Autism & Artistic Talent

Instructor: Monica Walker
Did you know that some individuals diagnosed with autism are considered artistic geniuses? Ten percent of individuals diagnosed with Autism have genius skills, compared with only one percent of the general population. Let's take a look at this phenomenon.


Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are a range of developmental disorders with mild to severe symptoms. Individuals diagnosed with ASDs may have issues with communication, social interactions, repetitive behaviors, and extremely limited interests. Some symptoms of autism are low IQ, physical deficiencies, and an inability to understand social cues. ASDs are diagnosed in early childhood, often by age three. Scientists are uncertain what causes ASDs and currently there is no known cure for autism.

Savant Syndrome

Roughly ten percent of those diagnosed with autism will have savant syndrome. These individuals will possess inherent autistic savant abilities, generally first seen during early childhood. Common abilities include extensive mathematical calculations, memorization, and artistic or musical skills.

The latter group, artistic autistic savants, may play a musical instrument with perfect pitch or be able to play a piece of music in its entirety after only hearing it once. Another may see a landscape or cityscape and draw it in detail, without having taken art classes or entirely from memory.



Savant syndrome is not limited to persons diagnosed with autism. Individuals with other severe developmental disabilities, central nervous system disorders or injuries, and persons with IQ results in the mental retardation category also display genius skills. Savant syndrome is also thought to exist on a spectrum, with individuals exhibiting talents to differing degrees. Males are more likely to have autism, as well as savant syndrome, and both are correlated with difficult pregnancies.

One ability that features across all individuals with savant syndrome is a prodigious working memory, no matter the skill. Working memory involves the ability to hold and process an abundance of verbal and non-verbal information. It appears to be an intrinsic part of the syndrome. Research also shows that these individuals have an intense attention to detail.

Researchers have not yet been able to identify why savant syndrome occurs. One of the leading theories is that left brain (logic, language) impairment or injury results in right brain (artistic, concrete thinking) compensation, as there are high occurrences of left brain abnormal functioning among individuals diagnosed with ASDs. In other words, the right side of the brain takes over the functions of the left side. The left hemisphere often completes development later, and, as a result, is under prenatal influences that can be harmful for an extended period of time.

Currently, researchers are using CT and fMRI scans to study the artistic savant brain at work, however, more studies on the link between autism and artistic genius need to be conducted.

art gallery

Famous Artistic Autistic Savants

Let's look into the lives of four autistic savants who are known for their artistic genius skills in the areas of art and music.

Ellen Boudreaux


Ellen Boudreaux was born in 1957. She was born blind and, by age four, was showing developmental delays. Her parents reported that she ''hummed'' tunes from the radio as early as six months of age. Ellen began playing identifiable tunes on an electric organ at age four and, at age seven, her parents bought her a piano. She later taught herself to play the guitar. As Ellen grew, she developed a prodigious ability for rhythm, timekeeping, memorization of tones, and experimentation with chords. As an adult, Ellen constructs complex cords that can go along with any melody she hears.

Matt Savage

Matt Savage was born in 1992 and lives in Boston, Massachusetts. He was diagnosed at age three with pervasive developmental disorder (PDD), an autism spectrum disorder. Matt had an interest music at an early age and taught himself to read and play music by age six. As a child, he played piano jazz music equal to that of an adult professional jazz musician and demonstrated perfect pitch. He later graduated from Berklee College of Music and earned his master's degree at the Manhattan School of Music. Today, Matt is a professional composer and music teacher.

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