Expertise and the Autistic Savant: Possible Explanations.
Experts are those individuals who exhibit exceptional cognitive abilities and skills (Solso, 2001, p.186). Autistic savants are generally experts in one area yet lack self-awareness, and social, communication, and imagination skills (Skoyles, 1999). In the movie Rain Man, Raymond Babbitt is more unique than other savants because he is an autistic savant possessing expertise in more than one area. He possesses an exceptional memory and exhibits extraordinary mathematical abilities and talents such as mentally performing lightning calculations in multiplication and extraction of square roots. Research in the field of cognitive psychology has led to the development of several theories on expertise and mnemonics also serving as possible explanations for the extraordinary behaviors exhibited in autistic savants such as Raymond Babbitt. .
One view is that he, like other autistic savants, can "access some mental processes common to us all but not normally accessed" (Johnson, 1999). In his article "Rain Man" brain power present in us all, Johnson (1999) explains that such a skill is most likely involved in compartmentalizing and this "privileged" (Johnson, 1999) access to the lower levels of information might be due to a loss of control over specific areas in the brain. Compartmentalizing is the notion that "some functions such as motor activities, language processing, and sensing are each associated with a specific area of the brain" (Solso, 2001, p. 46). Perhaps compartmentalizing offers a reason as to how an autistic savant can become an expert at a remarkable range of skills (e.g., rapidly calculating, mechanical abilities, or spatial skills, music, usually piano, and art), while lacking in other areas (Treffert, 1988, 564). .
According to Snyder and Mitchell (1999), another explanation for the behavior of autistic savants is the fact that they tend to be gifted with exceptional domain specific neural structures that promote their specialized skills (Snyder & Mitchell, 1999).