IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Fell On the Slopes, Suffered a Concussion, and It Caused Aquired Savant Syndrome

Because sometimes life literally rears up and whacks you over the head. Who would have guessed?
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Publish date:
April 13, 2015
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health, accident, Savant Syndrome, skiing, Concussion, Mental Disorders

Think of every building you have ever been in. From highway rest stops in states that you've only passed through, to the well-worn halls of you high school. Think of the large places, say the Louvre, where you've walked through once 10 years ago. Think of small places, maybe your friends-cousins-girlfriend’s trailer in the sticks where you went to pick up a six-pack of beer when you were in high school.

Thousands of places, with thousands of rooms, branches and doorways. And now imagine if you had the ability to draw a diagram of every single one of those buildings, down to the smallest detail, no matter how long ago you had been through them, nor how many times.

It’s called savant syndrome and it’s a rare mental phenomenon. My case is unique, however, because I was not born with this skill -- I acquired it.

When I was in my senior year of college, the last weekend of winter break, I took a skiing vacation with my family. Hitting the slopes was a regular thing for us; in the land of what seems to be never ending cold, you either develop an affinity for winter sports, or go mildly stir crazy. The hill I chose was covered in moguls, and in the fading, flat twilight, it was hard to see. Flat light is a skier’s bane -- it destroys your depth perception, and makes navigation tricky no matter the terrain.

About halfway down the hill, at a speed that was definitely too fast, on a hill that was turning icy quick, I caught an edge and went flying. Not only did I yard-sale something fierce, but I blacked out when I hit, and the only reason I know this is because when I came to my brother was crouched next to me and before he had been at the top of the hill.

But I was OK! I was sitting up now! I wore a helmet! Sure it was banged up (read: giant dent), but I was more pissed that now I had to shell out to get a new one. My goggles were snapped in half, but miraculously still on my face, so all good right? I could feel my fingers and toes, and my vision was still there. Sure I couldn’t move my left arm without searing pain, but whatever, right? There was no blood to be found, and I was only slightly delirious. Ski patrol was nowhere to be seen, so no one must have alerted them, and only a few people were yelling questions down at me from the lift. I was fine, totally fine.

WRONG. SO WRONG.

Stupidly, I decided to continue skiing because of adrenaline. I skiied despite the protests of my brother, my parents, and all the people I was with. Sure, I was in pain, but I was positive my shoulder was only dislocated, and that was an easy fix, and nothing was broken. I wanted to vomit, and had a headache (the headache part was not uncommon for me), but I was determined to get my full day in mostly because I PAID $80 FOR THIS TICKET. I WAS GONNA FUCKING SKI.

That night was hell. I ignored the head issues, much like everyone else, in favor of the shoulder issues (turns out my collarbone was also broken). I literally drank the pain away that night at dinner, and went to bed (If you think you have a concussion, please don’t do this!!! LEARN FROM MY MISTAKES PEOPLE). I woke up with what I was sure was a hangover, wrapped my dangly left arm in a sling purchased at the nearby CVS, and drove my ass back to school. I didn't go to the hospital until the next day.

In the end, after about 500 X-rays, CT scans and an MRI, I was diagnosed with a moderate concussion, as well as a badly dislocated shoulder, and a broken collarbone (but mostly I got a hardy scolding from the doctor). I was sent on my way with an actual shoulder brace, some painkillers, and the instructions to come back if I had any problems with my head.

Over the following weeks, shit got weird. I was still in my anti-date brace, as my roommate took to calling it, but my headaches and vision problems hadn’t subsided. The weirdest thing however was the memory. Memory is a touchy son of a bitch, and something that you have to be careful about if you’ve suffered any type of head injury.

It was like I could see, though not in a literal sense because I was still having issues with vertigo, as well as this weird disconnect between what I was seeing and what my brain was processing. I could remember everywhere, like flicking through the pages of a book. Every place I had ever been, but specifically the buildings.

I, of course thought nothing of it (I’m not too common sense oriented most of the time), until I was hit by a complex migraine, which some of you may remember from this TV reporter. It landed me back in the hospital, and made me the most interesting thing the hospital's neurology department had seen in quite some time. I was rescanned and had to suffer some very long talks about my memory, my cognitive abilities, and whether or not I could feel my toes.

The thing I kept bringing up was my memory. I kept telling my neurologist that I could remember too much, it wasn’t right.

It took about a year, and three different neurologists all communicating with each other, but finally my memory problem (or I suppose gift?) was finally addressed, and I was diagnosed with acquired savant syndrome (and I’m going to be in a medical journal that one of my neuro’s is collaborating on. Pretty sure I’ll get a lame moniker like Patient XYZ though…)

I am not autistic. It is a common misconception that all savants are autistic (See: Rain Man). Not so. Approximately one in 10 people with autism has savant skills, so nine out of 10 do not. Approximately one out of 1,400 people with mental retardation or CNS deficits other than autism do have savant skills, so such abilities are not limited to autistic disorder. Hence, not all autistic persons are savants, and not all savants are autistic.

Savant syndrome is different than say, eidetic memory (please don’t yell at me, that link totally goes to Wikipedia, I can see my eighth grade English teacher cringing), where a person can recall images, sounds or objects after only a few moments of exposure. The difference is due to the fact that I only have the ability to call forth a certain thing (building layouts), versus the ability to call forth any type of information.

The same thing can be said for hyperthymesia, which is the ability to recall any event from your own life. You may remember this episode of "60 minutes" that interviewed people with hyperthymesia.

My case differs from the typical diagnoses of savant syndrome, since I was not born with savant syndrome. Before the fall, I had no interests in architecture, or even buildings at all. My technical art skills were minimal; I never had any interest in drafting, nor even interior design. However, after the fall, I filled sketchbook after sketchbook with my weird “place-memories.”

Savant skills usually fall into four main categories: Music, art, calendar calculating and memorization (less commonly included is the fifth category of language). Different sources go use different terms for the categories. Memory is often left out and replaced by mechanical-spatial skills. My specific case lies in artistic skills, as I have the ability to diagram structures (specifically buildings I have been in) with ridiculous accuracy.

This applies only, however, to static spaces. I can tell you what was in the vending machine at the rest stop off the 530 between Little Rock and Texarkana, because it’s fixed point. I remember what was in there when I was there. It because of this that I still (much to my chagrin) will put my keys down in the wrong place, and forget where they are, since they are no longer at their fixed point.

Rick Owens, another person who has acquired savant syndrome says it perfectly, "I see geometry now, I see the planes, the angles," he explains. "I never understood architecture before. Now, I stop and draw it."

Oddly enough, my strange new “talent” (a.k.a. fun new life long affliction) hasn’t particular affected my life with much impact up until this point. I graduated college normally with a degree in something so far away from art and architecture it was almost jarring, and now I work a normal (shitty) desk job.

No lie though, I’m definitely, constantly mulling over the idea of quitting and going into drafting and design. At least I know I’d be good at it!