Lucy Dennison on talent and autism

Lucy Dennison

Last week I went to a two day discussion meeting at the Royal Society on talent and autism.  It raised a lot of thought provoking questions, not only about autism but also about wider issues such as the working of the brain.  Special skills are far more common in autism spectrum disorders than any other group, but why is this the case? 


Do we all have the capacity for special skills, buried deep within our minds?


Most people have come across the link between autism and special talents, or savant syndrome, from the 1980s movie Rain Man. The film tells the story of Raymond, a man with autism who has an exceptional memory and gift for mathematics. 


There are some great moments in the film where Raymond demonstrates these special skills.  In one particularly memorable scene Raymond and his brother are served by a waitress in a diner.  Raymond reads the waitress’ name badge aloud followed by her telephone number, having memorised every telephone directory entry from A to G the day before.  Rain Man is inspired by Kim Peek, a man who had exceptional talent despite developmental disabilities.


At the discussion meeting, a video was shown of another savant, Leslie Lemke, who was severely congenitally disabled, but had remarkable musical ability.  When he was 16, Leslie’s adoptive Mother found him playing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in the middle of the night. He had recently heard the piece on television, and was able to replicate the piece having heard it only once.


A theme throughout the discussion meeting was whether savant syndrome demonstrates a dormant potential in us all.  It has been suggested that it is the tendency to pre-occupation and local processing, and the demonstration of a relative skill which releases the special skills in people with autism.  It’s certainly a riveting idea.  I’d love to know what my special skill would be, unfortunately it’s much too well buried to tell.


Lucy Dennison is a BMJ Clegg Scholar who is currently in her final year studying medicine at Bristol University.  In 2002 she qualified in dentistry from Manchester University and has since worked in general dental practice and oral and maxillofacial surgery, before returning to university.