WILMINGTON — For fans of ABC’s popular TV drama The Good Doctor, the term savant syndrome is nothing new. The series revolves around Dr. Shaun Murphy, a young autistic surgeon from the mid-size city of Casper, Wyoming who relocates to San Jose, to work at a prestigious hospital and use his incredible medical abilities to help others.
For those who may be less familiar with this phenomenon, savant syndrome comes in different forms. In congenital savant syndrome, as is the case with Dr. Murphy’s character, someone with significant mental disabilities excels at certain things far in excess of the average person. These may include rapid calculation, artistic ability, map making, or musical skill. The extraordinary savant aptitude surfaces in early childhood.
However, in atypical acquired savant syndrome, these astonishing new abilities, typically in music, art, or math, unexpectedly appear following a traumatic accident such as a head injury, stroke or other central nervous system (CNS) incident. Acquired savant syndrome is a condition in which dormant savant skills suddenly emerge, sometimes to the point of reaching genius levels, in areas where the person impacted may have never shown an interest in pursuing pre-accident.
It is estimated that there are fewer than a hundred people currently living with savant syndrome. Atypical acquired savant syndrome is even more rare, with only 33 known people in the entire world having been identified as having it. One of those diagnosed is Scott Mele, a 42yearold Wilmington man who discovered an incredible talent for painting following a near fatal car accident nearly five years ago.
On Aug. 17, 2015, Mele, a successful car salesman, was waiting at an intersection when a driver going 70 MPH hit him. Having suffered a traumatic brain injury, his recovery took months and eventually Mele found himself with severe anxiety and depression. Four months after the incident, he says he woke up one morning and was literally a different person. “I just didn’t feel like myself anymore,” he says. “I was confused about the decisions I had made in my life before the accident and didn’t want to take ownership of the life I used to live. I hated the person I used to be and just wanted to start over.”
Mele, a divorced father of two, no longer had the desire to sell cars. One day while at a craft store with his kids, he says he got an inexplicable urge to paint despite having no previous artistic talent. “It was the first time in four months that I saw something that I could relate to, that was mine, that felt like it was me.” So, he began to paint and the next thing he knew he was painting incredible images with no formal training.
Mele did some research into his condition and decided to seek a doctor’s opinion about his newfound talent. At that point, a physician who specialized in savant syndrome, confirmed that Mele had atypical acquired savant syndrome. Scientists don’t have an explanation for why this happens, but believe such abilities may lie dormant in everyone. The first case of savant syndrome was identified in 1789.
Nearly five years later, Mele has built a solid living as an artist having completed hundreds of paintings, most of which can be seen on his Instagram page. Without any real financial backing, Mele has been able to create spray paint murals in Goldsboro that are larger than life and painted innovative portraits that verge near realism.
In retrospect Mele says he would not trade the accident for his newfound genius because it forced him to reexamine his priorities in life. “Prior to the wreck I had no friends. I was self-centered and superficial to the point that after my accident no one even came to check on me,” Mele recounts. “My main goals in life were success and buying material objects. I didn’t care about anybody else,” Mele says. “So when I had this accident, it was completely flipped upside down and it’s like that person died. I really don’t relate with the old me anymore so it’s like I have this chance at a second life.”
Mele says the last five years have been brutal for him and his family but he is setting goals and wants to continue working on his own self-improvement. He is working on becoming financially secure and building stronger relationships with the people who matter the most to him in life. Although he is not a religious person, Mele also says he wants to work on building his faith in a higher power.
“Since finding out about my acquired savant syndrome my goal has always been to get my story out and help others who are struggling with post traumatic issues. For a long time after my accident I would wake up afraid that I had reverted back to the selfish person I used to be. So now I am focused on living my best life and connecting with the people who care enough about me to pull me back up through the cracks if something terrible like this happens in the future.”
To view more of Mele’s work visit his Instagram at www.instagram.com/ICantw84it