You may have seen the movie Rain Man and wondered about the character: Raymond Babbitt. The heartfelt story shows the journey of Raymond Babbitt, an autistic savant, who is used and often exploited by his brother, Charlie Babbitt. While Dustin Hoffman really hit the jackpot with his wonderful acting and almost perfectly encapsulated the role of an autistic savant, the movie did more than that.
It brought out the concept of autistic savants into the light – an individual with autism who is somehow massively intelligent in a specific field, despite having a learning disability. Being an autistic savant is rare – but it is not impossible. Though the Rain Man did bring the concept of autistic savants into the spotlight, autistic savants existed even before Rain Man. Actually, Rain Man itself was inspired by one such savant.
Here are 10 autistic savants that you might love to hear about:
1. Kim Peek
Kim Peek is the person who inspired Rain Man. There are many savants like him but excelling in different fields. As a child, Peek was born with severe brain damage. His motor skills were so poor that he was not able to walk properly or button his own shirt. The doctors suggested that his parents should send him off to an institution. Kim’s father did not want to do such a thing with his child. Kim remained in his family.
However, Kim’s parents discovered something unusual – their child could read up books within minutes. It turns out that Kim could read both pages of the book simultaneously and retain it as well. His left eye read the left page and the right eye read the right page and he remembered everything he read for years. He was even able to remember dates and days well – so, if you gave him a date, he would have told you exactly what day it was. The child was a wonder and as an adult man, his motor skills still betrayed him but his mind remained sharp as ever. After the movie Rain Man, he made tours and slowly, he became less socially awkward.
2. Leslie Lemke
Leslie Lemke had a tough time, something quite ‘normal’ for a child with autism. He was born with severe defects and for that, the doctor had to remove his eyes. The blind Leslie was abandoned by his biological mother and a nurse May Lemke adopted him. Leslie had to be force-fed so that he could learn to swallow. He could properly stand only when he was 12 and learned to walk at 15, with safety straps.
But at the age of 16, Leslie showed his true colors. One night, May woke up to a wonderful piano piece – Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Leslie, with no classical music training, was able to pick up this musical piece after hearing it on television. He can play any musical piece from ragtime to classical almost perfectly.
3. Alonzo Clemons
After suffering a terrible head injury, Alonzo Clemons developed a permanent learning disability. He could not even tie his own shoes. It was clear that this man was not going to make it in life. However, something magical happened when you gave him any bit of clay. He would immediately try to make tiny animals from it. When his teacher took away the clay from him, he would sculpt using pliable tar from the pavement. What seemed like an act of defiance once has made Clemons into one of the best sculptors of the century. He could sculpt detailed animals by just catching a few seconds’ glimpses of the animal on television. He can develop a perfect sculpture in half an hour.
4. Tony DeBlois
Tony DeBlois is another musical savant who developed his art when he was just 2. When Tony was born, he was just 0.99 pounds, much lower than 7.5 pounds of a normal baby. He was not breathing properly and so, the doctor had to put an oxygen mask to help him survive. What they did not know was that excess oxygen can make a baby go blind. Tony became blind and he also had severe autism. But at the age of 2, he began to play the piano and bring out wonderful tunes from this musical instrument. Tony can play around 20 musical instruments like piano, guitar, harmonica, and more. However, it is estimated that just by listening, this autistic savant can play around 8000 musical pieces. No notes required!
5. Gilles Tréhin
Our imagination has its own way of working. We can use our imagination to build entire worlds, but then, these worlds are often limited. Even human imagination can have limits. Not so for Gilles Tréhin. As a kid, he imagined a city called Urville. Located in an island off the Côte d’Azur, between Cannes and St. Tropez, Urville was first constructed by Gilles using Lego when he was just 12. But Lego was extremely limiting. And so, Gilles started expanding his city though numerous detailed drawings and even wrote entire histories about it. If you are a fan of hardcore epic fantasy, Gilles Tréhin’s Urville is a city worth visiting.
6. James Henry Pullen
Let’s go back in time to find out more autistic savants recorded in history. James Henry Pullen was also known as the “Genius of Earlswood Asylum”. He lived in England in the 1800s and was thought deaf and mute. However, he had a learning disability and was only able to pronounce the word ‘Mother’ when he was 7. He was never quite able to read or write. But wood carving was his forte. He carved wood like a master and his most famous work is a replica – the British steamship SS Great Eastern. It was a detailed art piece with many ignored details like the 5,585 individual rivets and furniture present in the ship, all carved by hand and placed in the ship. Unfortunately, such talent while appreciated was not completely respected as Pullen remained in Earlswood Asylum for 60 years.
7. Tom Wiggins
A Black slave turning out to be an autistic savant – back in the history of our times, it would have been seen as an outrage. But in the modern world, we look back and respect these people. Mozart is credited to have perfectly mimicked a musical piece on the piano when he was just 4. Well, Tom Wiggins could do the same but he could do it with 2 songs when he was just 13. And did we say, he was blind! As a slave in 1862, Tom Wiggins was very well exploited by his master. He toured around the southern side of the US, and he became a sensation. He could even perfectly mimic the sounds of animals. But what really stuck out was that he was not only able to play two different songs but he could even sing a third song! Overall, “Blind Tom” (as he was called) made around $18,000 for his owner. Every year.
8. Stephen Wiltshire
It was thought that Stephen was actually mute. He did not speak when regular children could form words. But later, it was discovered that Stephen Wiltshire was actually autistic. He was enrolled in a special school and he showed a proclivity towards drawing. With his teacher’s assistance, he was able to say the word ‘paper’ at 9. However, the whole time, he communicated with wonderful drawings. At first, it started with drawing animal figures, then he moved on to the draw London buses. Next up – he drew entire landscapes. Stephen Wiltshire has been referred to as the Human Camera. His talent lies in accurately drawing a detailed panorama of a cityscape just by watching it for about 10 minutes. By seeing the city of Tokyo after a ride on a chopper, Stephen was able to replicate it almost perfectly as a 10-meter long panorama!
9. Jonathan Lerman
The term ‘savant’ translates to ‘learned idiot’. It is not something you would attribute to Jonathan Lerman. When Jonathan Lerman showed signs of learning disability, his mother took him to a doctor. He was diagnosed with autism. While he did have a problem with fitting in and communicating, he was an artist and he loved to communicate with his art. He started making charcoal paintings at 10 and at 14, his paintings were getting displayed in New York art galleries. They were selling at prices above $1,200. As for the ‘learned idiot’ part, Lerman has an IQ of over 150!
10. Jason Padgett
While most people on this list may have been born with some form of learning disability, Jason Padgett is different. He was just a regular person until the age of 30. One day, he was getting mugged on the streets and the criminals repeatedly hit him on his head. After a while, when Jason Padgett woke up from his bed, he could see geometric shapes and mathematical combinations every place he went. He began to draw them out and these drawings showed intricate geometric patterns and fractal shapes. It seems like the brutal battering had activated a certain part of Jason’s brain turning him into a mathematical genius.
These autistic savants not only show that autism is nothing to be ashamed of but also show the extent to which the human brain can recover or work. They are a testament to human beings and human intelligence. Savants might be rare but they are still a wonderful and humbling find.