Saturday, 2 April 2011

Are savant skills more likely in males with autism?

The impact of the 1988 film 'Rainman' on autism awareness has been pretty significant I would say. The Oscar winning film portrayed one 'type' of autism fairly well I think; certainly, the film received quite a bit of acclaim back in the day. One could even perhaps say that the film was influential in bringing autism awareness to a mainstream audience during the late 1980's (although there have been other notable events also).
I do however stress the one 'type' of autism presented in the film, because, as many people down the years have said, the sort of savant skills that were depicted in the film, are perhaps not entirely representative of everyone with autism.
I mention all this because of a new paper from the world famous Karolinska Institute in Sweden has been published titled: Sex differences in cognitive domains and their clinical correlates in higher-functioning autism spectrum disorders. I only have the abstract of the paper at the moment but I was interested in what they did and what they found.
Basically, the authors looked at attention-to-detail and selected executive functions between males and females with and without autism. They found some sex differences: predominantly that males were perhaps better on measures relating to attention-to-detail as measured by the block design test. The authors interpreted this as being potential evidence for a sex difference in savant skills skewed towards males.
Their results are not alone in suggesting the possibility of a stronger tendency towards savant skills in males over females. A few years back Prof. Sir Michael Rutter suggested the same thing and it was mentioned in this overview article.
It did get me thinking about the possible reasons for such gender disparity in the presentation of savant skills. Is it due to the presentation of symptoms differing between the genders? Are males inherently more likely to be savants or are there other environmental factors contributory? In Yoda speak: "answers I do not have to these questions".
My train of thought then led to the question of defining savant skills and whether our perception of what is, or is not, a savant skill might also be contributory to such a sex disparity. I note on the Wikipedia entry for savant syndrome quite a few people are listed - males and females - although again, noticeably skewed towards more males than females.
The person I most remember from my early recollections of autism was Stephen Wiltshire, and his fantastic drawings of various landmarks which aired on Blue Peter here in the UK.
Notable also on this list is Temple Grandin and her influential work on animal husbandry (timely also that her biopic is on TV here in the UK tomorrow and, no doubt, will stimulate more interest in autism).