Sunday, December 9, 2007

Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant by Daniel Tammet

Born on a Blue Day is the bestselling autobiography of autistic savant Daniel Tammett, published in paperback by Free Press. The author is born and we learn he has synesthesia, a mixture of senses often resulting in alphanumerics taking on colors. Tammett also sees numbers as “shapes,…, textures, and motion.” This experience of numbers allows him to perform lightning-fast calculations. Synesthesia, he claims, also allows him to learn new languages quickly. Researchers believe that an epileptic seizure at age 4 “may have played an important role in making me the person I am today,” and he cites other geniuses who had epilepsy and similar feelings such as Dostoyevsky.

The savant side serves him well in school in math but the autistic side makes it difficult to have friends and mix in with other children in grades school. He creates an imaginary friend, a widow named Anne. He talks about everything with her and she reassures him that although he was different, he “would be fine.” One day she went away because she said, “she was dying.” Tammet writes,

Looking back, Anne was the personification of my feelings of loneliness and uncertainty. She was a product of that part of me that wanted to engage with my limitations and begin to break free from them. In letting go of her, I was making the painful decision to try to find my way in the wider world and to live in it.

Tammet is truly a genius. Woody Allen is still paying his analyst after 40 years and has yet to make this kind of breakthrough. Tammet does it at no cost and with profound insight into what holds any of us back from our achieving our dreams.

He begins to make friends and even fills in for a sick friend in the lead of SWEENEY TODD. He creates in his mind fictional histories of countries and an entire new language. Deciding to skip college because he’d “had enough of the classroom,” he’s accepted as a volunteer in a program that sends people to Lithuania to teach English. As a dividend he learns Lithuanian in return. Tammet starts a website,, offering online language courses in French and Spanish using a technique he developed that is “intuitive and jargon-free.”

Tammet is clearly high-functioning in the autism spectrum. He’s developed a long-term relationship with a partner. The things that he thinks separate him from the average person are that he’s awkward in new social situations, he gets confused if a familiar rout or routine is changed, and, he’s a genius. By the end of the book he’s become an entrepreneur and world traveler, appearing on Letterman after learning pi to over 20,000 places. Tammet is doing very well.

The book gave me insight into what it’s like to be Daniel Tammet and his story is plainly written and interesting to read. Based on the stories I’ve heard from my wife, a social worker in a school for autistic children, this book does not describe what it’s like to be an average person with autism. The back cover copy claims that Tammet is “among people who have severe autistic disorders” but I disagree with that assessment of “severe.”

Tammet is in a best-case scenario for someone with autism: he’s high-functioning, has a loving family, and is a genius, if somewhat confused dealing with people socially. If you’re the parent of a child with a middle- to severe assessment of autism, this book might make you feel good for the author but won’t help you out much if you’re looking for a “how-to.”

1 comment:

Brian said...

I try not to use the word autistic when describing a child with autism. I prefer to say, for example, John D. is a boy who has a diagnosis or classification of autism.

Social worker mentioned in the above post.