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Understanding the Connection Between Savants and Autism

Music has a way of hitting the heart, touching the soul, and changing a whole person’s life unlike few other forms of art. For Rex Lewis-Clark of Los Angeles, his particular outlet is piano where he belts out the old blues and jazz standards by the likes of Duke Ellington while making the compositional leap to Chopin with ease. Rocking back and forth with equal parts excitement and focused concentration, it’s easy to forget that the now twenty-year-old man was born blind due to a congenital condition known as septo-optic dysplasia and severe symptoms of autism.

“On his third Christmas, we had to go out of the room to open presents because he couldn’t stand the ripping sound of the wrapping paper,” recalls his mother Cathleen Lewis. “He wouldn’t eat solid foods and pretty much lived off liquids for his first few years. It seemed like he was a prisoner in his own body.” His doctors predicted he would never walk or talk.

At the age of two, Rex was given a piano keyboard from his father, which soon awakened something deep and passionate within him. He soon taught himself how to play the piano and would do so nonstop, playing until exhaustion. Soon his piano teacher identified that he had perfect pitch and while his is unable to read music, he can play a song right after he hears it for the first time. He even stores entire musical catalogs in his brain.

As his mother remembers, “One day, Rex sat down and played through all 21 of Chopin’s nocturnes, and played them perfectly even though he had only studied or played six of them [before].” Due to this extraordinary musical talent, Rex is considered a savant, an individual who struggles with many ordinary tasks while exhibiting certain talents that far exceed the common individual’s capabilities.

While savant syndrome has a long association with autism in popular culture—Rain Man’s portrayal of Dustin Hoffman’s character who is incredible with numbers helped to cement many people’s perception of savants—it’s actually been believed to be rather rare, occurring in one in ten cases. However, in recent years research has proven it to be much more common, possibly occurring in one in three individuals with autism.

However, the causality between the two remains somewhat of a mystery for experts. Evidence suggests that savants could possibly have experienced an undetected neural injury in utero to the left hemisphere of their brains, which in turn causes the right brain to overcompensate and unleash unique abilities.

Further studies have identified a potential link between geniuses and people with autism, but have yet to pinpoint the exact genetic variant, nor have there been any reputable theories about why such a connection exists between the two in the first place.

While researchers and experts continue to attempt to better understand the connection between savantism and autism, it’s clear that it is something can truly give a person something to truly him or her feel special. Meanwhile, Rex is able to communicate with his family members not just through brief statements, but a musical language all his own.