Daniel Tammet has Savant Syndrome, a particularly rare type of Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) that gives him uncommon abilities, particularly with maths and languages. He sees numbers, not as we do, but as shapes, motions, textures, and colours, each one different so that he can recognise up to 10,000 different numbers.
He can divide 13 by 97 and give you the answer to over 100 decimal places, instantly. He set a British and European record for reciting the mathematical Pi from memory to 22,514 decimal places, taking more than five hours. He learnt an entire language (Icelandic) in a week, spoken and written. He speaks English, Lithuanian, French, Romanian, Spanish, German, Icelandic, Esperanto, and Welsh – with more languages on the way.
This book is his autobiography; fortunately he is one of the rare Savants who can communicate what is happening in his mind. Also he has learnt to live independently, unlike many other Savants. His condition was made famous by Dustin Hoffman in the movie, Rain Man. In this book he details his life growing up, and all the problems he had. Problems abound, for despite having a brilliant mind, he always had massive difficulties with everyday life.
As a child he was not interested in playing with other children, nor felt the need to talk with them, he would rather count beads, or drops of water. Worse still, when he talked he could not communicate on the same level. He did not know what to talk about, when to start talking, or when to stop talking, and what other children meant by their conversation. He would stare at the ground while talking, and go on and on about some topic that was of no interest to the other person.
When a teacher would look at him and say: 6 times 9, he would not understand that he was supposed to give the answer. He would just say nothing. If he was asked, “What is six times nine?’ Then he would answer. Conversation had to be precise and literal before he could understand. Hints, facial expressions, meant nothing to him. He was the last child in his class to learn the alphabet, and it took much practice to learn to tie his shoelaces at eight years of age.
School was difficult. Other kids would tease and bully him, but because he was largely indifferent to other children, he did not cry or get upset. All the same, he knew he was different and so did everyone else. He had a number of obsessions, the first was for counting things, for example memorising all the teachers’ car number plates. Another obsession was that things must follow the same pattern each day. As a three-year old he threw tantrums if his father took him a different way to the shops. Everything had to be in a precise order.
He was obsessed with numbers, maths, all kinds of calculations, and especially loved prime numbers. His mental powers with maths were beyond any advanced child. At school he could not understand why 6 was written in the same size as 8, and why 9 was not printed in blue, because this is how he saw them in his mind. When he wrote numbers, the teachers criticised his work telling him to write all the numbers the same size. He was puzzled by why they would tell him to do something that was obviously wrong. Unfortunately, he had problems with algebra, because he could not grasp letters in the same way as he understood numbers.
At school he kept away from other children and all outdoor activities. He read many books, but they did not help him as he began to realise that he was born on the wrong planet, never comfortable, never secure, always fearful, without any friends or companions. He would sit in his room and watch his siblings playing games and talking, and wonder why they talked about trivial things, since he did not understand the purpose of conversation.
Physically he had poor balance, an awkward gait, and mostly looked at the ground while he walked, afraid of loud noises, or sudden sounds. He didn’t like children’s games because they were noisy, physical, and confusing.
His parents were marvellous! They put up with all his strangeness, which other parents and children could not comprehend, for no one would have ever come across another person like Daniel Tammet. Doctors were no wiser, they had some vague theories about his condition, but it was not until he was 25 that he was diagnosed as Savant Syndrome, a rare form of Asperger’s Syndrome.
In common with many other Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) people, he had great difficulty in communication, both verbal and with body language. AS people do not understand what it means if someone stands up and says, “It’s getting late” and looks at their watch. An AS person would think something like, ‘What is getting late? Why is it getting late? Late for what? Late is relative to the present time. Why are they talking about time? Is time getting late? How can time get late? Puzzled by all this, they would say nothing, not understand what was happening. This of course often appeared rude to other people.
He was easily distracted, and when listening to someone was often confused because his mind would not be able to focus, so that he would not hear every word that was said, but only some words, and if the missing word was important, then he would not understand. The use of double negatives was a big problem for him, these made his head hurt and confused him as he could only understand things in a literal sense. Even as an adult he could not understand the sentence, “John is not tall, he is a giant.” It had to be carefully explained to him.