What is autism and so-called ‘autistic spectrum disorder’? It is a question that is difficult to ask of many people with autism because of their acute linguistic and communication difficulties. On the other hand, will we get a useful answer by asking atypical individuals with ‘high functioning autism’ like Daniel Tammet, John Elder Robison and Temple Grandin, who are not only independent but able to write books and communicate about their perspective? Are their views representative of this group in society?
Daniel Tammet is on many measures an exceptional individual. He is a savant with exceptional numerical and memory skills. He has broken the world record for reciting Pi as a decimal (22,514 digits without a mistake in 5 hours). His synaesthesia referred to in the title of his memoir Born on a Blue Day, is part of his visual, sensory and imaginative way of memorising numbers and making calculations. He has an amazing ability to learn new languages very rapidly. So what can a person with these exceptional skills, whose features of Asperger’s syndrome coexist with a complex form of synaesthesia in which letters and numbers have strong visual and sensory associations, tell us about autism? Perhaps we should be content to read his story for its experiential qualities, for what it tells us about coping with sensory overload, the anxiety associated with some human interactions, the difficulties in connecting his own emotional experience.
Tammet is the subject of a documentary that filmed some of the events in his book, Born on a Blue Day. It shows his recitation of Pi , the visit to America to visit neurologist Ramachandran, to pit his numerical skills against a casino, and to meet Kim Peek (a savant who was the inspiration for the film Rain Man), and a final public language challenge (to learn Icelandic in a week culminating in a televised interview). There is an interesting comparison between the relative emphases of the film and Tammet’s narrative in the book. Whereas the film concentrates on the intellectual achievements (how does he do that?) and observes these from outside, Tammet in his book writes also about his doubts and insecurities, about how he often relies on automatic rather than conscious faculties (for example at the casino), and about how difficult he found some of the social interactions and lack of daily rhythm during the making of the film. This is one of those instances where film provides a vivid and memorable picture, but the book gives much more, especially about the inner experience.
The initial chapter of the book describes his numerical synaesthesia is not to be missed, even if at the end of the day it is still a description of Tammet’s experience rather than an explanation of how his brain does its amazing calculations. Chapter 4 ‘Schooldays’ is also interesting for several reasons. Tammet describes his behavioural abnormalities very well, presumably from the perspective of someone who has learnt over the years what is not acceptable or normal behaviour – his tantrums, the way he ignored the other children and initially did not care about their opinion, his difficulty in making eye contact, the difficulty in filtering out external noises when concentrating, his need for routine, his fascination for facts and patterns, his behaviours like hitting the side of his head when upset. But in addition he tells of ways in which he progressed through practice, for example by writing difficult letters like ‘g’s and ‘k’s over and over. He is very clear that his social skills improved through practice. ‘Having people constantly around me helped me to cope better with noise and change. I also began to learn how to interact with other children by silently watching my siblings playing each other and their friends from my bedroom window.’ It is clear that Daniel’s parents were crucial in providing the space and encouragement to practise skills that he found difficult. It is clear too that children with profound difficulties in many communication and social skills can change with appropriate graded practice.
Essential reading for those with an interest in autism.
Daniel Tammet (2006) Born on a Blue Day: a memoir of Asperger’s and an extraordinary mind, London, Hodder & Stoughton
Extraordinary People: The Boy with the Incredible Brain (2005) First broadcast Channel 4 2005. Uploaded to YouTube by Real Stories, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PPySn3slfXI 48 mins
Daniel Tammet (2011) Different Ways of Knowing, TED talk about Perception and Synaesthesia 10 mins