Musical Savants: Exceptional Skill in the Mentally Retarded

Musical Savants: Exceptional Skill in the Mentally Retarded

Musical Savants: Exceptional Skill in the Mentally Retarded

Musical Savants: Exceptional Skill in the Mentally Retarded

Synopsis

Using the case study of "Eddie" as his framework, Professor Miller challenges the prevailing notion that musical savants are essentially phenomenal tape recorders and deals with the issue of "idiot savants" in a detailed, empirical investigation. Through "Eddie" the author discusses, in specific and in general, topics including the background and historical context of musical savants; other cases; data regarding the nature of the skills exhibited and the associated developmental deficits; and descriptions of a series of experiments used to define Eddie's talent. Finally, the author considers more general issues raised by savant behavior, particularly functions served by savant behavior, theories regarding its etiology, and its role in general development.

Excerpt

My first encounter with Eddie was unexpected and dramatic. At that time, Eddie attended a day program for the multiply handicapped. All the children at the center are legally blind; none has more than rudimentary language, and most are physically handicapped. Not surprisingly, all exhibit massive delays in social, emotional, and cognitive development. The school curriculum is devoted for the most part to teaching rudimentary skills such as self-feeding and dressing, The environment itself occasionally borders on the chaotic. Stereotyped behaviors such as body rocking or repeated shouts and hand-claps are common among the children, and in the limited space serving as the classroom, these sounds and actions collide. Social interactions among the children are limited; instead, each child is under the care of one of the teachers. Moreover, the interactions are often very one-sided, the teachers vigorously and enthusiastically working to elicit responses from children whose interest, if present, is restricted by severely limited communication skills.

Against this background, progress in any area of development is slow, measured more often in terms of months and years than days. Similarly, ageappropriate behavior is rarely encountered. Consequently, I was skeptical when a teacher remarked that one of the new young arrivals to the school played the piano surprisingly well. Curious, I asked to be introduced to the newcomer and shown an example of his playing.

Upon seeing 5-year-old Eddie, I became even more skeptical. He was (and is) a very fragile child, bony thin and small for his age. His motor delay was apparent in his hesitant, splay-footed walking. He seemed to lack the fine . . .

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