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Griot : Reviews of Books For, By and About African Americans

Terri Schlichenmeyer | 7/21/2010, 1:23 p.m.

Your checkbook's a mess. It's not really your fault. For some reason, you just don't "get" numbers. Math eludes you completely. You have other talents, of course, but addition and subtraction aren't among them.

So would you believe there's a chance - albeit a very slim one, but a chance nonetheless - that you could wake up tomorrow and easily do advanced algebra? Read more about it in "Islands of Genius: The Bountiful Mind of the Autistic, Acquired, and Sudden Savant" by Darold A. Treffert.

Surely, it shocked a few parents: their autistic son (or, occasionally, daughter) suddenly understood music, art, or mathematics. Overnight, he was a virtuoso on the piano, an instrument he'd never seen due to blindness. In an instant, she understood time but couldn't count. He was unable to talk, but his artwork was museum-quality. His IQ tested well below normal, but he was a mathematic genius.

For nearly 50 years, Darold Treffert has studied these people and the condition called Savant Syndrome, "a rare but remarkable condition in which incredible abilities... coexist side by side, in jarring juxtaposition, to certain disabilities within the same person"; abilities that most "neurotypical" (i.e., normal) people wouldn't possess unless extensively trained. Rare (it describes about one in 10 autistics) and stunning to behold, Savant Syndrome holds secrets that make scientists scratch their heads.

There are, Treffert says, three main ways for someone to become a savant. Most are born with the syndrome, but it may lie dormant for years. Piano prodigy Leslie Lemke, for instance, was 13 years old when his parents were awakened in the middle of the night by their blind son's musical brilliance.
Artist Alonzo Clemons falls under Treffert's second category.

Clemons was a normal baby, but was injured by a fall at age three. While in a group home, his gift of sculpture was discovered. Clemons is an acquired savant, meaning that his ability presented after injury. The third, Sudden Savant Syndrome, occurs without prelude and can happen to "neurotypical" people at any time. It comes unbidden, bestows incredible talent, and can leave quietly or remain for years.

Walk through a bookstore or library these days, and you'll find several dozen books on the workings of your brain. I believe, though, that this one is quite likely the most intriguing of all. Using case studies, reader-friendly medicine, and contagious curiosity, Treffert leads his readers on a tour of one facet of brain science that even Hollywood seems taken with, but about which few books are written.

Treffert challenges us to maximize what we have in our craniums by proving that even "neurotypical" brains are malleable and under-utilized.
Furthermore, not only is his an impossible-to-put-down, amazing collection of warm human-interest stories, but this book also offers parents of autistic children a ray of hope in a few chapters specifically meant for them.

Armchair scientists, parents, educators, and anybody with an interest in brain works will find "Islands of Genius" fascinating and fresh. For you, savoring this book is a true no-brainer.