The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO


February 18, 2013

Jacque Gage: Autistic savant's story enlightening

JOPLIN, Mo. — I have a little confession to make: I have a very unsophisticated way of choosing the books I read.

It gets even more unsophisticated when I go online to download an e-book or audiobook from our collection. When I do that, it generally means that I need something to read right now.

There is a nifty feature on the Joplin Public Library's online portal (www. that makes my decision easier. By checking a box labeled "Available Now," readers can filter results to show only titles that are available immediately.

When I bring up the titles, I search for a title (and accompanying cover) that catches whatever whimsy I am feeling that day, as was the case recently. The book that caught my fancy was "Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Mind of an Autistic Savant" by Daniel Tammet.

Although it's been around for a long time, autism began to be written about in the 1940s. Asperger's syndrome didn't become an official diagnosis until 1992. When my children were born in the '80s, I had heard of autism but didn't know of anyone on the autism spectrum.

That's all changed now. I dare say everyone knows a person or family affected by autism. Joplin is fortunate to be home to the Bill & Virginia Leffen Center for Autism. When I saw the subtitle of the book, I was intrigued.

"Born on a Blue Day" is written by a man considered an "autistic savant," because of his mathematical prowess and linguistic abilities. Born in 1979, Tammet was a difficult baby. He cried continually, day and night. Doctors were unable to give his parents any reason for his incessant crying other than colic.

His behavior was equally challenging. He reports banging his head against the living-room wall to the point of bruising, despite his parents' efforts to stop him. Along with head banging was rhythmic rocking, violent tantrums, head slapping and screaming.

I can only imagine from a parent's point of view how utterly frustrating and exhausting this must have been.

When Tammet began to speak about his parents and how they handled his issues, I thought, "Oh boy, here it comes." I imagined he was going to describe the parents from hell. Instead, throughout the book he only has positive things to say about the way his parents championed him and encouraged him.

Tammet describes how he sees the world. For example, he sees Wednesdays as blue. He was born on a Wednesday, hence the title of his book.

He sees numbers as having shape, color, texture and motion. For example, "The number 1 ... is a brilliant and bright white ... Five is a clap of thunder ... 37 is lumpy like porridge, while 89 reminds me of falling snow."

Mathematical calculations are favorites of his, particularly power multiplication -- multiplying numbers by themselves a particular number of times. He sees patterns in his head that give him the correct answer. For example, 37 to the 5th power (69,343,957) is a large circle composed of smaller circles running clockwise from the top around.

Tammet is also gifted linguistically. He talks about learning languages and how he masters them easily. He speaks about 10 different languages, even going as far as mastering Icelandic in one week.

The book is interesting because he gives examples of how his sight translates to the rest of us. This, however, is also one of the weaknesses of the book. There are times the explanations and examples go into too much detail.

The book is also one of triumph, showing the transition Tammet makes as an outsider who is known for being weird and having no friends, to someone who has learned to cope with the world and make the most of his special abilities.

This book was also educational for me. It was fascinating to see why autistic children perform certain actions. It gave me a glimpse into a different world.

Joplin Public Library has "Born on a Blue Day" in print, on CD and in downloadable audiobook formats.

Jacque Gage is director of the Joplin Public Library.

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