What on earth is an autistic savant?Abby - musical savant

Many of you will be old enough to remember the movie that put the word “autism” on the map, starring Tom Cruise:  “Rain Man.”  If you haven’t seen it, you should.  Dustin Hoffman portrays a character with moderate autism, and he absolutely nails the role.

“Savant:”  individuals that have extraordinary skills that are not present in the rest of us. I didn’t appreciate the movie as much then, but after watching it again a few years ago, I was knocked over by how well the writers and producers included so many of the various characteristics of autism.

Savantism is actually only present in 10% of the autistic population, so there are many individuals with ASD that do not have these savant characteristics. However, when you meet someone who is an autistic savant, you’re not likely to forget them. In an article for the Autism Research Institute, Stephen M. Edelson, Ph.D. writes:

There are many forms of savant abilities. The most common forms involve mathematical calculations, memory feats, artistic abilities, and musical abilities. A mathematical ability which many autistic individuals display is calendar memory. They could be asked a question like: ‘What day of the week was May 22, 1961?’ and they can determine the answer within seconds–Monday. Others can multiply and divide large numbers in their head and can also calculate square roots and prime numbers without much hesitation.
Examples of some memory feats include: remembering everything about presidents (birth/death, term in office, names and birth dates of family members, cabinet members, etc.), memorizing the U.S. highway system, and remembering everyone’s birth date, even after meeting the person once and not seeing him/her for 20 years. Music is another common savant ability. Many performers with autism have perfect pitch and also have a great memory for music.”

Abby is a musical autistic savant.

Abby began singing before she could actually talk – before she could string together a spoken sentence, she could sing that same sentence. As a toddler, her speech therapist taught her (and us) some basic sign language skills, but we soon learned that we could ask Abby to sing her thoughts, which was much more efficient. Abby’s speech delay was minimal, but for years she had difficulty with sentence structure and grammar (she still does). In her toddler years, we regularly taught her to use singing to aid in learning and using language.

It was obvious very early that Abby’s brain processed music in a much bigger way than the rest of us. She could memorize songs after hearing them only once or twice, and her pitch is perfect. She can sing a song in the correct key with no frame of reference and does not need a tuning device to know the correct pitch for beginning a song (you’ll see musical artists and choral groups using a piano or other device to give them their note before starting – Abby hears this in her head!)

In her first public performance, a talent show in kindergarten, the audience roared over her acappella rendition of “Over the Rainbow,”  (which you can view on YouTube and in elementary school, her 1st grade teacher, Mrs. Kosten, regularly sent her to the front office to sing to the staff – often this was used as a reward for Abby.

Celtic Woman comes to Abby!

During all of her early childhood, even as an infant, Abby was soothed by the angelic music of the world renowned Irish group, Celtic Woman, so we regularly played their CDs in the car and in her nursery. As a toddler, Abby could sing their version of the song “Siúil a Run,” in perfect IRISH GAELIC! I’ll never forget taking Abby to a Celtic Woman concert when she was 5 years old, and seeing her sit frozen the entire time, eyes glued to the stage, until she finally whispered, “I want to sing on stage like that some day.”

In February of 2013, Lisa Kelly, one of the founding members of Celtic Woman, decided it was time to focus on her own family of 6 – so, she decided to stop touring with Celtic Woman, and open a voice academy less than 2 hours from our home!!! I cannot properly communicate the celebration dances that were done at our house!! What an opportunity!

Abby was enrolled in the first group of Lisa’s academy students, and studied under her for two years! The drive was worth every minute! Lisa described Abby’s musical talent as extraordinary, and under her guidance, Abby fine-tune her talents even more. The demands of middle school eventually made the 2-hr trek difficult, but she hasn’t stopped singing!  She become the only 7th grader in her school to be selected to perform in the highly competitive GMEA All State Chorus in 2016. I think Abby has her sights set on the big stage some day, but, in all honesty, I don’t want fame for her (but, she may feel differently about that)!

To view Abby’s kindergarten performance of “Over the Rainbow,” along with some other voice clips, click here.

For more information about autistic savants: Autistic Savants, by Stephen M. Edelson, Ph.D.