In 1988 television journalist Dave Wagner was contacted by two fans: Flo and Kay Lyman, autistic twin sisters with savant abilities that included calendrical calculation and prodigious memories. During the ’90s, Wagner produced a series of short news segments on Flo and Kay, and introduced them to their ‘personal saviour’, television legend Dick Clark.
Those original video segments were incorporated into a 2011 documentary in the Extraordinary People series, and help to make it a wonderful feature on the lives of those living with savant syndrome. While their extraordinary talents are showcased at various times through the documentary, it also documents and provides raw insights into the ups and downs of their life, from the loss of a number of people very close to them and the difficulties for those caring for them, through to their ‘red letter day’ meeting their hero.
There’s also some wonderful little nuggets to discover in the documentary, such as learning that, after meeting them, Dick Clark phoned them every year on their birthday from then on.
The story of Flo and Kay, the worlds only female autistic savant twins. Savantism is a rare condition in which sufferers of developmental disorders, often autism, are capable of acts of genius that far outstrip their expected levels of ability. In Flo and Kays case, they each have extraordinary memories for facts and dates.
Among their many special talents is an ability to compute the day of the week for any date — past or future. For any given day of their lives, they can remember what the weather was like and even what they had for breakfast.
According to psychologist Dr David Holmes, Flo and Kay’s well ordered minds are also reflected in their well ordered lives. The more that they can create order, the more secure they feel, he says.
At 52 years of age, the twins are bubbly and sociable. They are passionate about music, enjoy going to gigs and love to laugh. This means that they do not fit the classic stereotype of autism sufferers.
At the New Jersey Neuroscience Institute, Dr Nancy Isenberg uses the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS) to perform her assessment. She asks Flo and Kay a series of questions about friendships and emotions. As well as listening to their answers, she observes the sisters’ body language.
The prodigious memory feats of the twins is another savant talent that doesn’t seem to match up with the recent theory that savants might be just using ‘simple tricks’ employed regularly by magicians.