Thursday, February 15, 2007

"Brainman" Daniel Tammet's Great Ride

Daniel Tammet has an amazing talent for numbers and mathematics -- he has recited, error-free, the number pi to more than 22,000 digits in a performance that lasted five hours. But when he was a child, he found social interactions overwhelming and suffered the bullying of other kids. It was after a series of epileptic seizures that his mathematical talents emerged, he says.

It wasn't until he was 25 years old that Tammet learned he has Asperger's syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism spectrum disorder. As The New York Times points out today in a profile of Tammet, he "has made a difficult and self-conscious journey out from his own mind." He has learned to carry on a conversation, and to try to look people in the eye without staring at them. You can read the feature on Tammet, "Brainman, At Rest In His Oasis," at The Times website here.

The "Brainman" of the story headline echoes the title of a one-hour documentary that features Tammet and his skills. You can see a video clip here, via the Google Video website. This clip shows Daniel meeting Kim Peek, the man on whom Dustin Hoffman's character in "Rainman" is based. This clip features more about Kim and his amazing reading comprehension and memory; but notice how Daniel calmly interacts with both Kim and his father in this 4-minute clip. Then read this nugget from The Times article, describing his one-on-one interview with a reporter:

Not so long ago, even a conversation like this one would have been prohibitively difficult for Mr. Tammet, now 28. As he describes in his newly published memoir, "Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant" (Free Press), he has willed himself to learn what to do. Offer a visitor a drink; look her in the eye; don't stand in someone else's space. These are all conscious decisions.
The book, which has received good reviews in Britain, is a brisk-seller on after Tammet was featured in a "60 Minutes" interview last month. (See a clip at CBS News here.)

Tammet has his own blog, Optimnem, which lately reads like any budding celebrity's catalog of media mentions and public appearances. This passage from an entry titled "Public Speaking" represents something all parents of kids with a disability can appreciate:

Since the launch of Born On A Blue Day this past summer I've been invited to speak in a wide range of places. I've ... spoken in front of both a few dozen people and several hundred, in schools and libraries and theatres.

I have quite a quiet voice so the first thing I always have to remind myself to do is speak up. I introduce myself and my book and talk about my life. Afterwards I'm asked all sorts of questions by members of the audience.

The most enjoyable part of this for me is speaking in schools for children with special learning needs, including autism. The parents and teachers who attend my talks are always very complimentary about what I have to say.

My main message in them is that difference needn't be disabling, that it's ok to be different and that everyone is unique in some way and should feel it possible to live out that uniqueness. When we do that, autistic or not, we give ourselves the chance of happiness.

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