As adults, we remain fascinated with images of young children performing extraordinary feats, with platforms such as YouTube offering us an unending wealth of mini Mozarts and baby Einsteins for us to feast our eyes and ears on, and providing the perfect fodder for our daily Facebook feeds. We are filled with awe at the sight of such small individuals undertaking tasks that most adults only dream of undertaking. But what word should we use to describe these children? Two words in particular – ‘prodigy’ and ‘savant’ – are often used interchangeably; but what is the difference, and why does it matter?
The most common definition of a prodigy focuses on results or achievement: a child, typically under the age of ten, who can perform at an adult professional level in a highly demanding culturally recognised field of endeavour. But unpicking this definition reveals its flaws. Why to the age of ten, what does ‘adult professional level’ really mean, and would ‘culturally recognised field of endeavour’ favour classical music above other forms? This definition also fails to mention the process so fundamental to prodigious achievement. What really sets prodigies apart is the extraordinary pace at which they are able to progress in the mastery of their chosen field of expertise. So we think of Umi Garrett playing Liszt on the stage of Ellen to a rapt audience after only a few of years of formal musical training.
A savant on the other hand is someone with savant syndrome, a rare condition in which people with developmental disabilities demonstrate remarkable talents that stand in stark contrast to their overall intellectual deficits. The psychiatrist Darold Treffert has elegantly labelled these talents as “islands of exceptional mental performance in a sea of disability”. Importantly, a savant is not necessarily a child, as the condition can be either congenital (present from birth and evident in early childhood), or acquired (later development after injury or disease to the central nervous system). Savant skills typically occur within the fields of music, art, calendar calculating, mathematics, and mechanical/visual-spatial areas, with musical savantism being the most common subtype. Here, we are more likely to picture a Hollywood version of Kim Peek, whose extraordinary memory was so famously portrayed by Dustin Hoffman in the movie Rain Man.
So the distinction seems pretty clear, right? Well, not quite. Recent research suggests that savants may have less severe intellectual deficits than previously believed. Daniel Tammet, a writer and autistic savant, has both high IQ and extraordinary savant skills; his abilities suggest that the traditional interpretation of prodigies as children with extremely high intelligence, and savants with extremely low intelligence, is more complicated than originally thought.
It seems then that the hallmark differential characteristic between prodigies and savants is not necessarily intellectual deficit, but rather the occurrence of a developmental disability, such as (but not always) Autism Spectrum Disorder. Individuals with a developmental disability who demonstrate skills that stand in contrast to their overall disabilities, regardless of the extremity of these skills, are classified as savants, and cannot be classified as prodigies, even if these skills are exhibited before the onset of adolescence. This means that when we’re looking at a prodigious young talent in performance, it may not be obvious at first whether the child is a prodigy or savant.
So if the distinction between these two groups of precocious individuals can be initially indiscernible, do they then simply represent two sides of the same coin? Again, maybe not. While the perceivable outcomes of both groups can often be identical, it seems that what differs is how the two groups attain their skills. For prodigies, it is the speed in which their skills develop that is their hallmark characteristic. The learning approaches of savants, on the other hand, can be classified as atypical, for not only can the early onset of savant skills become noticeable in the absence of any formal training, but their skill development may skip typical learning steps.
Prodigies and savants may therefore remain two exceptional and distinct groups of individuals. But the debate is far from closed, with academics divided as to whether a true distinction exists or not, or if prodigies and savants are simply one and the same phenomenon, occurring along continuums of giftedness, talent, intelligence, and autism. What is indisputable, however, is that further research into the remarkable abilities of these precocious children is needed, to not only offer us insights into exceptional ability, but to also broaden our understanding of musical learning and development in general.
Featured image credit: Quartet in C by WikimediaImages. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.