George Lucas Educational Foundation

Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant

A man with autism explores the treacherous landscape of his native language.
By Daniel Tammet
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I find some aspects of language much more difficult than others. Abstract words are much harder for me to understand, and I have a picture in my head for each that helps me make sense of the meaning. For example, the word complexity makes me think of a braid or plait of hair -- the many different strands woven together into a complete whole. When I read or hear that something is complex, I imagine it as having lots of different parts that need tying together to arrive at an answer.

Similarly, the word triumph creates a picture in my mind of a large golden trophy, such as the ones won in big sporting events. If I hear about a politician's "election triumph," I imagine the politician holding a trophy over his head, like the winning team manager at an FA cup final. For the word fragile, I think of glass; I picture a "fragile peace" as a glass dove. The image I see helps me understand that the peace might be shattered at any moment.

Certain sentence structures can be particularly hard for me to analyze, such as, "He is not inexperienced in such things," where the two negatives (not and in-) cancel each other out. It is much better if people just say, "He is experienced in such things."

Another example is when a sentence begins, "Don't you . . .?" as in, "Don't you think we should go now?" or "Don't you want ice cream?" Then I become very confused, and my head starts to hurt, because the questioner is not being clear about whether he means "Do you want an ice cream?" or "Is it correct that you don't want an ice cream?" and it's possible to answer both questions with a "Yes," and I don't like it when the same word can mean two completely different things.

As a child, I found idiomatic language particularly confusing. Describing someone as being "under the weather" was very strange to me because, I thought, "Isn't everyone under the weather?" Another common saying that puzzled me was when my parents might excuse the grumpy behavior of one of my brothers by saying, "He must have got out of the wrong side of bed this morning." "Why didn't he get out of the right side of the bed?" I asked.

In recent years, scientists have become more and more interested in studying the kind of synesthetic experiences in language that I have, in order to find out more about the phenomenon and its origins. Professor Vilayanur Ramachandran, of California's Center for Brain Studies, in San Diego, has researched synesthesia for more than a decade and believes there may be a link between the neurological basis for synesthetic experiences and the linguistic creativity of poets and writers. According to one study, the condition is seven times as common in creative people as in the general population.

In particular, Ramachandran points to the facility with which creative writers think up and use metaphors -- a form of language where a comparison is made between two seemingly unrelated things -- and compares this to the linking of seemingly unrelated entities such as colors and words, or shapes and numbers, in synesthesia.

Some scientists believe that high-level concepts (including numbers and language) are anchored in specific regions of the brain and that synesthesia might be caused by excess communication between these different regions. Such crossed wiring could lead to both synesthesia and to a propensity toward the making of links between seemingly unrelated ideas.

William Shakespeare, for example, was a frequent user of metaphors, many of which are synesthetic, involving a link to the senses. For example, in Hamlet, Shakespeare has the character Francisco say that it is "bitter cold" -- combining the sensation of coldness with the taste of bitterness. In another play, The Tempest, Shakespeare goes beyond metaphors involving only the senses and links concrete experiences with more abstract ideas. His expression "This music crept by me upon the waters" connects the abstract term music with a creeping action. The reader is able to imagine music -- something normally very difficult to create a mental picture of -- as a moving animal.

But it isn't just very creative people who make these connections. Everyone does; we all rely on synesthesia to a greater or lesser degree. In their book Metaphors We Live By, language scientist George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson argue that metaphors are not arbitrary constructions but follow particular patterns, which in turn structure thought. They give as examples expressions that indicate the links: happy = up and sad = down: "I'm feeling up"; "My spirits rose." "I'm feeling down"; "He's really low." Or more = up, and less = down: "My income rose last year." "The number of errors is very low."

Lakoff and Johnson suggest that many of these patterns emerge from our everyday physical experiences; for example, the link sad = down may be related to the way that posture droops when a person is feeling sad. Similarly, the link more = up may come from the fact that when you add an object or substance to a container or pile, the level goes up.

Other language scientists have noted that some of the structural features of many words not normally associated with any function, such as initial phoneme groups, have a noticeable effect on the reader/listener. For example, for sl- there is slack, slouch, sludge, slime, slosh, sloppy, slug, slut, slang, sly, slow, sloth, sleepy, slipshod, slovenly, slum, slobber, slur, slog -- where all these words have negative connotations, and some are particularly pejorative.

The idea that certain types of sounds "fit" particular objects better than others goes back to the time of the ancient Greeks. An obvious illustration of this is onomatopoeia. (The term refers to a type of word that sounds like the thing it is describing: fizz, whack, bang, and so on.) In a test carried out by researchers in the 1960s, artificial words were constructed using particular letters and combinations of letters thought to link to positive or negative feelings.

After hearing the invented words, the subjects were asked to match English words for pleasant or unpleasant emotions with one or the other of two invented words. The appropriate matches were made significantly more often than would be expected by chance.

Excerpted from Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant, by Daniel Tammet. Copyright 2006 by Daniel Tammet. Reprinted by permission from Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster.

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John Morse's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Dear Daniel Tammet,

I reread your wonderful, timely, varied, and deeply insightful treatise "Born On a Blue Day."

I was considered a "diagnostic puzzle" when I was a few years old, and was sent to the Syracuse NY Association for Retarded Children. I was eventually 'mainstreamed' into public schooling and did poorly at first until my math interest and prowess emerged.

To me, numbers have a 'taste.' "Yummy" numbers are those that have many [small] prime factors and/or sequences of consecutive composite factors. E.g., 2520 is 'delicious' for having all 9 digits among its factors. The smaller number 72 is 'tasty' also, having extraordinary number of factors.

'Yucky' or 'distasteful' numbers include those with one small and one large prime; numbers such as 122, 482, 707, and 1198 tend to be 'bland' and boring. Also dull are composite numbers that are the product of a square of a very small prime (e.g., 3^2 = 9) and a comparatively large prime, e.g., 157.

I do not drive, eat only about a dozen different foods regularly, and display numerous other hard-to-explain manifestations of Asperger's Syndrome. I worked for 16 years in civil service and resigned in 2001 due to problems with transportation and environmental and personal stresses that I could not control.

Thank you for reading,

John Morse
Delmar NY

Lisa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This discussion concerning a man with autism and how he described learning language really makes me think about my young students that have not aquired langauage as other typically developing children. The reference to idiomatic language and how difficult it was to really understand makes so much sense to me as I live with a child that struggles with language every day. We know that making a comment like " you got out of the wrong side of the bed " would make no sense to him. He is easily confused with directional language and abstract words are often extremely difficult even at his now teen age years. The example of how this young man realated abstract words to particular things may be helpful to me as I work with my son as well as the young learners that I teach each day.

Jennifer Vallens's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My son is almost 3 years old. He was diagnosed with Autism at age 2. He started reading and spelling at two, but his language is very behind. He has only 15 foods in his diet. I read Born on a Blue Day and was fascinated by the book. In my research, I have found that my son is Hyperlexic. He likes to "bathe" in his foam and magnetic letters. He hoards them and wants to sit on them all. If someone tries to take one of his letters, he gets very agitated. He is now very interested in planets and numbers. He just started labeling certain numbers. He paticularly likes the number 22 and says "yucky" when holding the number 8. I can't wait until he can communicate better and tell me what he "sees" in his letters and numbers. At any rate, I think the mind is a wonderful thing and I don't see my son as having a disability. He is much more interesting than most typically developing kids I know.

Tim Roller's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is advisable to ignore most professionals regarding children's learning achievements before age 4. The human mind does not even begin to have a long-term memory until 4, thus all of those private tutors and expensive toys and experiences do not change the capabilities of your children. PLEASE just let them learn to socialize with their friends, play with their friends, and learn only to share and cherish life's blessings(gifts, toys, love, etc...).

Give them opportunities to explore life at their own pace. Do not punish them or expect perfection in any capacity. Expect things to get broken, buy lots of crayons, chalk, paper, etc... - BUT DO NOT WORRY ABOUT TEACHING THEM ENGLISH or MATH until they are at least 4 years old.

-Tim (Advanced Basic Cognitive Development Enterprises)

Anita Towe's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'm a special ed teacher and the first 2 years I taught was in an autistic classroom. I loved teaching these students. I understand about The language problem they have. I had to speak using on specific directions. I really admire individuals that have autism and share their experiences and feeling. Your sharing really helps elementary techers become better teachers of autistic students. I think everyone has a few odd things they think or do. Some just have better filters than others, any way thanks to the one that share.

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