Most people are familiar with the 1988 movie Rainman starring Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise.  This movie, based on a true story, dealt with a male adult who had remarkable mathematical/computational abilities, yet had major deficiencies in other areas of his life such as socialization and language.  Experts describe this phenomena as ”savant syndrome” – a person with one or more ”peaks” in their abilities but several ”valleys” due to developmental or intellectual disabilities such as autism or Down syndrome.

Not many people, though, realize that Dr. Howard Gardner at Harvard University, used savant syndrome as a key criterion in developing his theory of multiple intelligences.  He theorized that for each of the eight (or nine) intelligences, there were people who had savant syndrome with a peak in one of the intelligences in his model.  Thus, ”Rainman” had a strength in logical-mathematical intelligence or what I like to call Number/Logic Smart.  Some people with developmental disabilities possess hyperlexia, the ability to read an encyclopedia, say, with little or no comprehension of what they are reading (a savant ability for linguistic intelligence, or Word Smart).  There are savants who can draw from memory minutely detailed landscapes (Picture Smart), those who can play complex classical music on the piano having heard them only once (Music Smart), those who can intuit subtle features in nature (Nature Smart), and even those who are considered ”mad” or ”holy fools” in India, Russia, and elsewhere, but who possess, according to their neighbors, special spiritual vision or knowledge (Life Smart).

Learning about savants in each of these intelligences reminds us that very few people are disabled in every intelligence. Disabilities are more often intelligence specific and leave untouched other intelligences that can shine brightly in a person’s life.  This realization makes the concept of ”disability” a relative term and opens the door to a truly strength-based approach to helping individuals with special needs succeed on their own terms.

For more information about Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, get my practical guides to MI theory for:

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Cover of book 7 Kinds of SmartBook cover of Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom, 4th edition by Thomas ArmstrongCover of book In Their Own Way: Discovering and Encouraging Your Child's Multiple Intelligences

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I’m the author of 20 books including my latest, a novel called Childless, which you can order from Amazon.

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