Thursday, December 6, 2007

"Feeling Uncomfortable in This World"*

Born on a Blue Day; Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant. A Memoir, by Daniel Tammet. New York: Free Press, 2007.

This is the first book that I’ve read from my personal challenge list and reading it has made me very glad to have embarked on this project. This is an amazing book, both because of the author’s “extraordinary mind,” and because he is able to describe what is going on inside his head in such a clear way. Reading his descriptions made me realize that understanding the thought processes of anyone to such a degree would make incredibly fascinating reading; being given this chance to look inside the mind of an autistic savant is like traveling to another planet. Daniel’s mind works in ways that are so unique—well, let me give you a few examples.

Before reading these quotes, you need to know that Daniel has a rare condition known as savant syndrome—think Dustin Hoffman in the movie Rain Man. He experiences numbers in a visual and emotional way that is called synesthesia, and his synesthesia is an unusual and complex type, through which he sees “numbers as shapes, colors, textures, and motions.” Daniel is able to perform incredibly complex computations in his head, and he is able to give us an inkling of how that process works and what it feels like. Here are a few quotes from the first chapter:

“The number 1, for example, is a brilliant and bright white, like someone shining a flashlight into my eyes."

"Five is a clap of thunder or the sound of waves crashing against rocks. Thirty-seven is lumpy like porridge, while 89 reminds me of falling snow."

"When I divide one number by another, in my head I see a spiral rotating downwards in larger and larger loops, which seem to warp and curve. Different divisions produce different sizes of spirals with varying curves. From my mental imagery I'm able to calculate a sum like 13 [divided by] almost a hundred decimal places."

As a child, Daniel hardly noticed his peers, and kept to the edges of any social gathering. He is able to describe in great detail what exactly was going on in his head during these childhood years—what he was thinking at times when he appeared to others to be merely staring at a spot on the floor for hours at a time, or rocking, or walking around and around trees in the schoolyard.

Daniel brings us along on his journey from being an isolated loner to growing into a young adult within a loving relationship--"from profound isolation and sadness to achievement and happiness," as Daniel says in his NPR interview . I have known children with autism, and I wanted to find them all and give them this book to read so that they would know that someone else had experienced life in a way that was similar to their internal experiences.


To read an excerpt from the book, listen to a powerful interview with Daniel and with autism experts, and to hear callers with questions about autism, go to the National Public Radio program Talk of the Nation at It was extremely touching to me to hear Daniel describe his experiences in his beautifully quiet voice, and there was a heartbreaking moment when a caller named Ethan, who was apparently autistic, said that for him the "candle wasn't worth the game."

While you're on the Talk of the Nation page, be sure to scroll down and check out the links for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a novel featuring a math whiz who has Asperger's, and the interview with Temple Grandin, a livestock facility designer who is autistic.

Daniel's web site, Optimnem, can be seen at

Find out about the documentary Brainman, which follows some of Daniel's experiences: For other excerpts and information about this documentary, Google "Brainman."

Daniel Tammet Meets Kim Peek (who was the original inspiration for Rain Main):

To see other videos about Daniel, search "Daniel Tammet" or "Brainman" on YouTube:

*The title of this post is a quote from Daniel in the NPR interview

No comments: