1The boy with Down syndrome who became a brilliant conductor
Zhou Zhou is mentally handicapped, but his extraordinary talent has opened a new world for him.
He was born with Down syndrome on April Fool's Day, 1979 in Wuhan, Huhei province. His IQ is just 30% that of a normal person. He does not know his age or recognize currency, yet he knows all the parts of the instruments in a symphony. Zhou Zhou is the only conductor in the world who does not read music, yet a special talent enables him to memorize the melodies of all the sections in a piece soon after he hears it.
As a boy, Zhou Zhou went to rehearsals with his father, a cellist in the Wuhan Symphony Orchestra. He was always quiet in the rehearsal hall, listening to the music. When the orchestra rested, he would go to the podium to practice conducting.
"His pure heart enables him to concentrate on the music and convey its beauty," said well-known conductor Jiang Xiebin.
Zhou Zhou has toured the world, bringing people joy with his special skills. In 2006, his mother died of cancer, and he remained out of public view until 2014, when he returned to the limelight with an interview on China's Central Television.
2The autistic man who can paint detailed landscapes from memory
Stephen Wiltshire has the uncanny ability to draw and paint detailed landscapes and cityscapes entirely from memory.
Wiltshire was mute when he was diagnosed with severe autism at the age of three. He began communicating through his drawings after being sent to school in London. With the support of his teachers, he slowly learned to speak.
It was during those years that Stephen's special talent was discovered. Following a class field trip, he drew the ornate Albert Hall in detail without the aid of a photograph. He can look at the subject of his drawing once and reproduce it accurately, down to the exact number of columns or windows on a building.
He has tackled the iconic cities of Tokyo, Rome, Hong Kong, Frankfurt, Madrid, Dubai, Jerusalem, London, Singapore and New York. Stephen went from a silent, withdrawn child to a revered artist whose videos go viral on YouTube and whose works sell for six-figure sums.
3The severely autistic man who can play music he's heard only once
In 1995, Rex Lewis-Clack was born blind and severely autistic. However, by the time he was a toddler, it was clear that Rex had a special affinity for music. "When he was three, he started picking out the notes from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony," his mother, Cathleen Lewis, said.
Rex displays an astonishing ability to play back piano pieces he has heard only once—he even transposes them into other keys. He also improvises musical variations based on a given theme.
Now 20-years-old, Rex has performed professionally since he was eight and has delighted audiences worldwide with his astounding musical ability. But away from the keyboard, he still has difficulty carrying on a basic conversation. Considered a prodigious musical savant, he ranks as one of about 30 people throughout history to combine blindness, intellectual disability, and prodigious musical ability.
4The identical twin sisters who are known as "The Rainman Twins"
Flo and Kay Lyman are identical twins who are autistic and have special savant abilities. The sisters, now in their late 50s, have been dubbed "The Rainman Twins." They demonstrate an extraordinary ability to calculate dates and retain a vast collection of details about seemingly everything that has happened to them in their entire lives. They can remember everything about what they have seen, heard, tasted, smelled, and touched.
Flo and Kay are the only known autistic savant twins in the world. While it is certainly special to be an autistic savant, what makes the two women even more unique is how they are not stereotypically autistic. They are social, talkative, outgoing and bubbly. They are comfortable with making jokes and expressing opinions. They also enjoy going out to see live bands.
Just like Dustin Hoffman's Rain Man character religiously watched and took notes on every episode of The People's Court, so did the Lyman sisters with The $100,000 Pyramid and all its permutations. They kept carefully coded charts on the game, marking down every clue used, every mistake buzzed, and every color of suit worn by their idol, Dick Clark. Their brother-in-law once observed: “They need food, they need air, and they need Dick Clark.”
Flo and Kay were devastated when Clark had a stroke in 2004—they formed a small shrine in their bedroom, and prayed regularly for his recovery.
5The boy with Asperger's syndrome who is the world's youngest astrophysics researcher
When Jacob Barnett was 2-years-old, he was diagnosed with moderate to severe autism. Doctors told his parents that he would likely never talk or read and would probably be unable to manage basic daily activities. His mother, following her instinct, pulled her son out of a state-run special education facility to homeschool him. By the age of 11, Jacob entered college to study for his degree—condensed matter physics at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis.
Now 17, Jacob studies at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics and is one of the world's most promising physicists. Said to have a higher IQ than Einstein, he is working on a theory that would see him nominated for a Nobel Prize. According to an email by Professor Scott Tremaine, “The theory that he's working on involves several of the toughest problems in astrophysics and theoretical physics. Anyone who solves these will be in line for a Nobel Prize.”
Barnett, known the world's youngest astrophysics researcher, is already giving lectures to his peers. He has also appeared in several news interviews on 60 Minutes, CBS, and the Time magazine website.
6The autistic woman who became one of the top scientists in the humane livestock handling industry
Temple Grandin is perhaps the world's most famous person with autism. She has exceptional nonverbal intelligence and spatial memory.
A professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University, Grandin is an outspoken advocate for autism research and awareness. She overcame speech problems early in life and went on to become an author and activist for causes tied to animal welfare. She has a Ph.D. in animal sciences and is an expert and consultant on animal behavior. She also invented the "Hug Box," a machine that helps people with autism-related disorders deal with anxiety.
Grandin headlined a 2010 TED Talk in California on understanding autism, entitled "The world needs all kinds of minds," and Time magazine has listed her among the world's most influential people.
In her book, The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across The Spectrum, Grandin draws on her own experience and the latest research to broaden the public's understanding of the challenges faced by people on the autism spectrum, and how to make the most of their unique strengths and abilities.
7The blind, autistic man who has played concerts for audiences worldwide
Derek Paravicini is 36, blind, has severe learning difficulties and cannot dress or feed himself, but play him a song once, and he will not only memorize it instantly, but he'll be able to reproduce it exactly on the piano.
He was born prematurely, at 25 weeks. His blindness was caused by oxygen therapy given during his time in a neonatal intensive care unit. The therapy also affected his developing brain, resulting in his severe learning disability. However, he is a musical prodigy. He has perfect pitch and the ability to play almost any piece of music after hearing it only once. Consequently, he has memorized countless musical compositions, and can play any of them on demand in any style.
Paravicini's obsession with music began when his nanny gave him a toy keyboard to play with when he was just a toddler. On his very first visit to The Linden Lodge School for the Blind, he heard music and followed the sound to a room where a teacher, Adam Ockelford, was playing the piano. He pushed Ockelford to one side and took over, playing with his fingers, the backs of his hands, his elbows, and even his nose. Ockelford encouraged his obvious musical interest and ability and started to give him lessons—first weekly and then daily—once he realized the boy's talent and hunger for music.
Since then, Paravicini has played live shows from Las Vegas to Buckingham Palace, thrilling audiences worldwide. He has been the subject of countless documentaries and an official biography, In the Key of Genius, written by his teacher, Adam Ockelford.
8The autistic savant who has authored two books, written music and has theories on harnessing renewable energy
Vishal Anand is a 10-year-old autistic savant. He released a collection of devotional songs, titled Smaranam (written and composed by him) on Dec 25, 2014. The lyrics for the album have been penned in four languages—Tamil, Sanskrit, Braj Basha and Malayalam.
At 6-years-old, Vishal wrote his first book, Meadow of Moods. He followed it with another called Jumbo's Bag—Words & Phrases which has an emphasis on special needs children and their linguistic challenges.
Vishal attends Sankalp, a special school for children with learning disabilities. Although he has been placed in the intermediate group, his knowledge far exceeds that of his peers. School mainly serves the purpose of acquiring social interaction skills. “We have taken him to several occupational therapists to help him develop basic skills for independent living, and hone his motor skills,” his mother, Vidhya, said.
Vishal's parents have started communicating with researchers at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, who have shown interest in the boy's renewable energy theories. "My hero is Nobel laureate Albert Einstein. I am keen on doing research to create a device using radioactive renewable energy in columns of fuel cells which can be used in cars, homes and industry,” Vishal says.
9The severely disabled man who is also a gifted sculptor
Alonzo Clemons suffered a severe brain injury when he was very young, but there were hints of his gift even before that. As a toddler, he latched onto Play-Doh and never put it down, molding it into various shapes for hours at a stretch.
At three, he fell and suffered a brain injury. The accident left him severely disabled, and his IQ dropped to the mid-40s. However, it amplified his astounding artistic abilities—he suddenly had a gift for creating sculptures with awe-inspiring accuracy.
Clemons doesn't need to study a model for hours to create his incredibly detailed works of art. After just a brief glimpse at a picture of an animal, he can make an incredibly accurate sculpture of it within an hour.
As he grew, and his sculptures became more lifelike, his disabilities seemed to lessen. He started to talk, began powerlifting, and developed a better ability to be able to look after himself. He now lives on his own with some assistance, and works part-time in Boulder, Colorado, in addition to doing his work as a sculptor. Seeking to inspire children's creativity, he demonstrates his sculpting at schools in the area.