hurts too much.

    (((Hugs))) miss you and hope your move was for the better.

    • “swiss cheese brains”? UGH! Yes, run lie hell from that!

      The move has been awesome and both I and Mr. Kitty have adjusted well. He was chasing grasshoppers the other day and having the time of his life! Were in Wyoming now, but leaving for Nebraska this morning. So excited to get down to Florida this fall! (((Hugs))) to you and your beautiful family!

    • Posted by autisticaplanet on June 10, 2015 at 6:58 pm

      How ignorant, to refer to any human brain as swiss cheese. There is nothing missing in my autistic brain. That is not to mask the fact I do struggle with sensory processing issues, but that is not missing. I hope you find more compassionate help elsewhere.

  2. I call mine my “sparkle topics” because they make me sparkle when I talk about them. Anyone can have a sparkle topic. I think everyone has one, just not everyone has found theirs yet. I use the term in protest against the pathologisation of interest.

    I don’t “info-dump” on my “special interest”, I *sparkle*.

  3. Wow, so true and I didn’t see it before thx

  4. Posted by Richard Âû on June 10, 2015 at 6:06 am

    Reblogged this on Neuro Typical? No Way! and commented:
    I’ve not thought about this is this way before. Thank you for this eloquent post showing it just how terribly ableist these words and terms are.

  5. The source of the instantaneous counting savant stereotypes is among my favorite factoids….Donald T., one of Kanner’s original patients, could in fact multiply large numbers in his head near-instantaneously. One day as a teenager, some other boys pointed to a brick building and asked how many bricks were in the facade. And Donald came up with a number.

    The thing was….he made it up. He just wanted to impress the other kids, so he made up a large number, realizing that no one was going to take the time to fact-check him by actually counting the bricks. (He tells this story in the Atlantic piece “Autism’s First Child.”)

    What I love about this is the irony that Donald T. inadvertently helped establish one of the most persistent stereotypes of autistic people by doing something else that autistic people are supposedly not able to do….lying.

  6. […] S is for Stop Saying Savant Syndrome and Splinter Skills. […]

  7. Posted by autisticaplanet on June 10, 2015 at 6:54 pm

    I am on the autism spectrum (Asperger’s) and did not know, until I read this blog post, that Kim Peek wasn’t autistic. The term “ableism” is a word I have only heard in 2015. Thank you for your post. I wouldn’t want to be deemed non-disabled due to my interest in nature photography and ability to operate a camera. I wouldn’t want my sole worth to come from that one (or any one) area of talent. Unfortunately, I am pretty severely affected with SPD, and society is good at making sure that the disabled part of me is all that there is, and that I as a person I (and others who are unable to support themselves for whatever reason) am a “burden” to society (taxpayers most especially).

  8. Wonderful news that Autonomous Press have picked up this series for a book; I shall look forward to that!

    I see the savant label as one of the consequences of not presuming competence. When people see us as lesser humans, as broken, they focus on all the areas where they expect us not to be able — thank you deficit-based medical model of autism.

    I also take issue with the way many people value others solely according to how their skills can be of direct benefit. They value the mechanic because they can fix their car, the doctor because they can treat their illnesses.

  9. […] S is for Stop Saying Savant Syndrome and Splinter Skills (Unstrange Mind blog). […]

  10. […] At Unstrangemind, here’s an excerpt from a post that really resonated for me: […]

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