I just finished reading Born on a Blue Day (inside he extraordinary mind of an autistic savant), by Daniel Tammet. It is currently on all the bestseller lists and new release displays at the major bookstores. One way to gauge a book’s success is to see it on the table at Costco. If an author makes it onto the tables of Costco, he has arrived.
This is a highly unusual book. It is written by an autistic savant. Daniel is a lot like other autistic people, including Kim Peek, the real-life person that Dustin Hoffman’s character in the movie Rain Man is modeled after.
Autistic savants often have incredible and unusual skills, generally with language, mathematics and sometimes music. But quite often they are not able to communicate effectively in normal society or under scientific conditions. So while we can observe savant abilities and be astonished by them, we don’t understand them. The savants cannot explain what they are doing, let alone write it down.
Autistic people also exhibit unusual behavior, like rocking, looking down, compulsive behaviors, speaking monotonously and unemotionally, banging their head on walls. Sometimes they require extreme routines, like doing the same things at very specific times of the day and repetitive processes of daily activities.
Through a series of fortunate events in Tammet’s life, like understanding and supportive parents, proper treatment of seizures at childhood, and by his own doing and will, he has managed to not only live independently since adulthood, but also learn to communicate effectively verbally and in writing.
He is telling his story in this book. He starts at birth and walks us through his life. We learn to understand what goes on inside a savant’s mind, why he acts the way he does, we feel his limitations, fears, challenges, and we can understand his successes and get a glimpse of his abilities.
The feats he can perform are amazing. He has memorized 22,514 digits of Pi. The digits of Pi are completely random, and he can recite them, one after the other, within the space of about 6 hours, without any mistakes or omissions. He can learn any language that he has never heard before from scratch in about a week to the point where he can subject himself to a live television interview in the native language and communicate fluently. He can do lightning calculations of multiplying large numbers in his head and reciting the results as quickly as others can check them with an electronic calculator. He can tell you the day of the week of any date in the calendar, thousands of years forward or back. And he describes how he does all of those things.
His descriptions are detailed and the techniques fascinating. I cannot apply them myself, but I can understand what is going on.
Anyone that is exposed to an autistic person should read this book. It is both enlightening and inspiring.
www.optimnem.co.uk for Daniel’s personal website.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_Tammet for a Wiki article on Daniel.