A new study has shown that one-third of adults with autism have savant-like skills - such as astounding memory, perfect pitch or the ability to multiply very high numbers together.
The study of about 100 autistic patients revealed that a larger number of people have skills that stand out, both in comparison with their other abilities and with the skills of the general population.
"People often focus on the things people with autism can't do. One of the things our study illustrates is that these are people who do have special skills but they are not being used," New Scientist magazine quoted Patricia Howlin of the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College in London, an study leader, as saying.
The notion of the savant has long been fascinating cognitive scientists and the general public, but a connection between autism and savantism was not established until now.
Thus, the researchers looked at two different measures of exceptional ability in a group of people with autism - all now adults - who the team have been studying periodically since they were first diagnosed between 1950 and 1985.
They found that 39 met criteria for either what they call a "savant skill" or an "exceptional cognitive skill".
To identify savant skills, the researchers quizzed the parents of the autistic adults asking them to identify and describe, using specific examples, any outstanding skills and talents that were present "at a level that would be unusual even for normal people".
Out of almost 100 parents who replied, about half (45) claimed that their child had a special skill.
However, only 24 met the study's tough criteria for what constitutes a savant skill - both exceptional in terms of population norms and above the individual's overall level of ability.
Some of the savant-like skills considered were: being able to name the elevation of both the sun and the moon at any time of day, on any specified date; being able to name the day of the week for any date in the distant past or future (a fairly common savant ability known as calendrical calculation); perfect pitch; and the ability to say, from a single chord, which piece of music it came from.
To identify exceptional cognitive ability, the researchers also examined the volunteers' scores on standard intelligence tests consisting of a range of subtests aimed at different aspects of IQ, such as arithmetic, spatial and motor skills and memory span.
And it was found that 23 had an ability on at least one of these subtests that was well above the general population's average score on that subtest.
According to the first criteria, eight out of 23 had also been identified as a mathematical or calendrical savant.
The researchers concluded that overall 28.5 percent - or almost one third - of their volunteers had either a savant skill or an exceptional cognitive ability.
They said that the study opened a window into the mind of a child with autism.
They also recommended using such isolated, exceptional abilities as a way to motivate people with autism to learn other skills - such as social or communication ones - that might not come as easily.