Extraordinary People by Darold Treffert

by stephenpalmersf

I came across Darold Treffert’s book Extraordinary People in a second-hand bookshop decades ago. It was a lucky find, and has been an inspirational book for me all the time since (including for my own SF novels).

Treffert is an American psychiatrist with an interest in Savant Syndrome, sometimes called Autistic Savant Syndrome or similar terms. Over many years he has come to an understanding of why otherwise severely disabled people can show such extraordinary “islands of genius,” which in even a non-disabled person would be considered remarkable.

The book begins with an overview of the symptoms of the syndrome and of its historical background. There have been some savants noted in the past, with Blind Tom the one Treffert mentions most often. Usually what is seen is a radically reduced IQ (typically around the 50 mark), with considerable difficulty in such tasks as eating and drinking, dressing, and so on. Savants typically have few or no social skills, and when young are often considered beyond help.

Treffert then describes a few savants, with one, Leslie Lemke, being a personal acquaintance of his. Leslie Lemke is described by Treffert as the most extraordinary savant he has ever met or heard of. Soon after birth Lemke was given up as beyond reach by medicine, but he was fostered by a truly remarkable woman, May Lemke, who despite Leslie being blind, retarded and unable to perform even the most basic of personal tasks, took him and fostered him with devotion. In fact (as Treffert observes, and later discusses) May Lemke was the making of her extraordinary foster-son.


Leslie Lemke can remember and play back on the piano any tune, song or piece of music that he hears, with no mistakes and after just one listen. This concrete, perfect, recapitulating type of memory is considered by Treffert to be the foundation of most, if not all instances of Savant Syndrome, and later in the book he gives his opinion on what that implies. But Leslie Lemke can do more than just recall perfectly and replay on a piano. Nourished and loved by May, he grew and flourished, and now is able to walk, to eat, and dress himself. But most remarkable of all given the typical route of such savants, he can improvise musical themes on the piano that work with the music he hears; and that truly is extraordinary, since the vast majority of savants are unable to generalise from concrete mental information.

The final sections of the book deal with Treffert’s view of what Savant Syndrome is. He thinks it is a response to a number of birth accidents, including premature birth, excessive use of oxygen at birth, and other issues. The relatively common triad of blindness, Savant Syndrome and phenomenal musical ability is in his view significant. He thinks one variety of memory is hypertrophied by the brain in response to a particular type of left-hemisphere damage, which most if not all savants suffer from. Human beings have three types of memory: short-term, medium-term prior to the setting down of long-term, and long-term itself. This recapitulating medium-term memory, hypertrophied far beyond its normal use because of brain damage, is the key to the syndrome. It is not that savants remember well – it is that they cannot forget. Inability to forget sets their brains off on an irreversible path.

I would highly recommend this book to all those interested in brain function and beyond. But it is not just fascinating in its own right, it is a vindication of such extraordinary people as May Lemke, devoting themselves to individuals who seem at the outset of their lives to have no hope. Inspirational indeed.

Treffert Extraordinary people