It's All in the Details: An Interview with an Extraordinary Person

An autistic savant offers insights on his disorder, which more and more children are being diagnosed with each year.

An autistic savant offers insights on his disorder, which more and more children are being diagnosed with each year.
Read an excerpt from Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Austistic Savant.

Daniel Tammet, an autistic savant from the United Kingdom, cried constantly for the first couple years of his life. At four he suffered a series of epileptic seizures. He was an outsider at his mainstream school, unable to mix with the other children. And though his teachers were generally sympathetic, none of them had the resources or training to give him the special attention he needed.

But after leaving school, Tammet had a series of breakthroughs. He discovered a kind of emotional relationship to numbers, went to Lithuania briefly to teach English, and has said he even cried for the first time as an adult a few years ago, after the death of his cat. Meanwhile, his mental agility astounds people. He can now perform mind-bending math problems in seconds -- he holds the European record for memorizing pi, up to the 22,514th digit. He says he can learn a new language in a week, already knows seven, and has even created his own, with 1,000 invented words. But, like many autistics, he still finds emotions difficult to understand and has trouble telling left from right.

It wasn't until just a few years ago that scientists -- and Tammet himself -- found out just how special his brain is: Experts estimate that fewer than fifty autistic savants exist worldwide, and he is perhaps unique in his level of self-awareness and ability to communicate what it feels like to live in his world. His new memoir, Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant, gives readers a rare glimpse inside an extraordinary mind, and his candor makes his unique challenges as familiar as our own.

Tammet's insights also hold particular interest for the education community. The 1990s saw a 172 percent increase in the number of children diagnosed with autism in the United States -- meaning more autistic children are learning in mainstream classrooms than ever before. Tammet spoke with Edutopia about his educational experiences and how his own learning processes might be able to help others.

You went to school with students who were nonautistic, and, according to your book, this presented many challenges, especially in the areas of socialization and distractions. What do you think is the best way for autistic children to be educated?

There are as many types of autism as there are people with the condition, so there isn't one type of education that will fit every autistic child. For the most part, mainstream education was good for me, and I think those whose autism is very mild will benefit most from mainstream education, as I did. Generally speaking, people with mild autism have above-average IQs and good visual memories. They love reading and learning facts and figures, and can do very well academically.

Autism and education is a very hot topic here in the United Kingdom, and there was a report issued here recently that said the educational system is mishandling autistic children, because they discovered that teachers set the ambitions for their autistic students too low; they don't think autistic children could excel in certain areas. But it's been shown that if you support and encourage autistic pupils on the milder side of the spectrum, they really can blossom.

How do you think your affinity and passion for numbers is connected to your facility with language, a connection that other savants often do not have?

Most savants have much more severe disability than I do. My diagnosis was Asperger's syndrome, which is a much milder form of autism, so my language skills weren't impaired in childhood. Just like with numbers, I have a very visual approach to language -- I see words in different colors and textures; I think in pictures. The other thing I would say about the relationship between language and numbers is that for me, grammar has to do with patterns. I loved reading as a child because I could see -- and was comforted by -- the patterns in the words.

At the same time, I still have difficulties understanding spoken language. Sometimes, when I'm listening to someone, it can be a little bit like static on a radio, and I have to listen carefully and try to tune in to the right station.

In what ways did teaching, especially your teaching experiences in Lithuania, affect your ideas about how students learn best?

When I went to Lithuania, I found that being different wasn't necessarily such a bad thing; I wasn't the playground freak anymore. I was able to use my abilities in a very positive way. For example, I learned Lithuanian in a week, which allowed me to connect to my students in their own language and explain English grammar in ways they could really understand. When I came back to England, I tutored children in math and English, and again I listened to them. I used words I knew they would understand. I drew things out in diagrams and pictures to help explain certain terms. It really helped them.

Do you think your own particular ways of learning could be helpful to nonsavants and even nonautistics?

Tests have shown that even outside of autism, about two-thirds of the population in general learn best when they're given material which is primarily visual -- pictures, diagrams, illustrations. When you read or hear a word, you get a picture in your head, but when you hear or see a number, for most people there is no picture at all. The numbers are just like smudges on a page; any number looks pretty much the same as any other number.

For me, numbers look completely different from one another. For example, the numbers 1 and 11 have similarities -- they're both bright and shiny numbers -- but 11 is much rounder and much bigger. For young children, it might be possible to find ways of using different-colored Play-Doh or wooden blocks to communicate the idea that numbers are actually very different from one another and have their own patterns and their own relationships.

Another thing autistic people are good at is pulling out and analyzing detail that's often missed by others. And when you're learning, it's often the little details that bring the material to life and help you remember something more effectively. If you're reading a history book, for example, it's the small details of a famous figure's life that humanize that person and explain why a particular sequence of events happened instead of other possible sequences. So it can be really useful to teach people how to spend a few more minutes and really look at something to get some of the details. If they do that, they'll find that they notice more things, and it will help their memory and enrich their learning.

If a teacher can incorporate these types of things into the classroom, it builds their relationship with the student -- and education isn't just about information; it's about relationships. If that relationship is right, it can be a very rewarding experience, no matter what your disability. You feel like you want to go into class and you want to learn because of that relationship, that sense of discovery.

You talk in your book about how you don't mind being a guinea pig for scientists who want to study how your brain works, because it helps you learn more about yourself. What has the experience of writing your book taught you about yourself?

When I went to the library for the first time as a child, I saw so many books that I assumed that if I looked long enough, I'd find a book with my name on it, and it would contain the story of my life. All I had to do was read it, and then I could prepare for my life, because I would know what was going to happen. Of course, I looked for hours and couldn't find the book, so I realized as an adult that if I was ever going to have the story of my life written, it was going to have to be me who sat down and wrote it.

And until writing the book, I truly had no idea how far I'd come -- from learning how to look someone in the eye, how to understand a joke, how to read someone's body language, and how to make friends to setting European math records, traveling the world, and meeting some of the world's greatest scientists. There's a huge gulf between those two extremes, and somehow I'd bridged that, and tracing that journey in the book was just amazing.

The other thing writing the book gave me was perspective. I realized how important certain people had been to me in making me the person I am today, especially my parents. When I was very young, I didn't love my parents; I didn't know what love was. I didn't have any relationship to them other than knowing that these were the people that dressed me and fed me and put me in bed at night. It's only when I started writing the book and visited my parents to take down their memories of my earliest years that it really started to dawn on me just how big a role they played in my life. I saw what they'd sacrificed even when they got so little back from me. It was humbling and taught me a very big lesson about love.

Laura Scholes is a writer and editor living in Berkeley, California.

This article originally published on 2/23/2007

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