An idiot savant is a somewhat derogatory term for a person who has significant mental impairment, such as autism or retardation, but also exhibits some extraordinary skills. The skills of the savant may vary from being exceptionally gifted in music or in mathematics, or having a photographic memory.
Most often, the savant is a person who suffers from extreme autism and cannot reach out to other people in a normal way. He or she may find it extremely difficult to express emotions, to communicate through spoken language, or to use inflection while speaking. Severe autistics function best when they have predictable routines.
Not every person who is autistic has savant abilities. Some appear to be more intelligent than others, but few autistic people are mentally retarded. In fact, because of the dependence on the brain’s right-sided functioning, facility for certain things, like mathematics, their memorization and creative ability may be greater.
Some studies have shown that people who have purposeful interruption of the left side of the brain can develop savant-type skills. Few people wish to participate in such experiments, however, and there are many excellent reasons for not undergoing unnecessary experimentation on the brain.
The savant skills are often called splinter skills. Kim Peek, for example, on whom the film Rain Man was based, has a "photographic" memory. Several recognized artists could be termed idiot savant as well, including Richard Wawro, Alonzo Clemens, and Stephen Wiltshire. Several people with such skills are recognized for their musical gifts, including Matt Savage, an incredibly gifted jazz pianist and composer, and Hikari Oe, a skilled composer.
The term idiot savant dates back to the concept of the “village idiot,” a person who might be tolerated because he or she exhibited certain uncommon skills. In other cases, the exhibition of savant skills, particularly in the Middle Ages, was apt to be considered witchcraft. Unfortunately, a savant cannot necessarily control demonstration of such skills, and some “village idiots” were chased out of their villages or killed.
Today, people more clearly recognize that such people are special because of their brain dysfunction. Not all brain impairment or dysfunction leads to savant skills, however. The term "idiot savant" is outdated and inappropriate. Virtually all savants have a high degree of intelligence and are not idiots. Most people now prefer the term savant or autistic savant instead.