Is there a little Rain Man in all of us? Do we all have a salting of the genius savant with a peppering of madness lurking within us?

A savant used to live in our building. He was Deaf and his language skills were limited, but if you dropped a bunch of straws on the ground he could tell you how many straws there were in the bunch before they hit the ground.

If you threw a pile of poker chips at him, he could tell you how many chips you were throwing and the total value of all the chips before they landed on him.

If you handed him a gallon jar of pennies he could tell you exactly how many pennies were in the jar in the blink of an eye. Is there a fine line between madness and genius?

What is the difference between a savant and a smart person? Where does the savant lurk within you?

27 Comments

  1. Hi David,
    I don’t think there is a savant within me. If he’s there, he has yet to surface.
    I’ve only met one savant, Thomas (not his real name). Thomas was hired by the company as a favor to his family. It was also secretly hoped that his genius would increase revenue. Shortly after his hire, everyone began to realize how odd Thomas was.
    He never wore a suit and tie (the norm), preferring wrinkled clothes and unpolished shoes. Sometimes his socks did not match. He always, ALWAYS wore a black raincoat and carried a black umbrella, no matter what the forecast was. He could not drive, so rode the bus to work. Although everyone in the office drank coffee or tea in the morning, Thomas brought a hand-held mixer to work and made his own vitamin drinks.
    He had no people skills. One day he confided in me that although he was twenty-four, he had never had a date. In a conference, he dropped his vitamin drink and his world came to an end. He stood up screaming and was quietly ushered out and I never saw him in another conference.
    One day, Shannon (not her real name) decided to play a joke on Thomas. We had received a memo earlier that the fire alarm was to be tested at 3:00. We were to ignore it. She took Thomas’ copy of the memo and waited for the “fun” to begin. When the alarm went off, she went running into Thomas’ office and said “Hurry, Thomas, get out of here! There’s a fire.” Thomas panicked and asked where was his raincoat (that Shannon had hidden) and she said “Don’t worry about it, just run!” He went running down eleven flights of stairs and only realized later that it was a poor joke.
    I think Thomas was one of the saddest and loneliest people I have ever met, and I don’t think his genius brought him any comfort, just isolation.
    Donna

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  2. Donna —
    I think you have a little Rain Man in you when it comes to article ideas and whipping them up. That talent is definitely out-of-the-ordinary!
    I am sorry to hear about Thomas. I love it that he was given a chance to succeed. I only wish he had better friends and appropriate support in the workplace.
    Did anyone know about Shannon’s plan to terrorize him before it happened? Did anyone try to stop her? She is a cruel and insensitive person.

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  3. Hi David,
    I didn’t know about Shannon’s plan. She is a very cruel and insensitive person, and I did not get along well with her at all!
    No one ever went to lunch with Thomas. I have to admit, I never invited him. I did not want to send a message that we could be best friends, because since he didn’t have any, that very well could have happened. I did, however, lend a sympathic ear when he told me how he had never had a date. I guess I could have done more.
    I think he was somewhat autistic, but I don’t know much about the characteristics of autism.
    Donna

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  4. Donna —
    He was a high-function savant from what you’ve described. He was able to hold a conversation and to dress and go to work. He should’ve been encouraged. Savants can be over-sensitive to external stimulation like flashing lights and loud sounds — so the fire alarm trick was particularly painful and cruel for him to experience on many levels.

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  5. Hi David,
    Then that explains why he freaked out when dropping his vitamin drink on the floor. The loud sound it made.
    Donna

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  6. Donna —
    I’m pretty sure the reason he freaked out over the drink was the break in the routine pattern of expectation. He is hardwired to drink his vitamins, not clean up after them. Dropping the drink messed up the logic of the event in his mind and he was unable to stop the progression of chaos, clean it up, make another and drink it — and so the impulses in his brain misfired into a “freak-out” as he tried to regain his sense of space and time in reality.

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  7. Hi David,
    He was certainly into routine. His black raincoat was the talk of the office. That’s why Shannon hid it– she knew he would be looking for it if he had to leave the building. Who stops to get a raincoat if there is a fire?
    Donna

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  8. Donna —
    The black raincoat gave him comfort. Who is anyone to decide what is proper and what is not except for the person trying to get through life with the least possible distress?
    He stops to get the raincoat during a fire because that’s the pattern he follows to safely leave the building.

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  9. Hi David,
    I don’t mean to sound insensitive, but I’m having a hard time understanding the logic here.
    Thomas had a photographic memory. He was a member of a chess club and a bridge club where he had distinguished himself by winning numerous tournaments. And yet, he did not have enough common sense to leave the building without first stopping to retrieve his raincoat?
    Donna

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  10. Hi David,
    I might be a little mean, but I never would have played that trick on Thomas.
    As I said, he was very sad to me, and I felt sorry for him.
    Not trying to interchange “intelligence” and “common sense,” just wondering about how not all are “wired” the same.
    Am always trying to become more tolerant. 😀
    Donna

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  11. Donna —
    It is actually more dangerous for Thomas and EVERYONE for him to NOT get his raincoat in a fire than to be denied a bit getting his raincoat in a fire. Instead of dealing with a small delay while the coat is fetched, a total meltdown would have to be dealt with and that could affect staff or rescue workers.
    Janna’s office finally now has a policy of communicating – sort of — with her when the fire alarm goes off. Since she is Deaf, she used to grab her stuff and leave every time the fire alarm went off. She didn’t know if it was a drill, real or a false alarm. No one told her.
    Now someone is assigned to her to let her know the following: “Drill” or “False Alarm” or “Follow me, Fire!” every time the alarm sounds. Sometimes people forget about her, though — so in many ways she’s still on her own and has to take visual clues from those around her to determine what’s really happening. They finally now pre-announce all fire drills so that helps her prepare a bit better.
    On 9/11 one of Janna’s profoundly Deaf friends was working as a chef in the World Trade Center. She got him that job. The planes hit. People started to evacuate. Janna’s friend kept on cooking. He didn’t feel or hear the impact or notice the mad scramble to leave — kitchens are always a mad scramble. No one bothered to tell him anything. No one told him to get out. Everyone just left. Every Man For Himself!
    Finally, one of his kitchen co-workers — who had already safely exited the building — looked for him on the street and didn’t find him. The worker, horrified, rushed back into the World Trade Center and back into the restaurant and found Janna’s friend there, alone in the kitchen, cooking soup for the lunch rush.
    The worker grabbed Janna’s friend by the arm without bothering to explain anything except “RUN!” and together they tore out of the building before the towers fell.
    It was only later that night when Janna’s friend watched the Closed Captioned news that he realized everything that happened and how close he came to dying. It shook him up for a long time. I’m sure the betrayal of all but one of his co-workers still stings to this day.

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  12. Hi David,
    Thanks for reminding the movie – it was one of my best experiences.
    The line is very thin between madness and genius. The difference between a smart person and a savant is – a smart person will always be busy to prove himself, a savant is absolutely oblivious to it.
    I am not smart, but I am no savant either. I am one of the crowd.

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  13. David,
    This subject has always fascinated me because I believe that each of us has a very special talent that is innate and unique and some of us do not know that that talent is there.
    When I was in the sixth grade, I met a boy I went to school with named David. David was in the Special Education program because he had emotional outbursts and was extremely antisocial; the only “regular” classes he was allowed to attend were math classes. That is probably because, when we were in the sixth grade, he was taking Geometry at the high school, a class that most people in our school system don’t take until tenth grade. Geometry isn’t offered in the Special Education program.
    David knew how many tiles were on the ceiling in the cafeteria with a single glance.
    David could tell you how many books were on a shelf in the library before you could blink an eye.
    Tell David your first and last name and he could tell you your full street address and telephone number. He had memorized the addresses in the school directory for the entire sixth grade class in a week. A week after that, he knew the address of every single student at our three-grade school.
    David went to school with me until we graduated and I don’t really know what happened to him after that. I have seen him a couple of times in town and he, of course, always remembers my name. I suspect he remembers everyone’s name.

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  14. Hi Emily!
    I agree we all have an inner savant that we recall in times of need or distress to save us. Sometimes it happens as smoothly as blinking an eye. Sometimes we have to invoke it.
    There are all sorts of savants. Some are good at math. Others excel at painting and music and machinery.

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  15. Hi David,
    I’ve always wanted to be able to develop ESP. I’ve had experiences where I’ve thought of people and then have had them call right after the thought. I’ve also had feelings about how certain things would work out in certain circumstances — but those feelings might be a result of past experiences and having a sense of the current events. I don’t know if that is a savant-type of ability, but it would be cool to be able to predict which number would come up on the roulette wheel.
    I had the experience of being in a government building that had an actual fire and know from the experience that it seems like it is every person for himself or herself.
    A coworker and I had gotten into an elevator and had gone up to the fifth floor of the building when the alarm sounded. My coworker and I stood there for a few seconds thinking of where to go. There weren’t too many people around, so we didn’t have anyone to follow. While there were stairwells in the building, they weren’t often used because of the elevators.
    After a few seconds or so, a sheriff’s deputy came by and yelled a command to leave through an emergency door. “This isn’t a drill. Leave!”
    Going through that door set off another alarm. As we went down the stairs, we could smell smoke — a garbage can in the basement of the building had caught on fire — and could see police officers running upstairs, while everyone else quickly, but orderly, walked down the stairs to exit the building.
    It was pretty jarring — even though I never felt like I was in danger. I can’t imagine what it would be like for someone with autism or some other disability.

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  16. Hi Chris!
    I think ESP would be great to develop. I think it would be easier to do with another person than an inanimate object like a roulette wheel.
    I think fire is one of the most terrifying events. You not only have fire problems, you have vision issues and inhalation problems. It’s a deadly killer. I’m glad you made it out of the building okay!
    I, too, can’t imagine what it must be like to be disabled and then try to live in a mainstream world. The odds are against you — especially with evil minions to propagate pain like Shannon.

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