There are a few terms commonly associated with Autism Spectrum Disorders that are frequently confused and misunderstood. I too struggle to comprehend the difference between a prodigy and a savant and whether there is any difference at all, so I thought that tonight, a few days after watching “Amadeus” for the third time, I would dedicate my post to analyzing today’s definition of the terms.
The easiest difference between the terms to comprehend is the connotation of youth that the word “prodigy” carries. In fact, dictionary.com defines “prodigy” as “a person, especially a child or young person, having extraordinary talent or ability.” “Savant,” however, is a title that a person carries throughout their entire life and usually indicates a certain sense of disability in the subject.
The most famous prodigy in history is probably Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a man who wrote his first symphony at the age of eight. Within the course of his short, 35-year life, Mozart composed around 700 works ranging from sonatinas and minuets to operas. It is remarkable to me how incredibly lucky Mozart was. I do not deny the man’s innate talent, as he was able to memorize and reproduce melodies after only one hearing, but he was incredibly fortunate to be born to a father who was also a composer. Leopold Mozart pushed his son as far as he could go and then further so that he could become a great musical mind. This fact makes me wonder what becomes of the would-be prodigies whose musical talent remains undiscovered because they were not born into the Mozart family?
Among these children, I do believe, lie the savants. Specifically, autistic savants most likely make up a large percentage of the true prodigies in the world today. I consider a true prodigy to be somebody like Mozart, who was born with a natural connection to music. Young children forced into piano lessons from a very young age who play complicated pieces like trained monkeys are not prodigies in my book because music was forced upon them. Autistic savants, on the other hand, do not need lessons to understand and bond emotionally to music. They do, however, need a teacher to further their talents and help them to become prodigies. It is very rare to come across even a savant who can play prodigiously without some degree of training. It is also important to understand that there are varying degrees of savants: not all savants are as profoundly disabled as, say, Rex Lewis Clack, a blind and severely autistic musical savant; but not all savants are as profoundly gifted as Rex, who is able to replicate long songs after a single hearing. Because I am mildly autistic, I have mild savant syndrome. The two syndromes usually correspond in severity, with a notable exception being Daniel Tammet, a prodigious savant who is quite high-functioning.
For young savants who are more mildly functioning, it can be very difficult to identify musical talents if the child does not have access to resources such as a piano or other instrument or adults who have musical training. I cannot imagine how many more prodigies there would be in the world if every savant was as lucky as Mozart.