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2015 Archive

Update: Dec. 11, 2015

Hyperlexia masquerading as autism

This recent Scientific American blog post emphasizes the importance of careful differential diagnosis in children who read early or speak late. The first step in treatment is to make the correct diagnosis, and while early diagnosis and intervention is to be applauded in children with any developmental delays, there needs to be caution in applying a definitive autism diagnosis in children who read early, or speak late.

The blog post, along with an earlier article from the December, 2011 WMJ titled “Hyperlexia III: Separating ‘autistic-like’ behaviors from Autistic Disorder in children who read early or speak late,” explains why that is so.

—Darold Treffert, MD

Update: Dec. 4, 2015

Some prospective ‘fresh, new explorers’ in neuroscience

I spoke recently to the psychology classes at Fond du Lac High School in Fond du Lac, Wis. on savant syndrome. Students were attentive for the two-hour session, and questions were brilliant. Afterwards, each student sent a card of thanks with their impression of the session. It was so encouraging to read how many were interested inpursuing careers in psychology, medical school, neurology and neuroscience in general. They also responded very positively to seeking the full potential within themselves the acquired savant suggests.

Dr. Wilder Penfield, reflecting on his storied career was hoping to find “fresh, new explorers” to push the boundaries of better understanding and tapping the full potential within us all. I think there were some “fresh, new explorers” in this enthusiastic group.

—Darold Treffert, MD

Update: Dec. 3, 2015

An autistic artist in Malaysia: ‘They laugh at me because I am different; I laugh at them because they are the same’

Delwin Cheah is a 12-year-old savant who already has had a solo art exhibition in Malaysia. His journey has received praise in a letter from President Obama, to whom he had sent some art. He also has received recognition and praise from Queen Elizabeth II and the Malaysian Prime Minister. A video of him and his work can be accessed here.

Update: Nov. 16, 2015

The autism “epidemic” in perspective

The headlines in news reports and on the Internet read “cases of autism double.” These headlines are based on a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study titled National Health Interview Survey released on November 13, 2015 which points out that cases of “autism” rose from 1 in 80 U.S. children between ages 3-17 in 2011-2013 to 1 in 45 children in 2014. Figures like that feed into the perception of an “epidemic” of autism.

While there does seem to be a rise in the prevalence of autism spectrum disorder over the years, it is not at an “epidemic” level. That perception is contributed to by ever-changing and expanding definitions of autism and suffers from limited techniques of telephone or other surveys instead of in-person, multidisciplinary evaluations and careful review of medical records using standardized criteria for autism spectrum disorder. This shortcoming is explored in greater depth here.

—Darold Treffert, MD

Update: Nov. 13, 2015

Hyperlexia 1, 2 and 3: Some preliminary follow-up

In 2011, I presented an article in the WMJ describing hyperlexia 1, 2 and 3, and pointing out that the “autistic-like” features in hyperlexia 3 diminish over time as the child “outgrows” the ASD diagnosis that was so often applied in early years. With the help of Bryan Mischler, MSW, we are in the midst of analyzing data from 165 unsolicited e-mails from parents and others where hyperlexia was a prominent feature in the child. I was particularly concerned how often when hyperlexia was present it was automatically assumed that to be associated with an ASD disorder. The number of cases is now well over 200. Click here for some preliminary impressions.

—Darold Treffert, MD

Update: Oct. 26, 2015

Savant syndrome: an extended podcast

The extraordinary talents and skills seen in savant syndrome are spectacular in their own right. But beneath these exceptional minds and abilities are clues to intelligence, creativity and buried potential within us all. These findings and insights—and many more—are discussed in Spectacular Ability in a Sea of Disability, a podcast of a conversation between Dr. Treffert and psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman of New York University.

Update: Sept. 10, 2015

Hyperlexia: A first-person success story

I have many grateful “success story” e-mails from parents describing their experiences with their child, teachers and others on their journey. They begin with their child reading early and end, finally, with the proper “hyperlexia 3” designation and a very positive outcome. The journey was a bumpy one, with a diagnosis of “autism” along the way, and difficulties finding the right educational path with schools and various IEPs.

Recently I received a first-person account from a 15-year-old-girl who said “hyperlexia 3 describes me to a T” and she eventually “grew out of it all” and is doing very well. She wanted to thank me for “helping me to find out the truth about myself, especially hyperlexia 3.” She wanted me to continue to raise awareness about hyperlexia in all its forms in order to “educate everyone, including professionals, about hyperlexia and the dangers of a misdiagnosis of autism.” How do I go about losing the autism diagnosis?” she asked.

The letter is too long to repeat entirely in this space, but if you click here, you can read portions of her letter.

—Darold Treffert, MD

Update: August 11, 2015

The savant registry: a preliminary report

The August issue of WMJ, published by the Wisconsin Medical Society, contains an article by Drs. Treffert and Rebedew titled “The Savant Syndrome Registry: A preliminary report,” which can be accessed here. It provides an analysis of 319 cases of savant syndrome examining the percentage of congenital v. acquired cases, male-to-female ratio, distribution of underlying disability, single v. multiple skills, frequency of specific skills and geographic distribution.

Update: August 3, 2015

What percent of brain capacity do we really use?

There comes now another report of the absence of massive brain tissue, from hydrocephalus, yet not only with neurotypical functioning preserved, but with advanced mathematical ability as well—all without other deficits. (See the report here.)

As I wrote in Islands of Genius, with several other case examples, this raises the question of how much brain capacity we really use and how much is in reserve. While the figure of less than 10 percent capacity is used, that may be an over-estimate. The authors here suggest ‘turbo-charged’ residual tissue in cases such as this as well as in savant syndrome.

—Darold Treffert, MD

Update: July 17, 2015

Chou Wei, the Chinese Rainman

Chou Wei is a 23-year-old mathematical savant from the Chinese Shanxi Province. He appeared on the Chinese reality show “The Brain” and calculated the 13th power of 6—13,060,694,016—in less than one minute. He is now referred to as the Chinese Rain Man, and Frank Gayaldo has been seeking to give his case international visibility and supply information about savant syndrome to the Chinese people in hopes of creating better understanding and acceptance of persons like Chou Wei.

In this column published in the Lodi News-Sentinel, Gayaldo highlights savant syndrome and Dr. Treffert’s work as well as a few savants, including Chou Wei. More information about Wei is also available in this video: “China’s Rain Man causes a stir.”

Update: July 13, 2015

Hyperlexia 3: Success stories

Since I first published Hyperlexia: Reading Precociousness or Savant Skill? in 2011, I continue to get messages from families who have found that hyperlexia 3 was the situation that best fit their child, and where the outcome has been very positive as they recovered from the ‘autism’ they never had. I hope to put all these good outcomes into a folder or article at some point, but for now I want to share excerpts from one such letter:

“Thank you for your article on hyperlexia type 3. My son was diagnosed with AS three years ago when it still was a diagnosis. At 1½ he was reciting the alphabet and reading full sentences prior to turning 2. He was also counting to 100 in Albanian and Spanish at that time. He memorized the 50 states and all their capitals before turning 2½. Yet he still had issues with socialization (with strangers only because his socialization with family members was never an issue) and speech.

“He is now 6 years old and we’ve seen these autistic traits melt away and it’s very exciting. He no longer has echolalia. Stacking and lining up rituals have ceased. His verbal skills have greatly improved and his socialization skills are improving daily. He still mixes his pronouns but that, too, is getting better. His phobias have virtually disappeared. He had a fear of public bathrooms and hated walking on sand at the beach but now loves the beach and bathrooms aren’t an issue. His eye contact now is better than mine.

“I read your article a couple of years ago and it always gave me hope that my son would get better because he so resembled the examples of type 3 you mentioned. I wanted to thank you for that and let you know I’m a believer in your theory. Thanks again.”

—Darold Treffert, MD

Update: July 10, 2015

Perfect Pitch and Autism

While perfect pitch is not universal among autistic persons, in my experience, it is universal among musical savants. This article, “Perfect Pitch: Autism’s Rare Gift,” by Marina Sarris is a good summary of what is known about perfect pitch and its relationship to autism and savant syndrome.

—Darold Treffert, MD

Update: June 19, 2015

New Hyperlexia 3 website offers info, resources

A new website has been launched in the interest of being a resource to parents, by parents, of children with hyperlexia. The site, www.hyperlexia3.com, is focused particularly hyperlexia 3, as first described in an article written by Dr. Treffert and published in the December, 2011 issue of WMJ.

Update: May 15, 2015

Savant Syndrome as youth projects

One of the benefits of this website is that it serves as an inspiration and resource for youth of all ages to carry out projects on savant syndrome for school classes or other settings. This website continually triggers e-mails asking for more information and resources by the “fresh, new explorers” who will be the neuroscientists of the future. This project by Francis Eversole is an example of one such display. Congratulations, Francis.

—Darold Treffert, MD

Update: May 4, 2015

Ten artists from the ‘Strokes of Genius’ program in New York City

In honor of Autism Awareness Month, Strokes of Genius in New York City has constructed this website to honor the 10 artists and their productions.

Strokes of Genius uses “train the talent” strategy to not only increase art ability, but to also, in the proces, access better language, social and daily living skills.

Update: February 23, 2015

Jason Padgett: Accidental Genius

A new video provides an update on Jason Padgett. He was an ordinary fellow who had a severe concussion in 2002. Following that, he had an instant synesthesia consisting of vivid images. With no prior interest or ability in art or mathematics, he began to draw these images, which turned out to be complex fractals and other mathematical concepts. He has advanced his mathematical ability, and his drawings have become sought-after art pieces.

Jason was featured in Dr. Treffert’s “Accidental Genius” article in the August, 2014 issue of Scientific American, and he will be the featured lecturer at the 8th Annual Treffert Lecture Series at Marian University in Fond du Lac, Wis. on April 15, 2015. Interested persons can sign up for the free lecture at http://www.marianuniversity.edu/treffertseries/. More information about Jason and examples of his art are available on Jason’s website: www.Jason-Padgett.artistwebsites.com.

Update: February 4, 2015

Genetic Memory: How we know things we never learned

In this Scientific American blog post by Dr. Treffert, he explores genetic memory as an explanation for how savants (and the rest of us) know things we never learned. It expands the concept of inheritance to include specific bits of “knowledge” (the “rules” of music, art and math, for example) beyond the more typically mentioned physical characteristics such as eye color, facial features, height and posture, and certain behavioral patterns. This observation has been furthered particularly by instances of the acquired savant.

Update: January 15, 2015

Hyperlexia and Hypernumeracy

An excellent “for example” description and video of hyperlexia comes from the viewpoint of one of the real experts on that condition — a parent.

This post by Dyan Robson usefully adds the term hypernumeracy to the condition since the fascination with numbers is often as intense as the preoccupation with letters.

—Darold Treffert, MD

Update: January 6, 2015

Beyond ‘Foreign Accent syndrome,’ ‘Foreign Language syndrome’

There have been two instances recently of young men emerging from coma fluently speaking a foreign language.

Ben McMahon had studied Mandarin early in his schooling but never mastered the language. However, in 2014 he emerged from a coma speaking fluent Mandarin as seen in this Mirror online post. Likewise, a British football player awoke from a coma after a serious auto accident speaking fluent French. Again, he had some exposure to French in the past but never spoke it fluently.

Cases of what has been called “foreign accent syndrome” have been reported, wherein people recovered from head injury with a foreign accent, but these cases exceed that with an entirely new fluency in a foreign language. Since these individuals had some exposure to the foreign language in terms of learning, they do not represent genetic memory as such. But the phenomenon of gaining fluency in a foreign language following head injury goes beyond foreign accent syndrome and joins the “acquired savant” category.

—Darold Treffert, MD