The Signs of a Savant

The Signs of a SavantWritten by Neil Smith, Ianthi Tsimpli, Gary Morgan & Bencie Woll

Every once in a while Nature gives us insight into the human condition by providing us with a unique case whose special properties illumine the species as a whole.  Christopher is such an example.  On first inspection his fate may not seem fortunate. Because he is unable to look after himself, he lives in sheltered accommodation; on a variety of standard tests of intelligence he scores poorly, with particular difficulty on non-verbal tests; his horizons seem to be limited to the performing of routine tasks of a non-demanding nature.  His life looks sadly circumscribed.  Until one turns to language.

Despite his disabilities, which mean that everyday tasks are burdensome chores, Christopher is a linguistic wonder: with varying degrees of fluency, he can read, write, speak, understand and translate more than twenty languages.  Playing noughts and crosses is beyond him, but interpreting between German and Spanish is easy; he doesn’t understand the kind of make-believe play that 3 or 4 year old children indulge in – pretending that a banana is a telephone for instance, but he learns new languages, from Berber to Welsh with enviable ease. His drawing ability indicates a severely low IQ of between 40 and 60 (a level hinting at ineducability), yet his English language ability indicates a superior IQ in excess of 120 (a level more than sufficient to enter University).  Christopher is a savant, someone with an island of startling talent in a sea of inability.

When you meet Christopher for the first time you are not sure of the best way to interact with him, as he is very shy but nonetheless interested in you. For anybody who studies language though, the way to communicate becomes immediately clear. You have to talk about language with him, not just what languages you speak but why you speak them, how you learnt them, how much you know them and what words you can share from those languages with him. For someone who loves language and the things you can do with languages it’s easy to talk to Christopher.

In an earlier book The Mind of a Savant we documented Christopher’s linguistic abilities in his first language, English, and his many ‘second’ languages, showing him to be an exceptional individual manifesting unusual and unattested asymmetries between abilities and deficits within and outside language.  In our new book The Signs of a Savant we revisit Christopher, elaborating on his obsession and talent for language, but concentrating on  how we taught him British Sign Language. BSL is a fascinating challenge for Christopher since it confronts his genius for language with a new modality which requires abilities where he is weakest.  He is mildly autistic, severely apraxic and visuo-spatially impaired, a combination which augurs poorly for his learning a signed language, which necessitates making eye-contact and the production and perception of fine motor differences of hand-shape and facial expression.

Somewhat surprisingly he wanted to learn to sign immediately even though he was faced with obvious barriers to picking it up: there are no books; you have to learn by looking into other people’s faces and you have to move your hands in complicated and coordinated ways. All of these factors caused Christopher problems but because the desire to learn about sign language burned so bright for him he slowly overcame these barriers and learned to sign. This book is about that journey and what we all learned from Christopher’s learning process: about language, about signing and ultimately about how the human mind works.

Although his production of BSL was considerably poorer than that of his spoken languages, his comprehension fell within the range defined by the students in the comparator group. Interestingly, he showed an asymmetry in his control of linguistic phenomena from the formal domain of language, such as negation, questions and agreement on the one hand, and his failure to master the classifier system – a domain where the control of topographic space is also required on the other. So our study sheds light on the similarities and differences between BSL and spoken languages: the similarities have to do with what is known as Universal Grammar – the language faculty as an autonomous component of human cognition; the differences have to do with the visuo-spatial Modality whose use represents a serious challenge to autistic individuals. At the same time, the asymmetries in his abilities provide evidence for the Modularity hypothesis of human cognition; the results of some of the tests we carried out support a particular theory of Memory, and Christopher’s case in general gives us insight into the nature of the human Mind.  We emphasize ‘human’:  despite the uniqueness of his case, Christopher is not a ‘Martian’. As we document in detail, the dissociations and asymmetries he manifests can be seen in other populations both pathological and typically developing.

If you want insight into a unique mind read The Signs of a Savant.

Out now in Paperback | 978-0-521-61769-7 | 232 pages | £21.99