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The Extraordinary Evolution of ‘The Human Camera’, Savant Stephen Wiltshire

Savant syndrome – the phenomenon of individuals exhibiting extraordinary, almost superhuman talents in a particular artistic or intellectual skill – provides a fascinating insight into the latent abilities of the human mind…though the cause remains largely a mystery. It does often, however, appear in concert with either autism, or some sort of brain injury.

One such individual is Stephen Wiltshire, who first came to public attention in the 1980s as a ‘child prodigy’ who could sketch detailed artworks of buildings and cityscapes from memory, reproducing the minutiae such as number of windows, railings or floors of buildings despite only having had a little time to survey the subject.

Born in London on April 24, 1974, he was an extremely withdrawn and almost mute child with a diagnosis of autism made at age three, savant syndrome expert Darold Treffert noted in a chapter of his book Islands of Genius devoted to Stephen. He started attending Queensmill, a school in London for children with special needs, at age five, exhibiting typical behaviours of children with autism including rocking movements and hand flapping and remaining aloof and distant from others.

Stephen’s talents are now well-known by most, having featured in a number of documentaries that have made him famous (to the extent of having his own art gallery in London). But what the documentary The Human Camera shows (embedded below), is that not only has his artistic skill developed further over the years, he has also made tremendous progress in being able to interact and be relatively comfortable around others, allowing him now in middle age to live a largely independent and happy life.

As Treffert pointed out in Islands of Genius:

Through the years there has been a progression and growth in Stephen’s art skills. Stephen can still draw buildings with precise detail, window pane by window pane, or produce astonishingly accurate aerial views — encompassing as many as 200 buildings — from a helicopter ride, such as Tokyo Panorama. But now his gallery includes drawings such as Times Square at Night with all the colorful neon signs and automobile traffi c. Or Piccadilly Circus at Night, which also shows brilliant color and some improvisation. Like other prodigious savants, Stephen is showing a progression from remarkable literal memory, to improvisation, to creating something entirely new.

Accompanying the progress and improvement in artistic abilities have been gains in language and social skills as well. He is much more comfortable around people, less withdrawn, more animated and more social. The art skills have provided him the “conduit toward normalization” that I have seen in so many persons with savant syndrome. And, importantly, there has been no trade-off of artistic interest, skill or ability for those gains in personal adjustment. Not only has Stephen maintained his astonishing artistic ability, he has also broadened it and is venturing into improvisation and creativity with also sensational skill.

This reminds us that we shouldn’t think of savants simply as objects of curiosity with tricks to amaze – they are people like us doing their best to navigate life, often with many more hurdles to clear in that regard than most of us.

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