by David Rowland, Autism Expert
The 1988 movie, Rain Man, may have done a major disservice to the autism community. The real person on whom Dustin Hoffman based his Raymond Babbage character was Kim Peek (1951-2009). Kim Peek was NOT autistic.
Kim Peek was born with several brain abnormalities, including agenesis of the corpus callosum, a condition in which the bundle of nerves that connects the two hemispheres of the brain is missing. Secondary connectors, such as the anterior commissure, were also missing. Peek also had facial features characteristic of fetal growth (FG) syndrome – e.g. large head, tall prominent forehead, widely set eyes, corners of eyes point downward.
Peek had total recall of every detail to which he had ever been exposed. At age 33 he was able to reel off every address in the 50 States of America, complete with zip codes. If you gave him your date of birth, he could tell you what day of the week it was and what news items were on the front page of newspapers that day.
Kim Peek may have been a savant, but he wasn’t autistic. Unfortunately, Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of “Rain Man” as being autistic has created a false stereotype that has persisted for over 30 years. The iconic “autistic savant” is a fictitious character.
Savant syndrome and autism are independent variables (i.e., are not directly related to each other). Wikipedia suggests that savant syndrome affects one person in a million. The Autism Society suggests that autism affects one person in a hundred. Crunching these two numbers suggests that your chances of encountering someone who is both autistic and a savant is one in 100 million.