Introducing Daniel Tammet: Writer, Tutor, Genius
Daniel Tammet, the autistic genius from the UK, only further complicates the discussion regarding autism and whether it’s a gift or a disorder. Most would argue, for Daniel, it’s a gift. Diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome at a late age, Daniel, now 32, is one of the world’s few “prodigious savants”. Currently, Daniel is a writer and tutor and the creator of “Optimnem“, a website that provides instruction on learning languages. He has two books published, “Born On A Blue Day” and “Embracing the Wide Sky: A Tour Across the Horizons of the Mind”.
Daniel knows 10 languages (English, Spanish, French, German, Finnish, Lithuanian, Romanian, Icelandic, Welsh, and Esperanto) and is able to learn a new one in a week’s time. To prove this, he learned Icelandic over a week’s time and then proceeded to conduct an interview on live television in Icelandic. He was able to speak to the interviewers fluently after merely one week of studying what many argue is one of the hardest languages to learn.
If his language abilities weren’t enough, Daniel has an amazing memory and ability with numbers. He is able to “calculate” extremely large numbers in his head to 100 decimal places with relative ease and his accuracy is eerie. However, if you ask Daniel, he’s not actually calculating the numbers so much as he is feeling them or seeing shapes that he associates with numbers. This is called synesthesia.
What is synesthesia? According to wikipedia, Synethesia is “is a neurologically based condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway.” What does this mean and how does it relate to Daniel? When Daniel is presented with a number, he experiences an involuntary reaction in which that number takes on a distinct color, shape, and size and in many cases, a feeling. For example, Daniel despises the number ’6′ and it gives him an awful feeling while the number ‘pi’ (3.14…..) is a beautiful number. Speaking of pi, on March 14th, 2004, Daniel recited the first 22,514 decimals of pi by memory making him the European record holder for reciting pi by memory and giving him the 6th spot in the world.
When asked to mold pieces of clay into the shapes he sees when he is presented with a number, Daniel was extremely consistent with the colors and general shapes he used from one day to the next during a study of how his mind works. The calculations that are done in his head are actually a “merging” of the two shapes that he associates with the numbers he is calculating. For example, if he is multiplying 33 by 642, he would see the shape that he associates with 33 and the shape associated with 642 and take the space between those two shapes and see a new one. That new shape is the answer to the equation.
Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University, diagnosed Daniel with Asperger Syndrome when Daniel
was 25 years old. Professor Baron-Cohen interviewed Daniel’s mother for what he was like as an infant, toddler, and young boy, and studied Daniel’s current personality and ability to compute large numbers to assist in his diagnosis. His mother spoke of Daniel’s persistent crying for the first two years of his life. He also exhibited other signs that are common in children with autism from what his mother could tell the professor. Based on this information and his time with Daniel, Professor Baron-Cohen concluded that Daniel does fall on the Autism Spectrum under Asperger Syndrome.
This begs the question then, is his diagnosis a disease/disorder or is it a gift? Many people will argue both sides of this; some saying that autism is a disease and others that it is a gift. For many with Asperger’s, they see their diagnosis as an extension of who they are; as what makes them who they are and enhances their personality. Since Asperger’s is considered a higher-functioning form of autism, many people who have Asperger’s are not debilitated by the diagnosis. It’s actually fairly common, on not quite the same extreme scale as Daniel’s case, that a person diagnosed with Asperger’s is extremely talented in a specific area like math, music, art, etc. We introduced you to Steven, the man who drew Italy by memory, last month who is a perfect example of the positive affect Asperger’s can have.
However, many parents with low-functioning children with autism argue that autism is a disease that is extremely debilitating especially if their child is non-verbal. The struggles of a child with autism can be unfathomable for most. Not being able to speak from personal experience raising a child with autism who is non-verbal or whose mind is stuck at 2 years old, I cannot describe, with any accuracy, the day to day struggles of a family in this situation. I can, however, understand why someone who is in this situation would find it almost offensive with people argue that autism is not a disorder. The problem is that autism is a spectrum disorder by definition and the range is too great to generalize the characteristics of the disease.
For Daniel, his diagnosis seems to have not negatively affected his life at all. He is a successful writer and tutor and does not have the same social issues that many people with Asperger’s share. Daniel’s lack of social awkwardness, if you will, is what made it difficult for Professor Baron-Cohen to immediately diagnose Daniel with Asperger’s when he first met him.
For more information on Daniel Tammet, I suggest watching the documentary from 2005 titled “The Boy with the Incredible Brain”. I promise you the time goes by quickly and it is a truly fascinating and mesmerizing story.