Monday, February 26, 2007

"Born on a Blue Day" by Daniel Tammet

If you've watched any of the morning news programs lately, you've probably seen Mr. Tammet talking about his book. I saw him on Good Morning America and was so intrigued by the interview done by Diane Sawyer that I immediately put the book on my reserve list here at work. And it certainly is an interesting book.

For those not familiar with him, Tammet is an autistic savant, much like the character Dustin Hoffman made famous in Rainman. Tammet is drawn to numbers and often thinks of them for hours. He likes routine, eating the same type and amount of cereal each morning for breakfast, drinking tea at set times each day, brushing his teeth for exactly two minutes, etc. But there is one very big difference between Tammet and the Rainman; Tammet is highly functioning, so much so that he can actually explain what is going on in his head to scientists. This is a huge thing for those studying autism, an often mysterious and difficult condition. Tammet is able to give them concrete descriptions on how he "sees" numbers, colors for words, etc, something that opens a whole new window in this study.

Tammet has Asperger's Syndrome, a form of autism that is not as severely debilitating as others. He is also a savant, being able to immediately calculate dates, add figures, etc, without the use of any tools such as paper, pencil, or in my case, calculator. He literally "sees" numbers - they each have a certain shape, color, texture, etc. He told Diane Sawyer that she was 23, bright and sort of gold, sparkly, very warm-feeling. He sees 9 as a huge thing, sort of like a giant. Some numbers are small and timid, others are bright and brave. There are those that make him uncomfortable, too. When he adds sums, he doesn't see the numbers themselves, he sees a landscape created by them and knows the answer based on that landscape.

In other words, his brain does not work like the average person, certainly not like mine.

The book covers his life thus far, from birth up until a trip to Iceland. Most of it is the usual sort of "this is my life" kind of thing, and those parts are just fine. It's Tammet's descriptions of how him mind works where the book becomes just fascinating. Reading about how he learns a new language (which typically takes him no more than a month - ONE MONTH!), how words have colors that he sees in his head when he thinks about a certain word or hears it said, and especially the numbers. Numbers are his safe haven, his comfort zone. I've known some math geeks in my day, but Tammet is all about the numbers. They are, in a way, his security blanket. When he becomes agitated by noise or by getting lost (something he does frequently), he begins to count numbers. He also has some "typical" autistic behaviors, such as humming and rocking himself back and forth. But these are minor compared to the numbers. Once he's counted for a few minutes, he has calmed down enough to continue on with his activity.

It really is worth the time to pick up this book. It's a very unique and insightful description of an autistic's world, as well a short read, just over 200 pages. I think for anyone who's curious about autism (and let's face it, we hear about it more and more each day), it provides a glimpse into a very different world, one that is occasionally strange, yet beautiful.

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