Kim Peek and Savant Syndrome

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Kim Peek, the man who was the inspiration for the Oscar-winning movie Rain Man, died on December 19 of a heart attack. The 58-year-old Peek was an autistic savant, whose amazing mental abilities became apparent as early as age 16 to 20 months, when he was able to memorize all the books his parents read to him.

A savant is an individual with a mental/cognitive disability who at the same time has remarkable intelligence, special skills, or aptitudes. According to the Savant Academy, the correct medical term for this condition is Savant Syndrome.

There are many different kinds of savants and levels of ability. Scientists have yet to understand this syndrome, although Darold Treffert, MD, a clinical professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is one expert who has spent about 30 years trying to change that. Author of Extraordinary People: Understanding Savant Syndrome, Dr. Treffert notes that “No model of brain function, including memory, will be complete until it can account for, and fully incorporate, the rare but spectacular condition of Savant Syndrome.”

The most extraordinary savants have abilities that exceed those of non-disabled prodigies and geniuses. Some, for example, are able to recite pages of a book after hearing them only once or able to multiple six-digit numbers in their head. This level of savant is extremely rare, and Kim Peek was one such rare individual. Also referred to as prodigious savants, there are fewer than one hundred recognized in more than 100 years of literature on the subject. It is believed there are fewer than 50 prodigious savants alive today, and about half of them have extraordinary musical abilities.

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In a recent Wisconsin Medical Society article, Kim’s father described his son as “not behaviorally autistic. He has a warm, loving personality. He truly cares for people and enjoys sharing his unique skills and knowledge capacity.” Kim Peek was lovingly known as “Kimputer” to many people because of his ability to remember an unbelievable amount of information.

At the time of his death, Kim had read and could recall the information in about 7,600 books. His knowledge spanned at least 14 subject areas. “He can identify most classical music compositions and tell the date the music was written and the composer’s birth date and place of birth and death,” noted Kim’s father. “He can also describe the highways that go to a person’s small town, the county, area code and zip code, television stations available in the town, who the person’s pay their telephone bill to, and describe any historical events that may have occurred in their area.”

Kim was born with an enlarged head, and an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) showed that he did not have a corpus callosum, which is the tissue that contains nerve fibers and that connects the left and right hemispheres of the brain. This structure seems to be a processing area between the two sides of the brain. He also had damage to the cerebellum and no anterior commissure.

Although Kim could not walk until he was four, his extraordinary memorization skills became evident at age 16 months, and by age three he could look up words in the dictionary and read their definitions. By the time he could walk, he was obsessed with numbers and was reading telephone directories and enjoyed totaling the numbers on car license plates.

Kim Peek had not been ill, and his death was completely unexpected. He and his father had been opening Christmas cards earlier on the day that he died. He will be remembered by all who knew him personally and, because of Rain Man, by those who never had that privilege. Dustin Hoffman’s role helped introduce and broaden the public’s understanding of savant syndrome. When Hoffman met with Kim and his father in February 1987 as part of preparation for the movie, his parting remark to Kim, according to his father, was “I may be the star, but you are the heavens.”

SOURCES:
Savant Academy
Wisconsin Medical Society, Dec. 21, 2009

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