Years ago, I watched a BBC documentary on autistic savants in the world. Kim Peek, the inspiration for the movie, Rainman, was a contribution to the program, but another major focus was on a twenty-something Daniel Tammet. He was filmed setting the European record for reciting over 22,000 digits of pi, the irrational number which has an infinite amount of decimal digits. When I picked up ‘Born on a Blue Day,’ I didn’t have this person in mind, but it was a nice surprise to find his autobiography in the pages.
Tammet was the first born in a large family with many siblings, but the new parents could tell from an early age he was unlike most children. He cried constantly and found it difficult to make friends in school. His interests were fascinating but bordered on obsessions. He collected hundreds of ladybirds over a period of weeks (lady bugs to the US readers) and proudly brought them to school one day. He had thoroughly read about the insects and was excited to share the small pets to classmates and his teacher. The teacher realized the bugs may live a better life in the wild, so he created a note to send Tammet out of the classroom while a classmate freed the insects outside. Tammet was crushed and didn’t speak to the teacher for weeks.
Daniel also had a fascination with numbers from an early age. He uses a rare case of synesthesia to develop visual images of numbers. The number nine, for example, resembles tall figures, and the number six is represented by a dark hole. Putting these figures together, he can quickly find arithmetic answers, and even large prime numbers (his favorite). When he set the record for reciting the digits of pi, he created a landscape of the digits which helped him memorize the thousands of numbers in the correct order.
Tammet’s synesthesia not only gives him numerical gifts, it also allows him to learn foreign languages more easily than most. One challenge given to him was to learn a language in less than a week, and speak fluently enough in it to be interviewed on a local news program in the native language. The language chosen by producers was to be Icelandic. It is a difficult language spoken by only around 300,000 people. It was a great challenge, but Daniel was successful and gave a great interview on the local news program in Reykjavik, Iceland.
Though his gifts are now apparent, it wasn’t always that way. As a child, Daniel had few friends. As is common with children with autism, he lacked emotional connections to peers, and found it difficult to maintain conversations. Daniel Tammet said of his experiences, “The very same abilities that had set me apart from my peers as a child and adolescent, and isolated me from them, had actually helped me to connect with other people in adulthood, and to make new friends.”
Currently, Daniel Tammet runs a successful website in the UK that provides language tutorials to consumers. From a teacher’s prospective, Tammet is an ideal model for many students with autism. He has focused on his abilities to create a successful living and has overcome some challenges to become successful in the world.