Sunday, August 12, 2007

Blinding 1, shy 4, blue Wednesday

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, savant syndrome, autobiographies

You might find it frustrating to speak with Daniel Tammet. He has a hard time looking you in the eye...though not as hard as in the past. He doesn't do "small talk" well. He is likely to launch into a monologue about his interests. If too many people crowd around and it gets noisy, he is likely to clap his hands over his ears and leave.

This isn't about just a guy being a guy. Daniel is an autistic savant: as he describes it, he has Asperger's Syndrome, a relatively mild form of autism. A small number of autistic people are savants. It seems the mental real estate not being used for sociality is taken up instead with prodigious memory, and great mathematical and logical abilities. Many are "instant calendar calculators", and can tell you the day of the week of your birth, or any date you care to choose, over spans of hundreds or thousands of years.

I have three friends with Asperger's, so I know what it is like to get to know one. But none of my friends is a savant, though one comes close: he can talk endlessly about weather, is up-to-date on the current forecasts for the whole area, and has a powerful memory for weather phenomena, particularly cloud forms, which he loves to watch and describe. The only time I could get a word in edgewise with him was when I began to describe my experiences with the more powerful thunderstorms of the US Midwest, of tornadoes, and of half-pound hailstones.

I also have met a few autistic people, and my instant diagnosis of the difference with Asperger's is this: Someone with Asperger's Syndrome can look you in the eye. Autistic people can't, not even a glance. Most autistic people don't recognize eyes anyway.

Daniel Tammet's short autobiography (he's only 27, after all), Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant, details the progress of his life from the inside. He takes pains to describe his feelings as he grew up, learned to interact with people—over a very long time—and gradually became relatively independent in a way beyond the reach of most people on the "autistic spectrum".

He is a synesthete: numbers have colors, shapes, sounds, and feels to him, as do many words. He particularly likes prime numbers, which he experiences as very spiky. This is unusual, because otherwise he greatly prefers more rounded shapes, the circle being his favorite. He visualizes sequences of numbers or of digits as a wiggly line or landscape silhouette. This characteristic enabled him to memorize, and recite, more than 22,500 digits of π (pi, the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter), for a fund-raiser for Britain's National Society for Epilepsy.

Though over spans longer than a half hour or so, he easily gets distracted, he has great focus when he desires. This plus his memory skills enables him to quickly learn languages. He is fluent in a dozen, including Icelandic, which he learned in one week, at the behest of a British TV channel, which had also arranged for him to meet Kim Peek, the savant who inspired the autistic character in the movie Rain Man. He had previously learned Spanish in a week with books borrowed from a friend, who was learning the language at a more usual pace.

His unusual abilities and synesthesia remind me of Hélène Grimaud (I reviewed Wild Harmonies earlier this year). Mlle Grimaud is the classical pianist who experiences music as colors, practices piano only to keep her skills up but practices concert pieces by mental visualization, and lives with a pack of wolves she cares for. She is a musical savant, and her self-disclosure convinces me she is also somewhere along the autistic spectrum.

Daniel is gay, and relates his gradual development in this area as simply and as frankly as he does everything. If you saw Rain Man, you might recall a scene with the autistic man and a woman friend of his brother's in an elevator, where she persuades him to kiss her. She asks, "What was it like?" and his reply is, "Wet." Again from my limited knowledge of a few such people, it seems a characteristic of Asperger's Syndrome that sexual distinctions are beneath notice, just as humans (such as siblings and parents) seem to be just furniture that moves to a fully autistic person. The oldest of my three friends with AS claims to be gay, but only by inclination or attraction, for he is much too shy to form any relationship. He says he finds men "less complicated" than women, and he dislikes complexity.

As he approaches his late Twenties, the author has a relatively successful life. He has a partner, who helps shield him from an overly-complex world, though he has shown that he can usually manage pretty well. He has created a web-based education service, and is thus productive in a way that Kim Peek and many others with AS or autism can seldom be. I do recall, however, seeing an autistic, albino man, in the Metro in Washington, DC. His accessories made it clear that he worked as a software developer. He was listening to an IPod, which showed he'd learned how to keep the noisy world at bay. Noise is often the most troublesome stimulus to autistic people. Such example are heartening.

Perhaps over time, we'll get more memoirs from Mr. Tammet. I'd find it interesting to learn how he develops over the years. Meanwhile, he occasionally contributes to his Optimnem blog.

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