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Story Spotlight

Dustin Hoffman as an autistic savant in Rain Man

The amazing abilities of autistic savants – prodigious feats of memory and calculation, as well as musical and artistic talents, despite the presence of mental disabilities (see the bottom of this post for examples) - remains one of the most fascinating topics in brain science. But these abilities may only be the tip of the iceberg, with new research suggesting that autistic savants may also have an enhanced capacity for extrasensory perception.

In 2013 neuropsychiatrist Dr. Diane Hennacy Powell was sent three homemade videos of a severely autistic nine-year-old girl which claimed to show her demonstrating a telepathic ability. Intrigued, Powell organised to conduct research sessions with two separate therapists who had reported telepathic experiences with the girl.

Though the ideal scientific set-up would be to keep the 'sender' and 'receiver' isolated from each other, this case had the complication of the sensitive nature of the girl's condition. As such, Powell kept the therapist in the same room, noting that "even subtle changes to the environment are very distracting and disturbing for a child with severe autism". Instead, a divider was put between the therapists and the child. Then randomized numbers, sentences, fake words, and visual images were presented to the therapists. The girl was then asked to “read the therapist’s mind.”

The therapists were asked to write their own verbal descriptions of the images for comparison to the girl’s answers. Random numbers were generated for mathematical equations.

The girl was asked to give all the numbers involved in the equations and duplicate the answers generated by the author with a calculator…The child typed her answers after choosing them from a stencil. To assess for any possible visual and/or auditory cueing, five high definition point-of-view (POV) cameras and three microphones were strategically placed in the experimental space to capture coverage of the entire room, the therapist and child, and their separate workspaces.

Powell presented her preliminary findings at the 57th Annual Convention of the Parapsychological Association, held last weekend. The results were jaw-dropping, with 'hits' such as 100% accuracy on two random numbers, one eight digits and the other nine; 60 to 100% accuracy on three of the five-letter nonsense words; 100% accuracy on six out of twelve equations with 15 to 19 digits each; and between 81 to 100% accuracy on sentences of between 18 and 35 letters. The video surveillance showed no evidence of cueing or fraud.

Powell's conclusion: "The data is highly suggestive of an alternative, latent and/or default communication mechanism that can be accessed by people born with severely impaired language abilities.

This new research comes on the back of news reports last year of a nine-year-old autistic girl in Sharjah who appears to have the ability to read her mother's mind. Though the idea that autistic savants might have paranormal abilities goes back further than that. Pioneering researcher into Savant Syndrome, Darold Treffert, included a section on the possibility of extrasensory perception in savants in his 1989 book Extraordinary People: Understanding Savant Syndrome:

Dr. Bernard Rimland describes several instances of extrasensory perception in his autistic savants. In his sample of approximately 5400 autistic children, 561 cases, or approximately 10 percent, were reported to have special abilities. Four of the 561 cases were based on reports from parents who claimed that their child had consistently exhibited signs of extrasensory perception. In one case, the parent reported that "teachers have also noticed that George probably has ESP. He seems to be very psychic. We would decide to pick up George from school suddenly, if we were in the area (he usually rode the bus). He would tell the teacher we were coming, and he would come to open the door when we arrived. So he has many special abilities, but cannot write his name or write a sentence".

Two other reports made by parents describe children with, in one case, "an extraordinary ability to hear conversations out of range of hearing, and to pick up thoughts not spoken" and, in another case, "verified ESP…first observed around age 4". The child in the latter case "accurately related an accidental occurrence known only to her father. His watch crystal fell out in the bathroom and was immediately replaced. Michelle accurately related the entire incident back to her father a short time thereafter. Several dozens of similar 'clairvoyant' instances have occurred since this first incident. Statistical probability of coincidental knowledge nil."

The parents of Ellen, a blind musical savant…report three instances of unusual perception on her part. One perhaps could be explained by heightened auditory discrimination: in that instance the driver of the special bus that picks her up each day to take her to her classes gave the usual very brief horn beep when picking her up one morning. Instantly Ellen said, "New bus". On checking, it was determined that indeed a different – and new – bus was waiting. The difference in the sounds of the horns was imperceptible to her parents. The other instances are more difficult to explain. One week before Christmas she announced what would be in her gift packages, although she really had no way of knowing and had not been given any clues as to what those gifts might be. Another instance had to do with a telephone call. Ellen's sister, for a variety of reasons, always calls her parents' home during the day and, only under special circumstances, does she call in the evening. At supper time one evening Ellen told her parents that her sister would be calling. Her mother assured her, for the above reasons, that there would be no such call. Shortly thereafter the telephone rang and Ellen answered it, knowing it would be her sister, who it was. The sister has been called out of town unexpectedly and wanted her parents to know that. Ellen somehow knew that the call was coming.

…Some have explained the savant in terms of reincarnation. Barbara Boudreaux recalls that one day some friends who believe that to be the case asked Ellen to listen to a Mozart piece she had never heard before. Near the end they stopped the piece and asked Ellen to play it for them. She obligingly did and, according to the friends at least, continued to play the piece beyond the point at which they had stopped – "as if" she had heard the whole number – and played it just as Mozart had written it.

Are these abilities, and the new research by Dr. Diane Hennacy Powell, explainable without recourse to paranormal abilities? Savants certainly have magical-like abilities that could easily lead to unnecessary leaps of logic – the 'new bus' example given above is a case in point where an enhanced ability could be being mistaken for something paranormal. Would it be so far-fetched to think that the girl in this new research is picking up cues that seem impossible to us? Also, given her severe disability, is there any sort of interaction needed with others to give her answers?

Alternatively, many have suggested that the brain disabilities and injuries suffered by both autistic savants and acquired savants are the likely cause of their savant abilities; shutting down one section of the mind seem to open pathways to these latent abilities which seem almost superhuman to the rest of us (some researchers, such as Dr. Allan Snyder, think we may be able to unlock these abilities via magnetic stimulation). Could this unlocking of ability also allow access to hidden functions of the brain related to extra-sensory perception? Only time, and further research, will offer a definitive answer.

For more on the incredible abilities of autistic and acquired savants, see the links at the bottom of this article.

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(Posted by G.C on Friday, August 22nd)

"Reason is immortal, all else mortal."

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