Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Born on a Blue Day (Review)

I was going to use The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb for the color part of Annie’s What’s In a Name Challenge, but I found it a struggle to read best described by my image of the author as the slightly drunk academic monopolizing the cocktail party conversation with his obviously superior intellect and opinions. When I saw Born on a Blue Day: A Memoir of Asperger’s and an Extraordinary Mind by Daniel Tammet on the bargain table at Barnes and Noble, I knew I could put The Black Swan out of my misery at least for now. I had absolutely no problem making my way through this book.

Daniel Tammet has an autism spectrum condition as well as synaesthesia, the visual and emotional experience of numbers. The two combine into what Daniel calls savant syndrome, made well known by the 1988 Dustin Hoffman movie, Rain Man. Because of his synaesthetic experiences, Daniel can retain and calculate huge numbers in his head without conscious effort. He holds the British and European records for reciting Pi from memory, reciting 22, 514 digits correctly in five hours and nine minutes. He can do extremely complicated arithmetic calculations such as squaring six-digit numbers in his head. The synaesthesia also gives him an incredible facility with languages; he learned enough Icelandic in one week to conduct a live interview on Icelandic television. To put this accomplishment in context, Icelandic is considered one of the most complex and most difficult to learn languages. For example, there are at least 12 different words for each of the numbers from one to four, depending on the sentence’s context.

Daniel demonstrated some of the classic signs of an autism spectrum condition such as an obsessive need for order very early in life. At the same time, there was no significant delay in his language development, one of the criteria for a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome. At the age of four, he suffered several seizures and was diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy, though he has been seizure-free for over 20 years. Even as a child, Daniel was well aware of how different he was from other children, as described in the following passage:

I remember standing alone under the shade of the trees that dotted the perimeter of the school playground, watching the other children running and shouting and playing from the sidelines. I am ten and know that I am different to them in a way that I cannot express or comprehend. The children are noisy and move quickly, bumping and pushing into one another. I’m constantly afraid of being hit by one of the balls that are frequently thrown or kicked through the air, which is one of the reasons why I prefer to stand on the edges of the playground far away from my schoolmates. I do this every playtime without fail, so that it soon becomes a running joke and it is perceived as common knowledge that Daniel talks to the trees and that he is weird.

At the same time, though, Daniel ended up having several close friendships, typically with other kids who were also “different” in some way. At the age of eleven, he realized that he was attracted to other boys, although it was several years before he considered himself “gay.”

After graduation from high school, Daniel applied to work with Voluntary Services Overseas, an international development charity and spent a year teaching English in Lithuania. When he returned to England, he got a computer as part of an “end of service” grant to write about his experiences. I loved Daniel’s description of what a computer can mean to someone with an autism spectrum condition:

There is something exciting and reassuring for individuals on the autistic spectrum about communicating with other people over the Internet. For one thing, talking in chat rooms or by email does not require you to know how to initiate a conversation or when to smile or the numerous intricacies of body language, as in other social situations. There is no ey contact and it is possible to understand the other person’s every word because everything is writted down. The use of ‘emoticons’, such as (smiley face) and (frowny face), in chat room conversations also makes it easier to know how the other person is feeling, because he or she tells you in a simple, visual method.

In fact, Daniel met his partner, Neil, online, moving in with him six months after they met. After applying for and not getting numerous library jobs (Daniel describes how difficult the nuances of a job interview can be for someone with an autism spectrum condition), Daniel eventually set up Optimnem, an educational website with online courses for language learners. Neil handles the technical details, while Daniel develops the content.

Daniel memorized the digits of pi as a fundraiser for the National Society for Epiloepsy, a charity in the United Kingdom. The publicity surrounding the event led to Daniel’s appearance in the documentary Brainman, shown in the U.S. on the Science Channel. Part of Brainman showed Daniel working with researchers interested in his savant syndrome; he has continued this work in the time since Brainman was finished. Daniel hopes that such research will advance understanding of the many facets of autism spectrum condition and, more broadly, “encouraging a wider appreciation of different ways of learning.”

Quality Rating: 10 out of 10. Very easy to read but with lots of food for thought. I applaud Daniel for offering such an intimate look at his life.

Audience Rating: Not everyone would be interested in this book. Obviously, someone with personal experience with an autism spectrum condition would want to read it, as would someone with a background or interest in cognitive psychology or gifted education. And anyone who has ever even half seriously wondered how the brain works would find lots here to think about.

1 comment:

Debi said...

This book sounds fantastic! I can definitely see both Rich and I reading this one. Thanks, Jean, for the fabulous review!