Friday, January 26, 2007
Overcoming Asperger's Syndrome
Daniel Tammet sees the world differently from the rest of us. For the 27-year-old Brit, numbers possess distinct sizes and colors and personalities. For example, sixes are tiny black dots, like holes, while ones are bright white. Nines are immense, and threes are round. Fives are loud, and fours are shy and quiet. Tammet's intimate association with numbers also allows him to calculate huge sums in his head without thinking, much like Dustin Hoffman's character Raymond Babbitt in the movie Rainman. The answer simply appears in his head. For example, when he divides two numbers, he sees in his mind's eye a spiral rotating down until it reveals the quotient - to almost 100 decimal places. These mathematical abilities make Tammet what is known as a prodigious savant, one of perhaps 100 in the world.

Tammet also has Asperger's Syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism. In his new memoir "Born on a Blue Day," Tammet describes his mathematical genius in fascinating detail. More interesting still is Tammet's description of his childhood and adolescence with Asperger's, a condition that makes it difficult to read others' emotions or decipher expressions that are not literal. Even though children with Asperger's often possess higher-than-average intelligence, they have difficulty making friends and functioning in social situations. As a result, they often experience profound isolation and loneliness. Tammet describes these feelings in detail, without self-pity. His book lets you see the world through his eyes, as a loner who stayed on the fringe of the playground during recess, an outsider looking in who was often subjected to the teasing and ridicule of his classmates.

Tammet's book joins a growing bibliography of excellent writing that gets inside the mind of those with Asperger's. Others include the novel "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," by Mark Hadden, a former teacher, and the memoirs of Temple Grandin, "Thinking in Pictures: And Other Reports From My Life With Autism" and "Animals in Translation: Using the Mystery of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior."

Tammet, the subject of a documentary titled 'Brainman/The Boy with the Incredible Brain," first came to worldwide attention when he memorized pi to 22,514 decimal places. Simply saying that many digits took five hours. In addition to his extraordinary facility with numbers, Tammet is able to pick up languages with ease. He has learned Lithuanian, Spanish, Romanian, Welsh, French, German, Esperanto and Icelandic. He learned to speak Icelandic in a week and then appeared on a talk show there, conversing easily with the two interviewers on the current affairs program Kastljos (Spotlight). He now runs a web-based business for language tutorials.

From his awkward and isolated childhood, Tammet has emerged as a successful adult, comfortable in his own skin. You may know people like Tammet. What are their stories?
Wow was my repeated and gobsmacked response to this wonderful article. I have read Hadden's book and have recommended it to everyone! We, who must use pencil and paper to calculate how much five of us owe in a restaurant, are in awe of people like Tammet. I look forward to reading his book.
Unfortunately, Asperger's Syndrome is misunderstood by many. My son has Asperger's Syndrome. It is no longer considered a form of high-functioning Autism- it is a condition in itself. Also is the misconception that all Asperger's Syndrome persons have a savant skill; they don't. Asperger's Syndrome, like Autism, is along a spectrum. Some of them can function relatively normally within society, whereas others, like my son, are isolated at home because they cannot handle the stress from the demands of society. An "ordinary" person looks at someone like Daniel and wishes they 'were as smart as'. What they don't realize is that social function in itself is a kind of intelligence that people with Asperger's Syndrome do not possess- but they can learn it just like any other skill. My own son, who is ten, has not yet noticed that he is a social pariah and has no friends, but he will. And when he notices that he is awkward and doesn't fit it, he will most likely wish he could trade in his computer skills for a little common sense.
As a father of a teen with Asperger's (and possibly one myself) I am glad to see Asperger's is coming out of the closet. And I am glad to see stories about people who can handle it.
However too many of these stories are either about people like Mr. Tammet or those who are barely controlable.
How about some stories about the ones who are getting along in school, with or without assistance, or are or will be able to support themselves, with or without assistance. This would include many of those who work alone or with a few people, such as research scienists or computer programers.
My daughter will be one of those people, probably working in the pet care industry. I am one of those people too, working as a contract administrator for the Defense Department.
I wish Mr. Martin had told us what Mr. Tammet does for a living. Without that information the blog is just another "Believe It or Not" story. (Apologies to Mr. Ripley)
My husband has high functioning Asperger's Syndrome. He's a wiz with computers, numbers, and has a photographic memory. He works in the IT field. We also have a child with Asperger's and I can tell you that what Sharla Jones commented about the social issues that people with Asperger's suffer from are spot on. The day will come for my child, as it did for my husband, when he realized that the kids around him don't really respond to him and it will hurt.
No one likes to hear that their child has a disability - however, it was almost a relief when my child was diagnosed with Asperger's. Finally, we are able to address all of her "issues" and try to seek help. I am thankful for the information that is being written so that I can learn more about it.

My child was always told that she was too "shy" and now we are finding that this is one of the characteristics of Aspergers...the non-social issue. I wish her previous teachers would have been more informed as to the other spectrums of autism. It would have saved my daughter (and our family) years of grief.
If you have firsthand experience with a child with Aspergers and you read a good biography of Thomas Edison's childhood, it is almost impossible not to see the connection. The scenario starts with him being kicked out of school and thought to be somehow mildly retarded. While many have pointed to his obsessive experimenting, I think the real clues come from the kind of goals he set. As a young boy he got a job selling candy on a train on its daily run to and from Chicago. There was a long layover before it went back in the afternoon so he decided to go to public library and read each day. Rather than pick books on specific subjects, the story goes that he decided to read them all, starting on the first shelf. Later in life, at Menlo Park, NJ, he ordered his employees to amass samples of every type of object (like clothes pins) that could be thought of, filling a huge warehouse full of cabinets with litte drawers all carefully labeled.
In my experience, this type of thinking, matched with an actual attempt to achieve such goals is unique to Aspergers. There are many other clues as well so I recommend Asperger's parents read about his life.
I appreciate your spotlight on aspergergers. My husband and I have four kids, one with aspergers and one with autism. Neither of our boys are gifted, but they themselves are the biggest gifts any parent could ask for.
Many of us with Asperger Syndrome do not want to be "cured." Neurologically diversity is the issue: is there only one "right" way to be, neurologically? (Aspies [people with Asperger Syndrome]are neurophysiologically different than the majority of the population.) Temple Grandin, author and Ph.D. prof of animal science at Colorado State University is not an Aspie; she is a classic autistic. And Temple says, in Thinking in Pictures, that she would not want to be "normal." That's how many of us feel--we love our "diffences." Also, some people are theorizing that it is Aspies' (and some other autistics') high intelligence which makes socializing and making friends with "normal" people difficult.
I am an african living in europe and have a five year old son who could read at the age of two and half and write at the age of three.He is great on computers as well as a remarkable memory.His favourite sports is jumping on the trampolin spring-jumper.He does not play much with his fellow age-group kids at the kindergarten but rather prefers to draw or do some art or modelling.One medical therapist say he`s got a bit of Asperger and another says he has`nt got that or at least it is too early to detect.His physical form and movements are all normal.His mother is half-scotch and half-african and is also very impulsive and full of energy.I a musician and also a full active and temperamented type.Our son is full of energy and moves all day.However at night he sleeps good(around ten hours).Has anyone a kind of experience like mine to share or to advise?I hope my son can start a normal school in this year.
My son is autistic and has many of the talents mentioned above. When will someone make a special school for these kids and excel thier talents instead of forcing them to work some menial job so far below thier IQ? We need to develop these kids not stiffle them! Anyone up for the challenge?
To the african dad with early reading boy in europe. My son sounds extremely similar to yours (reading before 2, very energetic, etc.). He's six now and doing great in a small, private school with a strong academic focus. He did poorly in the public pre-school for many reasons: too much noise, not enough focus on what he likes, too chaotic. Now that he has adjusted to the private school, things are alot better and he is getting along great with the other kids...he's he probably got some touches of autism. My brother would have been diagnosed as a kid if autism spectrum diagnosis had been available, and other family members. Encourage him alot and give him lots of love!
Reponse to Jim in Crystal Lake.
As a mother of a 14 year old son with Ausperger's, I have an "ordinary" success story to tell. When Colten was in 2nd grade, an educational expert in autism, whose own son had ausperger's, considered Colten to have a "pretty severe case". We had many struggles through 4th grade. Now as an 8th grade he is an honor student chosen to be only one of 150 Iowa middle school kids to attend 2 week Talented and Gifted workshop at the University of Iowa. He still has no friends or social life, but appears to be a well adjusted adolescent in every since of the word. It can happen!! P.S. We pulled his associate after 6 years, and he made it on his own, better than ever.
This article struck home having had my first experience working with college students on the Autism Spectrum 10 years ago. No two snowflakes are the same and no two Aspies are the same. I have worked with some who have an IQ off the charts but couldn't care for themselves if they had to. I have seen others who are very independent but lacked essential executive functions to properly order their lives. Focused and narrowed interest and lack of social skills is the common denominator. Talking with adult Aspies has been a true eyeopener for me as a neurotypical.

R.E.Pennamon, M.Ed. Co-author, College Students with Asperger Syndrome:Practical Strategies for Academic & Social Success (LRP Publications, 2007)
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