12 October 2021

Two On-the-Spectrum Vignettes

Ericsson and Pool
Peak (2016)
Francesca Happé and Pedro Vital, two researchers at King's College London, compared autistic children who develop savantlike abilities with autistic children who did not develop such abilities. They found that the autistic savants are much more likely than the nonsavants to be very detail-oriented and prone to repetitive behaviors. When something captures their attention, they will focus on it to the exclusion of everything else around them, retreating into their own worlds. These particular autistic people are more likely to practice obsessively a musical piece or memorize a collection of phone numbers—and thus are likely to develop skills in those areas in the same way the people engaging in purposeful or deliberate practice do.

One of the best examples of this is Donny, an autistic savant who is the fastest, most accurate calendar calculator who has ever been tested. Donny can provide the day of the week for a particular date within a second of hearing the date, and he is almost invariably correct. ...

Donny is addicted to dates... The first thing that Donny does when he meets someone is to ask for the person's birthday. He has memorized all fourteen possible yearly calendars...and he has developed ways to quickly calculate which of those fourteen possible calendars applies to any given year. When asked which day of the week a particular date will fall on, Donny focuses first on the year in order to figure out which of the fourteen calendars to use, and then he refers to that mental calendar to determine the day of the week for the date in question. In short, Donny possesses a highly developed skill that is the result of years of obsessive study, but no sign of a miraculous innate talent.

In the late 1960s, a psychologist named Barnett Addis set out to see if he could train someone of normal intelligence to do the same sorts of calendar calculations that savants do. In particular, he had been studying how two calendar-calculating twins performed their feats. The twins, who each had an IQ in the 60-70 range, were able to provide days of the week for dates out to the year A.D. 132470 within an average of six seconds. Addis found that the twins' method seemed to involve finding an equivalent year between 1600 and 2000 and then adding up numbers that corresponded to the day of the month, the month, the year, and the century. With this understanding, Addis then trained a graduate student in that method to see if it actually worked. In just sixteen practice sessions the graduate student was able to calculate just as fast as either of the twins...

The lesson here is that there is clearly nothing magical about Donny's—or any other savant's—calendar-calculation abilities. Donny developed his abilities over years of working with and thinking about dates, reaching the point where he knows each of the fourteen different calendars as well as you or I know our phone numbers, and he has developed his own technique—which, in this case, researchers still have not completely understood—for determining which calendar to use for which year. It is nothing that a motivated college student in a psychology experiment could not do.
(pp. 220-222)

Steven Mithen
The Singing Neanderthals (2006)
At the age of five, Noel had been placed in a school for children with severe learning difficulties. He was autistic—unable to make contact with other children or initiate speech—and had patterns of repetitive and obsessive behaviour associated with this condition. One of these was listening to music on the radio and then playing it by ear the following day on the school piano. The psychologists Beate Hermelin and Neil O'Connor heard about Noel when making a study of autistic savants...

They examined Noel when he was nineteen years old, when he had an IQ of 61 and an almost total absence of spontaneous speech. Hermelin and O'Connor played Greig's 'Melody', Op. 47 No. 3, to Noel and to a professional musician, neither of whom were familiar with the piece. It was played from beginning to end, and then again in short sections. After each section, Noel and the professional musician had to play it back, along with the previous sections, until finally they played the whole piece from memory. Noel gave an almost perfect rendering of all sixty-four bars of 'Melody', retaining both the melody and harmonic components and making mistakes on only 8 per cent of the 798 notes. The professional musician was only able to play 354 notes, 80 per cent of which were incorrect. Twenty-four hours later Noel gave a second near-perfect performance.

By analyzing Noel's mistakes, and undertaking tests with further pieces of music, Hermelin and O'Connor concluded that Noel's musical memory was based on an intuitive grasp of musical structure. Through his obsessive listening to music, he had acquired a profound understanding of the diatonic scales in which the majority of Western music from between 1600 and 1900 is composed... Noel combined his tonal knowledge with a tendency to focus on discrete musical phrases, rather than attending to the piece as a whole as was the inclination of the professional musician. This interpretation of Noel's ability was confirmed when he was asked to repeat Mikrokosmos by Bartók under the same conditions. This piece was composed in the 1930s and eschews the diatonic scale, falling into the category of atonal music. Noel was now markedly less successful, making errors in 63 per cent of the 277 notes he played, in contrast to the 14 per cent of errors in 153 notes played by the professional musician.
(p. 294)

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