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Interview Corner: Numbers Guy

An autistic savant joins the wider world.

Daniel Tammet

PROFESSION: Writer

CLAIM TOFAME: Vividly describes autistic savantism from the inside

Although their unusual abilities compel considerable attention, there are fewer than 50 autistic savants worldwide. Daniel Tammet is one of them. Over 30 years, the London-born mathematical and language whiz has transformed from an awkward, reclusive boy into a confident adult. His quiet, private life of strict routines gave way in 2006, when his memoir Born on a Blue Day became a best-seller, necessitating travel, self-promotion, and talk show appearances. His latest book, Embracing the Wide Sky , is a scientific exploration of his extraordinary abilities (reciting pi to 22,514 places, learning to speak Icelandic in a week) and a tour of autism.

How have you compensated for the challenges of Asperger's?

Growing up, I would have to watch the other children and learn from my mistakes. I would have to push myself to overcome the things most people don't have to think about. Brushing my teeth was very difficult because of the noise of the brush. Today I use an electric toothbrush; the sound is repetitive and isn't irritating. And making friends as well was very difficult. Perhaps that's part of the reason I felt very close to numbers. Those were the things I understood very well. I also have synesthesia. While other children were playing with each other, I was playing with numbers in my head: visualizing the shapes and the colors I saw and seeing how they change and how they interact, doing sums and enjoying the rhythms and the colors and the kind of dance.

Do your earliest memories relate to numbers?

My very earliest memory is of falling down the stairs and seeing colors as I fell. And not crying out loud, not realizing that I should cry in order to bring my parents out to look after me.

Can people change their personalities?

Yes, my own story illustrates that. In the last few years, I've seen a very big change in my own life. I'm now working on my third book, which will be a novel. Until several years ago, fiction didn't interest me very much. Today I'm reading Dostoyevsky. I find the way he describes various emotions, characters, and events very dramatic. This appeals to me and helps me understand emotions.

How else have you changed?

I'm certainly much more confident in my social interactions. I travel much more. I live in the south of France in the beautiful city of Avignon. People with Asperger's often grow up feeling like foreigners, and I feel today more comfortable in many respects speaking in French than in my native tongue. That's another example of taking a plunge. I have traveled before and I have lived overseas before, but always on a temporary basis. I feel traveling does broaden the mind. It gives me a new perspective on the world. The life I describe in Born on a Blue Day was much more limited. I certainly have routines in my day-to-day life that are important to me and still give me feelings of security and control, but the capacity to break out of them every so often as I travel has given me a second wind.

Do you think anyone with autism can learn to lead a relatively normal social life?

It would depend on the extent of the autism and how we define a social life. If someone is very shy but isn't autistic, is he more or less normal than someone who is very outgoing? One of the things that fascinates people about autism is that it makes them question what society teaches us about what normal is. I don't know that there is any one-size-fits-all way of behaving.

Do you have any advice for people with Asperger's who want to more fully engage with the social world?

How any person decides to emphasize strengths and mitigate weaknesses is something people have to figure out for themselves. I'm wary of the self-help literature that suggests there are certain rules. I'm very happy for people to look at my story and say it's possible to achieve many things. One of the biggest challenges is to keep pushing back against the misconceptions about what autism is and showing the potential for people with autism to have a happy life or to have a successful career.

Has Asperger's given you a window onto creativity?

I see many examples of creativity within the autism spectrum. This intrigues me because I read that until recently scientists believed autism and creativity was kind of an oxymoron. And that isn't the case. What we see in very young children, where the brain in essence overdevelops the connections between cells and then radically prunes them back to prevent information overload, perhaps doesn't take place in the same way for those on the autism spectrum. That hyperconnectivity is what drives creativity, because it allows the person to draw simultaneously from different parts of the brain. Being able to make unusual leaps is characteristic of creativity.

You have reported a high IQ—about 150. How much do you think your IQ has contributed to your extraordinary talents?

The number itself tells me almost nothing about myself and the things I've been able to achieve. The test is very banal and so bizarre. Answers more interesting and creative than the expected response get zero marks. My own experience going through it for the book was eye-opening, and it persuaded me that IQ as this precise figure is very silly.

Would you still be diagnosed with Asperger's today?

I don't know. Obviously it would depend on the person who was making the diagnosis. The person I am today bears very little resemblance to the person I was 10 years ago and even less resemblance to the child I was 20 years ago.

Scott Barry Kaufman is a PT blogger. Read his blog: Beautiful Minds