The Social Construction of the Savant

Laurence Arnold


Ever since ‘The Rainman’, the notion of the ‘autistic savant’ has gripped the popular imagination. The savant makes appearances in both fiction and documentary, and Pat Howlin has estimated that some 10% of autistic people possess the trait.

This article approaches the phenomenon from the sociological perspective as a constructed role which fulfils a certain desire or need in the popular imagination and attempt to locate the role in historical archetypes.

The article asks: "what is a savant"? Who is in or out? When did the association of idiot leave the picture and why?

Why for example, are the skills of classical organist Loius Vierne, who started to play the piano by ear at age two, and his friend Marcel Dupre, who could perform the entire organ works of Bach from memory, not included in the canon? Is this because they do not have the additional component of low IQ that has traditionally been included in the popular definition or because they have otherwise not fulfilled the social role and inducement of wonder that the examples to be found in the pages of Treffert and Sachs have?. Is it necessary for the savant to be an outsider, to play the role of an exotic other, distanced from the nuanced gaze of the casual observer and how is this trope exploited to the potential disadvantage of that class of people reputed to possess these traits in some measure?

These are issues which the paper attempts to address taking a critical stance against the medical freakery of current studies and in so doing, examine just what the construction of the savant means to the ordinary autistic individual.


Autism; Neurodiversity


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