Part of an interview in Psychology Today with Daniel Tammet, an Autistic Savant. Savants are extremely rare, but he does lay out some “realities” that commonly direct Asperger behavior. Highlights point out correspondence with my experiences.
One of these classic clashes is the neurotypical belief that “supernatural ideas” are real in the same way that the Laws of Physics are real. Word language is not universal; mathematical languages are the language of physical reality.
Regarding savant abilities: As a non-number Asperger, I don’t “get” numbers as a topic of obsession, especially instances like the “socialization” of Pi (just Google to see how “social”)
“Pi has been calculated to over one trillion digits beyond its decimal point. As an irrational and transcendental number, it will continue infinitely without repetition or pattern. While only a handful of digits are needed for typical calculations, Pi’s infinite nature makes it a fun challenge to memorize, and to computationally calculate more and more digits.” Pi Day website.
Ridiculous! We already know that Pi “will continue infinitely without repetition or pattern” so…..Why calculate one trillion digits, or memorize thousands of digits? Memorization is not “creative”. Far more interesting is the “popping up of Pi” in phenomena all over nature.
Conversations on Creativity with Daniel Tammet –
Part I, Embracing the Wide Sky
Posted Dec 18, 2009 Full Article
Daniel: A key theme running all the way through Embracing the Wide Sky (link is external) is that autistic people in general but savants in particular are not so different from anyone else. This Oliver Sacks (link is external) kind of mythology that says that savants are robots, or memory machines, or aliens, or some kind of strange creatures, doing things that are almost supernatural or mystical is I think dehumanizing and distorts scientific understanding of the condition and also how the brain works and how it is possible to calculate in a different way and to learn languages in a different way. We don’t require supernatural, Oliver Sacks kind of explanations.
In The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (link is external), (link is external) probably the most famous study done on autistic savants to date, certainly in the public sphere, Sacks met savant twins who he claims were able to count 111 falling matchsticks. The same claim was made years later in the adaptation Rainman, where matchsticks were changed into toothpicks, and the number increased dramatically as well.
There is no mechanism by which this can be achieved. No savant has been tested or has demonstrated this ability under scientific conditions. All of the materials Oliver Sacks accumulated in his informal study he claims to have lost so it’s impossible to verify. That is unfortunate, because I think he was mistaken. I think he was trapped by his own misconceptions of autism and savantism. And this one myth, I think even to this day, is responsible for both the public’s and many scientist’s conception of how savant’s minds work and perhaps more generally how every mind works because if we make it hard to believe that there is some mechanism by which it would be conceivable to count 111 falling matchsticks in that space of a blink of the eye, then that would be revolutionary and there is no evidence for it whatsoever.
Scott: Do you think you’d still have displayed your savant abilities if you didn’t have Asperger’s? Are there cases of savants that don’t have Asperger’s?
Daniel: I guess it comes down to how you define a savant. It’s a rather ambiguous term. It comes from French savoir, which means to know and can be described more loosely as any very knowledgeable person. What is interesting in the case of autistic savants is that there is simultaneously extraordinary ability in one or more skills but also disability in other skills.
People with Asperger’s syndrome are aware of the fact that they are different. They do not want to stand out necessarily from the crowd and do everything in their power, which is considerable in my own experience, with my brother Steven who also has Asperger’s syndrome, and the many others I’ve spoken to who also have Asperger’s syndrome. They’re smart. They’re smart in the sense that they can learn quickly, they can watch other children play. They can learn from the mistakes that they do make, the things that don’t come as easily to them. So they work around things they find difficult so that they don’t dwell on their disability, but on their ability. So their disability becomes less and less important in their life. And in some cases, mine included, the disability in the end is very small, fortunately. But that is not always the case unfortunately.
Scott: What are some of the most difficult challenges you’ve personally had to deal with as a person with Asberger’s and what techniques have you used to compensate over the years?
Daniel: One of the things that people know me most for is my autobiography I wrote four years ago, Born on a Blue Day (link is external). In that book I described growing up with Asperger’s syndrome and savant syndrome and not knowing growing up what it was that made me so different from everyone else. And this journey of self-discovery and also will power to push myself constantly to want to be capable of having the kind of life that I felt I was capable of having. That was of course a very difficult process.
I would have to watch the other children, I would have to learn from the mistakes that I made, I would have to push myself very hard to overcome things that most people don’t have to think about. Brushing my teeth was very difficult because of the noise of the brush, which was very scratchy and very uncomfortable for me. So it took a great bit of effort and time to learn to do that. Today I’m able to use an electric toothbrush. The sound is repetitive and isn’t irritating in the same way as a manual brush.
So little things like this, things that people take for granted in everyday life. Because my brain has changed and evolved differently over the years, those are the things I had to work around. And making friends as well was very difficult. Perhaps part of the reason I feel very close to numbers is the emotional content I have with them. Growing up, those were the things that I understood very well, whereas the other children I didn’t understand in the same way. Whereas the children were playing with other children, I was playing with numbers in my head, visualizing the shapes and the colors that I saw with them and seeing how they change and how they interacted, and doing sums and enjoying the rhythms and the colors and the kind of dance. As I’ve said, I’m able to dance with numbers, whereas the computers crunch them.
And this ability to dance with them and to play with them was very positive. As a consequence, my confidence was such that when the opportunity did eventually arise to make friends, situations that I describe in Born on a Blue Day, where children from other countries would come to our school, and because they were different in their own way- a different culture, a different background, a different skin color and so-on- perhaps that awareness of difference, that sensitivity to what it means to be different from everyone else, made it much easier for them to reach out a hand to me and to make friends, and for me to make friends with them.
Many little challenges like this that over the years I’ve had to overcome. I think today one of the biggest challenges is just to keep pushing back against the misconceptions of the kind that I address in Embracing the Bright Sky about what autism is and about the potential for an autistic person to have a happy life, however you would define that or to have a successful career, however you would define that. I think it’s entirely possible for someone with autism to have both.
© 2009 by Scott Barry Kaufman