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Embracing the Peculiarities of Asperger Syndrome

Filley, Christopher M. MD

doi: 10.1097/01.NT.0000280884.34949.46

Dr. Filley is professor of neurology and psychiatry at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant • By Daniel Tammet • 240 Pages • Free Press 2007

Autism has recently captured much public and professional attention. Increasing estimates of its prevalence have stimulated renewed interest in the mysteries of autistic spectrum disorders. Whether the more frequent diagnosis of autism results from a true increase in prevalence or improved recognition by physicians remains undetermined, but the personal struggles of autistic people are indisputable.

The experience of being autistic is a rich source of dramatic tension, exemplified by the 1988 film Rain Man, and books by people with autism have much interest as a contribution to the disability-memoir genre. In the memoir, Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant, however, a great deal more awaits the reader.

Born in East London, author Daniel Tammet showed signs of autism as an infant, but at age 4 he was also obliged to cope with epilepsy. Despite these early life difficulties, he soon became aware of exceptional cognitive traits that distinguished him as most unusual. First is his synesthesia: when he reads numbers, he conjures up many sensory and emotional associations. Most astonishingly, he is a savant who is capable of extraordinary feats of numerical computation and linguistic brilliance.

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Tammet's form of autism, although milder than many others so affected, is familiar and well described. He has an obsessive need for order and routine, and he recounts such highly detailed rituals as the number of times he brushes his teeth in the morning, how he lays out his clothes for the day, and even how many grams of porridge he eats for breakfast.

Although loved and nurtured at home, he recalls feeling like an outsider in school; he was socially awkward and found it hard to make friends. In conversations with other children, he would make no eye contact and he spoke in long unbroken sequences without pausing for others to take their turn, further exacerbating his loneliness.

Formally diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, he manages to make progress in school, and with time makes important strides in achieving independence and establishing relationships. Major prowess emerges in his numerical and language abilities, but that is countered by striking impairment in nonverbal domains. As an adult, for example, he is unable to drive a car, having failed two driving tests because of poor spatial skills and difficulty judging how other drivers might disobey the rules of the road.

His epilepsy appears early in the book, the first seizure coming on like lightning one night before dinner. It was “as though the room around me was pulling away from me on all sides and the light inside it leaking out and the flow of time itself coagulated and stretched out into a single lingering moment,” he writes. Found to have a left temporal seizure focus, he is treated and later taken off his medication successfully.

He recalls developing a period of hypergraphia around age eight and then a lasting fondness for words and language, wondering whether he, perhaps like Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Lewis Carroll before, might actually have benefited from his seizure disorder.

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The theme of synesthesia recurs frequently. Tammet sees numbers as colors, shapes, textures, or motions. The date of his birthday — January 31, 1979 — is blue in his mind, and from this association comes the book's title. Numbers may even be endowed with human characteristics; they are “…my friends, and they are always around me. Each one is unique and has its own personality. The number 11 is friendly and 5 is loud, whereas 4 is both shy and quiet — it's my favorite number, perhaps because it reminds me of myself.” He visits the noted researcher V.S. Ramachandran in California, and participates in many experiments there and elsewhere designed to explore synesthesia and other aspects of his cognition.

Most remarkable are his abilities as a savant. The incredible cognitive powers of savants continue to amaze despite several previous accounts of prodigious mental capacities such as A.R. Luria's The Mind of a Mnemonist in 1969. Tammet's strengths are clearly in the numerical and linguistic realms. Fascinated by the number pi, for example, he can correctly recite 22,514 digits of this number in just over five hours to set a new British and European record.



His linguistic abilities are equally extraordinary. Always fascinated by language, with which he maintains an “aesthetic” relationship, he easily learns Lithuanian, Spanish, Romanian, and Esperanto, and as a child even considers contriving his own language to cope with his isolation. As an adult, he is challenged to learn a new language within one week; applying himself to Icelandic — a complex tongue that does not, like English, borrow words from other languages. He succeeds so well in seven days that he can give a 15-minute interview on Icelandic television without using a word of any other language.

As a writer, Tammet is sincere and engaging, displaying an unabashed frankness about his peculiarities. He is gentle, polite, and modest, explaining his oddness for the benefit of others and not his own gratification or aggrandizement. Some sections of the book at first appear mundane, with descriptions of events that seem to border on the trivial — job stress, a stay in Lithuania, the death of a favorite cat — but these passages take on genuine meaning as the full story of his development and accomplishments unfolds.

We can appreciate how simple activities most people take for granted can pose major obstacles for those with autism. Tammet faces each new task with a quiet resolve, his personality becoming more endearing as the details of his progress take shape. With reserve, but sensitivity as well, he deals with his close relationships, including his parents, siblings, and a partner with whom he lives in Kent, England.

Intriguing thoughts about religion and morality are also explored. He rarely attends church because he becomes uncomfortable with many people sitting around him, and prefers to engage in religious activity that is intellectual rather than social or emotional. Autism impairs his ability to understand the feelings of others, so he has developed a moral system based on logic more than emotion; even though he has difficulty identifying with others, kindness and respect still motivate his actions.

This book leaves one impressed with Daniel Tammet's exploits as a savant. But beyond this, here is a man who has persevered against lifelong limitations to attain a highly functional level and contribute much to others. He has appeared with David Letterman and on 60 Minutes, and an Internet search brings up his name as a noted celebrity. But his most laudable achievement may be his life as a person with autism.

With a gracious and constructive attitude that recognizes both the reality of his disability and the opportunity provided by his unique gifts, his words reveal a spirit that will surely appeal to neurologists and many others.

“Sometimes people ask me if I mind being a guinea pig for the scientists,” Tammet writes. ”I have no problem with it because I know that I am helping them to understand the human brain better, which is something that will benefit everyone. It is also gratifying for me to learn more about myself, and the way in which my mind works.”

©2007 American Academy of Neurology