“It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing,” Rex Lewis-Clack croons, his head joyfully bobbing in time with the Duke Ellington standard. The 20-year-old musician accompanies himself on a grand piano, deftly striking the keys with a dexterity reminiscent of the Duke himself. Then he segues into an exquisitely executed rendition of Chopin’s Fantaisie Impromptu. Lewis-Clack has the sweet-faced, blond good looks of a teen heartthrob. But the haunting melody that seems to flow from his fingertips is masterful. It fills the high-ceilinged living room of the Los Angeles beachfront condo he shares with his mother, Cathleen Lewis. After the last strains echo through the apartment, he rocks back and forth on the piano bench and flaps his hands in excitement, seemingly elated, and flashes a wide, triumphant smile.
This cherubic young man was born blind, due to a congenital condition called septo-optic dysplasia. He had serious cognitive disabilities as a child, and severe symptoms of autism: Even the faintest noises would make him scream, and he was so sensitive to touch that he kept his hands balled up in fists. “On his third Christmas, we had to go out of the room to open presents because he couldn’t stand the ripping sound of the wrapping paper,” recalls Lewis. “He wouldn’t eat solid foods and pretty much lived off liquids for his first few years. It seemed like he was a prisoner in his own body.” His doctors predicted he would never walk or talk.
When he was 2, Lewis-Clack’s father gave him a piano keyboard. It became his gateway to the outside world. Lewis-Clack taught himself to play the piano, says Lewis, “and would play until he dropped from exhaustion.” When he began formal lessons at age 5, his teacher noticed his remarkable gifts. Lewis-Clack has perfect pitch, a phenomenon that occurs in about 1 in 10,000 people: He can identify a musical note immediately, even when he hears it completely out of context. Although he cannot see and cannot read music, he only needs to hear most songs once to play them back perfectly. And he has whole libraries of music stored in his brain. “One day, Rex sat down and played through all 21 of Chopin’s nocturnes, and played them perfectly even though he had only studied or played six of them [before],” says Lewis. Unbeknownst to her, he had memorized the other 15.
Lewis-Clack doesn’t talk much, responding to most questions with short sentences. “I crack the eggs,” he amiably offers when asked how he’ll help his mom prepare a pumpkin pie for the holidays. He communicates mostly through his music: He played in his first concert at age 7 and now travels around the world to perform in fundraisers to benefit people with disabilities. Because of his exceptional musical talent and his intellectual disability, he is considered a savant — one of those unusual people who struggles with tasks that most people find simple, yet has extraordinary abilities that few could hope to attain.
Savant syndrome is a loose term that refers to people who have a combination of significant cognitive difficulties, often stemming from autism, and profound skills — “islands of genius,” in the words of Wisconsin-based psychiatrist Darold Treffert, an independent scholar who has studied savants for more than half a century. Once thought to be rare in people with autism, found in no more than 1 out of 10 individuals, research over the past few years suggests savantism may be more common: As many as one in three people with autism may possess exceptional abilities.
Exactly how and why savantism happens is unclear. But some evidence suggests that savants may have experienced an undetected injury to the left hemisphere of their brain in utero or in infancy, triggering compensatory recruitment in the right brain that unleashes unusual abilities.
Most savants have special abilities in musical, artistic, mathematical or mechanical domains, coupled with extraordinary memory. Stephen Wiltshire, for instance, a British savant and artist who was diagnosed with autism at age 3, has been called a “human camera” because of his ability to draw landscapes from memory after seeing them only once. Other savants possess the uncanny skill of ‘calendar calculating’ — quickly computing the day of the week of any arbitrary date in the past or future — highlighted in the 1988 Oscar-winning movie “Rain Man.” Still others may have a facility with foreign languages, the ability to measure distances or heights with precision without using instruments, or exceptional map-reading skills. But only a handful possess Lewis-Clack’s extraordinary gift.