Charlie Gibson named an amazing young man, Stephen Wiltshire, as ABC's Person of the Week on Friday. It's worth watching the video to see his ability to draw cityscapes from memory. Click here. Wiltshire has autism, and anyone familiar with this disorder will quickly realize that Stephen is an autistic savant – one of that small minority who have extraordinary gifts.

Yet ABC doesn't make the connection. They portray a young man struggling with language delay and socialization who unaccountably shows remarkable talent.

I suspect something similar is about to happen once again with coverage of Jason McElwain, the New York state high school basketball team manager who was put in for the last few minutes of the last game of the season and sank an astounding six 3-pointers, including one at the buzzer. He was carried off the court by his teammates, met the president and wrote a book that is about to come out to great fanfare.

He deserves every accolade he gets.

I've watched that shooting spree on YouTube many times, and it has to rank as one of the great sports moments of all time. Here's the thing, though: None of the commentary seems to "get" that extraordinary abilities like Jason's (and Stephen's) are almost certainly part-and-parcel of their autism. I suppose it is remotely possible that a "typical" high school basketball team manager could come off the bench and sink six three-pointers. Or that the neurotypical kid next door could recreate entire cityscapes from his photographic memory, with perfect detail and perspective.
But I doubt it. What connects Stephen and Jason is more than autism and the unusual abilities that can (rarely) come with it. What connects them is the media's relentless inability to get autism right.

These stories are not really triumphs over disability, they are unusual aspects of the same syndrome that in its less cheerful and far more typical manifestation is wrecking more and more children's lives by the day.

And they beg the question: What's really going on here? Why do some kids with autism develop extraordinary abilities to boot? Is that a clue to the origins and possible treatment of the disorder? Just this past week I heard about a family who lives near me whose daughter regressed into autism after a vaccination. She was and is severely impaired but she has also gained extraordinary skills: She taught herself Japanese from, of all places, YouTube.

You make the call: A daughter destined for a full and independent life or one whose prospects are uncertain at best – but she sure can speak Japanese! Maybe the nightly news will feature her extraordinary abilities someday.

Once again we're in danger of turning these kids into curiosities and failing to learn the most important lessons they have to teach us.

Stephen's paintings now sell for more than $100,000. But according to a review on Amazon.com, "as all of Jason's friends graduated and moved on, Jason stayed at home and hasn't graduated high school and is working part time in a local market." I hope he and his family invest his earnings from the book and related activities wisely. He's going to need it.
The phrase "conflict of interest" gets tossed around a lot, and it's worth reminding ourselves what it really means. It doesn't mean that someone is necessarily lying or fudging data to hide harsh truths that conflict with their own personal or institutional interests (though that certainly happens). It means there is an INHERENT conflict between the roles they happen to be playing at the moment. The conflict may not even be conscious to the person who has it, but we all recognize that even unconscious allegiances can affect one's objectivity.

That's how the continual reassurance by the CDC, the FDA and the AAP that vaccines don't cause autism needs to be understood. These are agencies and groups with a standing conflict – they approve, recommend, administer and monitor vaccinations. Their views should be heard, but they are NOT the kind of objective parties that should be relied on to settle the question. They are inherently conflicted.

That basic idea seems lost on much of the media. Case in point is the Sunday ombudsman column in the New York Times by Clark Hoyt, who says the paper's coverage of ABC's Eli Stone vaccine-mercury episode was fair.

Hoyt said "the article made clear that there is a debate but did not give equal weight to the two sides. The Times has not since 2005, when two reporters investigated every scientific study and thousands of documents from parents convinced of a link between autism and vaccines, and came down pretty clearly on the side of the scientists."

These scientists, of course, were mostly in the employ or dependent on the good graces of agencies with a stake in the matter. They were inherently conflicted. And now the Times' earlier reporting has become the gold standard for all further Times coverage – and by extension for the rest of the follow-the-leader mainstream media?

"Indeed, the door on this controversy seems to be closing, but the Centers for Disease Control is conducting one more study, expected to be published next year," Hoyt writes. Oh, brother.
My own experience with conflicts and their consequences involved the anti-malaria drug Lariam, which pretty clearly has some awful side effects including suicide and homicidal violence. My UPI reporting colleague Mark Benjamin and I published a 3,000-word article in Newsday about that in May 2002. That summer, three Special Forces soldiers who had taken the drug returned from Afghanistan and killed their wives and then themselves at Fort Bragg, N.C.

There was no history of domestic violence, which there should have been if these were "ordinary" domestic homicide-suicides. We linked all three soldiers and their bizarre, uncharacteristic behavior to Lariam, and the military was forced into doing its own "investigation." Worth noting: The Army invented Lariam and licensed it to a private manufacturer; the CDC recommended it; the Pentagon handed it out like candy in Afghanistan without providing the warning sheet or even recording it in the soldiers' medical records, in most cases.

The Army's report came out a few months after the murder-suicides, in late 2002. Here's the start of the AP article: "An Army investigation of possible medical and behavioral causes behind a series of domestic killings and suicides at Fort Bragg, N.C., has ruled out the anti-malaria drug Lariam, officials said Wednesday. … A defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity said Lariam has been ruled out as a cause."

"Ruled out" by the same folks who invented, licensed and distributed it. Now that's a relief! Nowhere is there mention of the Army's dual role in all this – its conflict of interest, in other words. And this kind of thing has consequences; given a free pass by the media, the military went on handing out Lariam in Iraq in the same slipshod way; the suicide rate spiked, PTSD soared and stories about its side effects became legend.

The Army, it should be noted, had some help in reaching its literally fatally flawed conclusions about the murder-suicides, according to the AP: "Officials from the government's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also participated."

Oh, brother.
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism


John Stone

One thing that "autistic savants" seem to do is huge feats of sequential memory. I would doubt whether the ASD population is more gifted than the "normal" population in this respect, but it may be more pronounced and idiosyncratic because of their disability. And if they are gifted in this way it may give them chances that the others do not have.

You have to be gifted in this way to be a great performing artist - how many sequential movements in performing Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas, for example? But it is an aspect of the accomplishment which is seldom remarked upon.

I think it might be mistaken to focus on "savants" as if they give specific insights into the autistic predicament - the fact that they have ways ordering their experience might be entirely misleading. I cannot claim to have read every word they have written on the subject but it does seem to me an objection to the "insights" of Oliver Sacks and Simon Baron-Cohen when fastening on the privileged cases who have not had all their gifts destroyed.


We are the adoptive parents of a sibling group-Brother and sister-and we suspect that they both have autism. We adopted them when the boy was almost 5 and the girl was 3 weeks old. If we had known his developmental delays and that his "ADHD" was really autism and the possibility that vaccines could be a cause for it we would not have vaccinated our daughter. Unfortunately around 6 months (when we started vaccinations) we found she was not developing physically and it continued to worsen.

Anyways, my question is "How do we as parents unite and force the CDC to, at the very least, pay for chelation therapy to cleanse the mercury out of our children's system." Our government has forced casinoes to offer therapy to those who have been damaged by gambling and cigarrette companies to pay for the damages of caused by their product, why not the drug/vaccine companies???? Anyone have any ideas?

Not so smart

"That's how the continual reassurance by the CDC, the FDA and the AAP that vaccines don't cause autism needs to be understood. These are agencies and groups with a standing conflict – they approve, recommend, administer and monitor vaccinations. Their views should be heard, but they are NOT the kind of objective parties that should be relied on to settle the question. They are inherently conflicted."

I think that *everyone*, not just the CDC, the FDA and the AAP are complicit in the crime that causes autism. You would think that we should not have to spell this out to all and sundry. Why do we have to do it? Is this concept so hard to fathom that the multitude do not seem to get it? Where are all the smart people, isn't this country supposed to be the world leader? Quite a poor showing, this inability to understand and recognize this very simple fact.


Our daughter is being treated by a DAN and, yes, the savantism is becoming less pronounced as she becomes more social. Had I read all the comments before posting, I would have mentioned this. My analogy for it is that, just like the toxic crap in vaccines seemed to act like an obstacle being placed over half the jets on a sprinkler, causing some to shoot suddenly higher, unblocking the clogged jets seems to be evening things out a bit.

We used to "joke" (ha ha, wail) that our daughter worked for the Secret Service when she'd snub people between roughly 13 months and three years of age. This was her period of gradual regression which began to reverse with GF/CF and altmed. We now have to warn people that she's a serial hugger. As her ability to communicate verbally improves, the hyper-hugging is also shifting.

Now we "joke" (yikes) that some shrink will try to diagnose the hugging as indicative of some "genetic brain disorder". As more children regress and then recover, the profession probably has to work fast to artificially cast in stone and catagorize these transient manifestations of the progression up and down the ladder of toxic injury or they'd be out of business.


I would think the savant skills come from hyperfocus on a single thing or concept. The more practice one gets with a skill, the better one gets at a skill - it works for everyone. Maybe when the biological problems are repaired, the hyperfocus diminishes, and a broader understanding of the world takes precedence.


Not a savant skill, but when my ds regressed after vaccs. at 14 mo old (lost all language, screamed/went hysterical around people, stopped sleeping, etc...), he also started hating me read to him (which he previously LOVED). But, at the same time, he began being fascinated with letters and could point to any letter at that young age.

I actually think this is a pretty "typical" autism trait (if there is such a thing). But at the time, we just thought he was a genius baby :-), as did all the doctors.

I wonder if this is a typical thing - gaining some skills while losing others. Looking back, the letter thing was definitely an obsession for him, but he was certainly the only 14mo. old I knew that had any concept of letters, much less could identify them. Interesting...

Robin Nemeth

I’ve wondered if it could just be that the same gene that carries the bad aspects of autism—the head banging, the feces smearing, the difficulties in interacting—might also happen to carry some good aspects, like savant skills. Isn’t that why certain breeds of dogs are genetically prone to certain diseases, or why black people are genetically prone to sickle cell anemia—because two seemingly unrelated traits just happen to show up together on the same stretch of DNA?

If one were really paranoid, one could postulate that some group deliberately decided that those with the good traits ought to be obliterated or sabotaged somehow. That the good traits could be a possible threat to the status quo, and so a method was devised to destroy them, or turn them into meek, compliant, non threatening plebeians.

It might make a good science fiction story, if it’s not real.

Ha, how silly of me. Such a thing could never happen. A government that would be so corrupt as to destroy it’s own citizens, deliberately? Where do I get these ideas?

It must be that the savant skills are a coping mechanism, unusual skills that develop in order to help fill the gap left by the abilities that are compromised by the toxins.

I would be awfully curious though to know what percentage of savants lose their special skills when they gain social ones, through biomedical or chelation treatments. And it does seem odd that there is so very little focus on the topic of savants, in the main stream media, but I suppose I ought to be used to the media ignoring things that I would’ve thought would’ve interested them greatly.

Dan Olmsted

Hi Sonja and Gattagora:

Your comments about savant skills arising at the same time as vaccine-induced autism are quite striking -- I'd never heard of it before. And the fact that Anna's savant skills faded some as biomed helped her is amazing as well. I'd like to follow up on this with a more detailed story.
Anna's perfect pitch reminds me that the brother of Donald T., Case 1, told me Donald had perfect pitch -- something that was never mentioned by Leo Kanner, who did the original case series report in 1943. But Kanner was clearly astonished by Donald's savant abilities as a very young child, including reciting the Presbyterian catechism, the presidents and other feats. It shows that even an experienced psychiatrist like Kanner had not encountered this combination of skills and disabilities before. And as I've pointed out many times these kids were born in the '30s just as ethyl mercury entered vaccines and fungicides for crops and trees (Donald being from Forest, Miss., in the middle of a national Forest is probably no coincidence -- nor is the fact that the father of Case 2 was a plant pathologist and the father of Case 3 was a forestry professor in the south).
Also it's worth recalling that Daniel Trammet, the "Born on a Blue Day" savant, talks about how his father worked in the foundry and came home covered in "dust" -- heavy metals -- including the day that he took his pregnant wife to the hospital to deliver Daniel.
Re Einstein -- he definitely had language delay and an astonishing visual thinking ability. I noticed in reading the new bio of him that his mother's father was a grain dealer. That makes me wonder about toxins in pesticides or fungicides as well.
Of course, none of this is to detract from his or anyone else's accomplishments or contributions to the world, just to put it in a context that might help us find new clues to autism.

Teresa Conrick

I've got to tell you that not only is your report so interesting to read but these comments are fascinating. The shifting of skills as biomed is done is remarkable and will probably get some ND blogs all fired up in the name of "child abuse". How sad is that?

I don't think living in squalor as a computer genius or having GI pain with traveling inflammation make for very enjoyable lives. The "too much" and "too little" myriad of issues within those with the asd diagnosis deserve some good research as to why this is so.



Mr. Olmsted, I had no idea that you'd investigated the Ft. Bragg murder/suicides and the connection between violence and suicidality and certain pharmaceutical drugs. You do walk on the wild (and right) side of just about every issue. Do you wear Kevlar? Because we don't want to have to canonize you for another half century or so. I'm not really joking.

On the savant issue, I think black civil rights chroniclers and social historians are among the few collectives outside the altmed realm who might truly understand the mixed feelings that enviro-parents have watching the media and the public oohing and aahing over the precocities of individuals like Wiltshire, McElwain and Tammet. The tokenism not only doesn't ensure that our own effected children will be treated humanely (never mind provided with funding for treatment), this beglamoured awe virtually guarantees that the oohers and aahers are not going to be the ones to sound the alarm on cause or turn the cameras on the autistic children with seizures, feeding tubes and bloody diarrhea. We watch the oohing media personalities like hawks and think they'd better not DARE think their momentary, conscience-salving concession to savantism is a trade for taking a real stand.

But they mostly do take the bargain. That Jackie Robinson, what a hitter...whadyamean those kids are going to *our* schools!?

As for the cause of these abilities, to quote Python, I have a theory which is my theory which is mine. Except it's not mine, it's merely extrapolated: http://tinyurl.com/2nu6kq Pinker presupposes that this process of fueling one area of brain development at the cost of others is innate and, in the case of Einstein at least, maybe he's right. After all, in Einstein, this imbalance was transient. This doesn't make Einstein autistic as the ND like to claim, but the example could provide a model for how toxic insult might mimic the "real estate shift" Pinker hypothesizes may have partially explained Einstein's abilities. Only partially because, as Pinker points out, it was everything human about Einstein and, I might add, everything socially conscious which seemed to guide his contributions.

Something happened to our daughter in the course of her infant vaccinations to suppress what had initially been early language development and left in its place a child who couldn't speak in sentences or point to her belly-button but who could count to infinity and spell "excavator" at the age of two. Could this be a post-natal, chemically-induced "Einstein effect"? Certainly the circuits for analytical abilities must have been there from the start, but why were these circuits suddenly getting an inordinate amount of fuel while the engines of her social consciousness and verbal development weren't getting much gas at all?

And that's what kills me about this shallow focus on savants and the converse, lugubriously hopeless "increased recognition" of the other, not-so-shining examples of autism. These views demonstrate how crippling this political censure is to advances in science itself, even in a general sense. While mainstream scientists cower from involving themselves in the "wild side" of the controversy, extraordinary observations could be made which might have a general bearing on treatment of other brain injuries, such as how toxic impact on the brain could suppress one set of functions while increasing others, not to mention what might be done to prevent this or reverse the process. I suspect the only thing that could stop an ambitious, self-interested scientist from even cold-bloodedly pursuing the juicy line of inquiry to be found in autism's neurological mechanism of damage is sheer (Lilly-livered?) terror.


"You would think these amazing skills in kids so obviously disabled would spark the interest of someone in the medical community. What do they have in common? Does the bio-medical path to recovery diminish these skills in all of these kids? This is amazing science...why is it not studied??"

Sonja, the medical community, the AAP, cannot see these things because it is blind. Now you tell me, would you trust your child's health with an entity that cannot see? Would you trust this entity that cannot see with injecting neurotoxins into your child's body? Would you trust this entity to do anything to help your child if your child had a vaccine reaction? Would you trust this entity to even be able to diagnose what had happened to your child if there was a problem? Would you in all honesty expect this entity that cannot *see* to be able to treat your child if something happened to him? How do you even begin to trust an entity that is incapable of *seeing* with the health of your most precious commodity, your child.

They have done an extremely shoddy job of the trust we imposed on them, and they, by their complete inaction on the matter are continuing to erode that everyday. Nobody but they themselves have dug themselves into a hole they are going to have a hard time climbing out of.

Sonja Lopez

Hi Dan,

Loved this piece! My daughter is your Japanese speaker. I wanted to let you in on a few interesting facts about Anna and her skills. We started loosing her after her 12 month vaccines (although I did not make that connection yet). She was pulling away in terms of eye contact and responsiveness but what developed instead was an incredible interest in the written word. By 15 months she was a fluent reader (could pronounce words she had never seen before perfectly-they called it spontaneous phonetic encoding). By the age of two she could read or spell anything you asked of her but could not put two words together functionally. By age 3 she was a computer wiz able to navigate the internet and and complete most children's software. She also has a gift for music and perfect pitch...she could reproduce tunes on the piano by ear. As seemingly wonderful as her gifts appeared, they also hindered and restricted her ability to recover. Her mind was so far ahead of the normal and mundane aspects of everyday living. We could not compete with the amazing things in her head. By the age of 4 we started our bio-medical journey and as her underlying medical issues were addressed and her language, communication, and ability to play improved, her savant skills started to recede. She still has an amazing ability to learn languages, an incredible memory, can type 120 words per minute and has flawless grammar, punctuation, and spelling but what we have come to realize is that these skills not only can help her navigate the world but are also a hindrance to her recovery. As she improves, they play a smaller role in her life...it is like watching the brain shift its abilities into areas that were silent in the past. You can see her at www.turnautismaround.com

You would think these amazing skills in kids so obviously disabled would spark the interest of someone in the medical community. What do they have in common? Does the bio-medical path to recovery diminish these skills in all of these kids? This is amazing science...why is it not studied??

Big Question

"These stories are not really triumphs over disability, they are unusual aspects of the same syndrome that in its less cheerful and far more typical manifestation is wrecking more and more children's lives by the day."

It seems, once again, that Big Media seems to have missed asking the all too pertinent question. Which is THIS - how come these people are able to do these things? How come we never knew of such people before these times? Surely this could not be because of better diagnosing could it? If there were such folks with extraordinary abilities, surely we would have heard about them before, wouldn't we have?

List reader

Dan, I'm on an Aspergers list and I'm sad at how many of the adults are working menial jobs, renting rooms, living at home. The future doesn't look great for them. The autism kids will have it even worse. There's a blog, don't know the name, that shows the apartment of the blogger who is a man with autism in England I think. Filthy squalor. He can use the computer though. People never want to look at the downside.

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