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Daniel Tammet: An Autistic (and Synesthetic) Savant

How a very different- and beautiful - mind reflects hypersensitivity to detail

Daniel Tammet is a mathematical and linguistic genius. He has memorized Pi to more than 22,500 digits, and he speaks 11 languages – one of which he learned in a week for a TV special. He can multiply enormous sums in his head in a matter of seconds. A standard job, however, is not for him, in part due to his obsessive adherence to ritual, down to the precise times he drinks his tea and the exactly 45 grams of porridge he allocates for breakfast each morning.

Daniel is a high functioning autistic (Asperger’s) savant. And, for good measure, he’s a synesthete. He doesn’t calculate numbers as much as experience them. For him, each one has a color, a shape and texture. The number 1 is like a shining light...2 has a flowing, violet color…3 is green, 5 like a clap of thunder, and 37 is lumpy. This capacity enables him to perform astonishing feats without conscious calculation, the answer materializing in his mind’s eye. As he explains, “When I multiply numbers together, I see two shapes. The image starts to change and evolve, and a third shape emerges. That’s the answer. It’s mental imagery.”

Unlike so many other autistic savants (it’s estimated there are fewer than 100 in the world), Daniel can and does describe articulately what life is like for him. He’s written three books, has appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman, and keeps up a busy schedule of lectures. He also collaborates with neuroscientists who are fascinated by these capacities and what can be learned from them.

Life has become easier for Daniel as he’s gotten older and has learned to live with – and surmount, to a great degree – his communicative disabilities. Growing up, however, was difficult. As a child, he shunned eye contact, banged his head against walls, flapped his hands when excited, and often didn’t speak to other children at all. “One of the downsides to having an autistic spectrum disorder,” he remarks, “is that you find it very difficult to relate to other people. To do things that most people take for granted, like knowing how to read body language, how to make eye contact, when to laugh at a joke.” When teased or bullied, “I would put my fingers in my ears…and I would count to myself, very, very quickly in powers of two…on and on into the millions and the numbers would form patterns in my mind…colors, patterns, shapes and textures. It would just be a beautiful experience…and the [other] children…were kind of perplexed and just walked away. How could they bully someone who didn't know how to be bullied?”

To this day, Daniel is compelled to notice details. He’ll count the stitches on someone’s shirt but not necessarily remember the ‘gestalt’ of their face when next they meet. He finds it difficult to go to the beach because there are too many grains of sand to be counted, and a trip to the supermarket is problematic because his attention is drawn to the shape, texture and arrangement of the items on display. But, in his mind, “words, colors and numbers blare with color, emotion, and personality.” The experience is of “a visual landscape…a place I can go to and feel calm…it's beautiful.”

Until he taught himself the art of getting on with people – which he’s now quite accomplished at – Daniel “had no sense of other people. They were really just like wallpaper,” he remembers. In contrast, “silence was a beautiful thing for me; it was a kind of silvery texture around my head like condensation running down a window pane. And when someone made a noise, a knock on the door, a car horn blaring on the street below, it would be a shattering of that experience…physically painful.”

This “shattering” of an interior experience, this pain, is indicative of the experience of many types of highly sensitive people. As I noted in a previous post, the “intense world” hypothesis suggests that people with autism, who often appear withdrawn and unempathetic, are that way because their brains are hyper-connected. Rather than one cell having connections to ten other cells, it might be linked to 20. So the world is experienced as a cacophony of bright lights, grating sounds, intrusive smells, irritating textures. The infants so affected would be expected to cover their eyes and ears, go into a corner, cry, and rock themselves for comfort. And, as they grow, to engage in repetitive behaviors, to notice and embrace patterns, and to value predictability and routine.

Also as I noted previously, autism and synesthesia have a curious link. A recent study found that synesthesia occurs in more than twice as many people with autism (18.9%) as in the general population (7.2%). And sensory hypersensitivity is common to both. Scientists point to a proliferation of white matter tracts connecting different parts of the brain in both conditions. In autism, there is an increased volume of such connections between local regions, while in synesthesia the connections are more long-distance. In either case, one can presume that some combination of genetics and environment – the latter quite possibly exerting an influence during fetal development – is at work.

In my next post, I’ll consider how someone like Daniel comes to be the way he is…why “he” is quite often the applicable pronoun…and how such capacities may be latent in all of us.