Spotlight on Savant Syndrome

Amoako Buachie is a 20-year-old artist from Flatbush Brooklyn, New York, who at the age of 15, was diagnosed as an autistic savant with a special ability to draw.  His mother, Akosua, who came to the United States from Ghana 18 years ago, says that he has been “carrying around a pencil since he was three.”  Remarkably, Amoako can draw and paint from memory without using reference materials.

Amoako attends the Thorpe Public School 370 in Brighton Beach—a school for kids with special needs. Principal Susan Goldberg placed him on an art-focused academic track, and encouraged him to get involved in various city-run art programs.

A few years ago, Amoako’s situation was quite different. He has a severe sleeping disorder, which causes him to have major temper tantrums in the middle of the night; tantrums that occurred up to four times a week, and lasted up to three hours. On many occasions, the neighbors have called the police. On at least one occasion, he had to be tranquilized.

Since transferring to the Thorpe Public School a few years ago, he has flourished. He is a mentor, helping other kids at his school learn art. He works at top Manhattan art studios and displays his creations in the city’s best art museums. He has started working with professional artists with disabilities at the Pure Vision Arts Studio. Just last month, he drew a piece that was featured in the Lincoln Center production of “Where the Wild Things Are.” For the second time in two years he is showing his art at the Metropolitan Art Museum- a huge accomplishment in itself. His mother says that even his night-time tantrums have lessened and he seems much happier these days.

“Autistic savant” refers to individuals with autism who have extraordinary skills not displayed by most persons. Although there are many forms of savant abilities, the most common forms involve mathematical calculations, memory feats, artistic abilities, and musical abilities. The reason why some individuals with autism have savant abilities is not known. There are many theories, but there is no evidence to support any of them. Some experts believe that it is a response to their impaired social abilities. It has also been suggested that savants operate by directly accessing low-level, less-processed information that exists in all human brains but is normally not available to conscious awareness. Others believe the attention to detail shown by many savants is a consequence of sensory hypersensitivity.

There are many individuals with savant abilities who are incredible artists. Mark Rimland, son of Dr. Bernie Rimland, the late founder and director of the Autism Research Institute, is a well-known watercolor artist. The late Richard Wawro, who was legally blind and drew in wax oil crayons, sold some of his pieces for up to $10,000; even the Pope owns one of his paintings. Ping Lian Yeak, a Malaysian artist, who became famous at the age of 11, continues to sell his unique paintings for thousands of dollars.

I visited the websites of some of these artists and was amazed at the exceptional abilities these individuals possess. Please take a moment today and visit their websites and offer your support.

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