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2 April 2013
Godfather of savant research ‘never seen’ a case like Sharjah’s Nandana, reports Sajila Saseendran
A nine-year-old autistic girl in Sharjah, whose extraordinary ability to read her mother’s mind was revealed to the world last week, could be the next name added to a worldwide registry of people with savant talents, according to the world’s top expert in savant syndrome.
People with savant syndrome exhibit extraordinary abilities, but have serious mental disabilities including autistic disorder.
Nine-year-old miracle girl Nandana has an extraordinary ability to read her mother’s mind. — KT photo by M. Sajjad
In an exclusive report published on March 25, Khaleej Times brought to light the story of miracle girl Nandana Unnikrishnan, an autistic Indian child who can feel her mother’s emotions and read her thoughts, without any medium.
The story that generated massive response among the readers, other media and experts in the fields of autism and psychiatry also caught the attention of Dr Darold A. Treffert, who is dubbed the godfather of savant research and was a consultant for the Oscar-winning box office smash Rain Man, which depicted Dustin Hoffman as a savant.
After reading the report on the Khaleej Times website, Dr Treffert wrote to Khaleej Times expressing his interest in the story and his long-term involvement researching savant syndrome.
“(I) have been involved in research on savant syndrome for many years. Savant syndrome itself is rare. But the type of telepathy Nandana exhibits is extraordinarily rare. I am investigating several cases now and appreciate learning about Nandana.”
Dr Treffert conveyed his desire to learn more about Nandana’s talents and called the Khaleej Times report “very convincing”.
According to Dr Treffert, Nandana’s story is fascinating even within the world of the savants who are indeed extraordinary people.
“I certainly want to emphasize that Nandana’s case is extraordinarily rare in an already rare condition, but with far-reaching ramifications. I also want to compliment you on the testing you did to confirm the ability...When it is musical skill, or art, the pieces speak for themselves. But in this instance the ability needs to be demonstrated by more rigorous testing of the type you did.”
He said what was most striking was that there was no physical contact between Nandana and her mother as in facilitated communication: “That’s good. Facilitated communication with the parent or another person actually touching the patient’s arm or elbow is a controversial technique.”
Usually, he said, savant skills were in art, music, maths or mechanical visual-spatial abilities: “But Nandana’s savant skill...gives opportunity to explore the origins and mechanisms of this unusual savant skill, comparing it to others.”
Savant syndrome is a condition in which a person with serious mental disabilities demonstrates profound and prodigous abilities far in excess of what is considered normal.
Though he was familiar with savants with certain similar skills, Dr Treffert said there was no direct mind reading case as such that has come to his notice.
“So I would clearly classify Nandana as a savant with a very rare skill among savants. In my savant registry of 319 savants, one percent reported ‘paranormal’ abilities such as ESP (extra sensory perception) and Psi (parapsychology). However none reported telepathy or mind reading of the type Nandana exhibits.”
Asked if Nandana would qualify to be included in the registry, he replied: “We have temporarily closed the savant registry while we compile and publish the data. But we will no doubt resume the registry and Nandana would certainly be included.”
Dr Treffert has compiled the profiles of several world famous savants and extensively studied Kim Peek, who was the real life inspiration behind Rain Man, listed as one of the best movies on the subject of autism and savants.
The mission of Dr Treffert’s life was to find out if there was a savant in all of us, he said: “The savant syndrome provides a unique window to the brain. Till we can understand the savant...we can’t understand ourselves,” he has been quoted as saying.
“Savant syndrome has far reaching implications for accessing what I call ‘the little Rain Man’ within us all. By that, I mean that savants, especially now acquired savants, point out that there is dormant potential within us all and the task is to learn to tap into that dormant potential in the least intrusive way possible,” he told Khaleej Times.
Dr Treffert is now in correspondence with Nandana’s parents, clearing their doubts and advising them how to go about further research: “I will be sending them a copy of my (second) book Islands of Genius: The Bountiful Mind of the Autistic, Acquired and Sudden Savant which addresses how to ‘train the talent’ in savants and in so doing improve language, social and daily living skills. I hope that will be of help.”
The book provides an update on well-known savants Dr Treffert has been following for years and explores new cases, particularly the “acquired savant” in which neurotypical persons demonstrate previously dormant savant skills, sometimes at a prodigious level following head injury or central nervous system (CNS) disease. It also explores genetic memory—how savants “know things they never learned”.
When he was briefed about Nandana’s parents’ concern that she may not benefit much from regular classes if her mother continued to accompany her as a shadow teacher, influencing her thoughts, intelligence and learning skills, Dr Treffert said: “I think being a shadow teacher in the current class would still be preferable to a special needs class, depending on what the special needs classroom is.”
He also advised Nandana’s parents to take into consideration the recommendation of speciality clinics here.
With reference to their doubts related to Nandana’s skill and its clinical implications, Dr Treffert said: “I don’t know what implications telepathy might have for her right brain/left brain dynamics since it has been seen so rarely. Perhaps imaging studies might give some clues but those studies are probably quite far off. I don’t think brain imaging would really provide much additional insight at this point that would be of help clinically. I don’t know what treatment resources might be available to you in your area and that is an area for us to explore in the future.”
Related Story : Miracle Girl: Nandana has access to mother’s memory
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