Are animals autistic savants?

Animal behavourist Temple Grandin has a theory that animals are like autistic savants, they think in images and have highly specialised cognitive skills.

Grandin’s theory has been influential partly owing to her expertise in animal behaviour and cognition, and partly because she has Asperger’s syndrome herself, a condition on the autism spectrum.

This month’s edition of PLoS Biology has an essay which argues against the theory, suggesting that the apparent similarity with autism is doesn’t account for the neuropsychological findings in both humans and animals:

Autistic savants show extraordinary skills, particularly in music, mathematics, and drawing. Do animals sometimes show forms of extreme (though, of course, different) cognitive skills confined to particular domains that resemble those shown by autistic savants? We argue that the extraordinary cognitive feats shown by some animal species can be better understood as adaptive specialisations that bear little, if any, relationship to the unusual skills shown by savants.

It has also been argued that autistic savants “think in detail”, and that this is the key to their extraordinary skills. Do animals have privileged access to lower level sensory information before it is packaged into concepts, as has been argued for autistic humans, or do they process sensory inputs according to rules that pre-empt or filter what is perceived even at the lowest levels of sensory processing? We argue that animals, like nonautistic humans, process sensory information according to rules, and that this manner of processing is a specialised feature of the left hemisphere of the brain in both humans and nonhuman animals. Hence, we disagree with the claim that animals are similar to autistic savants. However, we discuss the possibility that manipulations that suppress activity of the left hemisphere and enhance control by the right hemisphere shift attention to the details of individual stimuli, as opposed to categories and higher-level concepts, and can thereby make performance more savant-like in both humans and animals.

It’s probably worth noting that one of the authors is neuroscientist Allan Snyder and the article essentially argues that the similarity is unlikely because it doesn’t fit with Snyder’s own theory on savant abilities.

Snyder has a bold but still evidence lite theory that savant-like skills can be created in normal people by reducing the function of the left fronto-temporal lobe.

He argues that this reduces the competition with the equivalent area on the right. The right fronto-temporal is apparently specialised for dealing with sensory details so when it is unopposed by the area of the left, details-based savant like skills emerge.

Unfortunately, neither side of the debate has enough evidence to make a definitive case, but it makes for a fascinating discussion about different forms of thought and perception.

If you want to know more about Grandin’s theory, it’s described in her book Animals in Translation and it’s covered by a documentary about her that’s available to view online.

The PLoS essay also contains a commentary by Grandin herself.

Link to PLoS Biology essay ‘Are Animals Autistic Savants?’.
Link to documentary ‘The Woman Who Thinks Like a Cow’.

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