Sunday, March 18, 2007

Living together in different worlds

Also at Booman Tribune and My Left Wing, ePluribus Media and Street Prophets

It was just this week that I discovered the 60 Minutes segment on Daniel Tammet. I guess it came to the forefront due to Pi Day, which was on the 14th. Via Yahoo, 60 Minutes segment on Daniel Tammet

Meet Daniel Tammet, a 27 year-old math and memory wizard. He can do things with numbers that will truly amaze you. He is a savant. . . with a difference. Unlike most savants, he shows no obvious mental disability, and most importantly, he can describe his own thought process. Join correspondent Morley Safer as he explores the extraordinary life and mind of Daniel Tammet.

He, like our son, has Asperger's Syndrome. Demetrius and I watched one of the video segments together yesterday morning. In the evening, one of the mothers at Son in Ohio's social skills group had a copy of Daniel Tammet's book, Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant. I'm very interested in reading the book, but in the meantime I'd like to share a bit of what I've found captivating about Daniel's story. And it's not the "gnarly number powers" that many people focus on, but rather how he experiences the world differently. His anxiety:
That anxiety keeps him close to home. He can’t drive, rarely goes shopping, and finds the beach a difficult place because of his compulsion to count the grains of sand. And it manifests itself in other ways, like making a very precise measurement of his cereal each morning: it must be exactly 45 grams of porridge, no more, no less.
When Son in Ohio was 4, he was obsessed with the number 4, having 4 of anything, etc. It was imperative that we park on level 4 of the parking garage at the library, or he would have a "meltdown". Crying, absolutely beside himself. I have to admit, I found it hard to be sympathetic. He had a little sister who was two, and with kids that age, any outing can be a challenge. So, once we'd finally arrived at our destination, to have the level we park on become a life or death issue?

But as time went on, and we learned that his difficulties were due to Asperger's Syndrome, we had a better understanding of the importance of order and control. In a world that seemed chaotic, unpredictable, and alien, it helped to have a handle on something that was reliable, orderly, and unchanging. I had to smile when I heard Daniel Tammet say that "numbers are his friends", because Son in Ohio's imaginary friend was named "Mr. Alphabet". The alphabet was his longest running special interest, spanning the course of several years, but others included states and capitals, planets, and rainbows.

Rainbows? That one threw us initially. But rainbows were always the same, Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet. Well, they are *supposed* to always be the same. But there are plenty of people out there who have no idea how vile an offense they are committing when they omit Indigo. You do *not* want to leave colors out, or there will be hell to pay! Oh, and if you're doing an alphabet book, don't even *think* of cheating on the letter X--saying it is for eXtraordinary or some nonsense like that. If our son found a new alphabet book at the library, the first thing he did was flip to X to see if they used a real X word. But I digress--the point is that all of his special interests were orderly systems of one kind or another, and that seemed to provide a measure of comfort.

Here's the other segment from the interview that really caught my attention:
But at the end of the day—genius or not—that brain does work a little differently.

"One hour after we leave today, and I will not remember what you look like. And I will find it difficult to recognize you, if I see you again. I will remember your handkerchief. And I will remember you have four buttons on your sleeve. And I'll remember the type of tie you're wearing. It's the details that I remember," Tammet tells Safer.
This brought to mind the time when our son attended summer "day camp" in the same classroom where he'd gone to preschool that year. Exact same classroom, but different teachers. When I arrived to pick him up at the end of that first day, he remarked to me, "Sarah is calling herself 'Donna' now." Now, "Sarah" and "Donna" did indeed have some similar features, such as hair color and length, and the fact that they both wore glasses. But I imagine most kids would said, "My new teacher looks a lot like the teacher I had before" or something like that. The fact that he went straight for the conclusion, "Apparently my teacher changed her name" was one of our first big clues that the world did indeed *look* different to our son, because he naturally focussed on different things.

Our son lives with us in our home, but in a way we live in different worlds. Of course, we could say that for any two people, but we don't think of that most of the time. I think most of the time we assume we are operating on the basis of some shared reality. But we learned over time that our son did *not* experience the world in the same way we did. Looking back, I feel a little bad about not being more patient in dealing with some of those early fixations and sensitivities. But then again, I was navigating in uncharted territory myself.

One of the memories that stands out from right before our son's diagnosis is another mother suddenly running up to me and screaming that my son had knocked her child down. I was completely blindsided and never did figure out what happened. My attention at that moment had been on my daughter, who was in a toddler gymnastics class, and I'd been helping her walk across a balance beam. The other woman was in full "protective mother mode" and that's understandable as her child was smaller than my son. But at that moment I felt utterly confused, helpless, and clueless about how to respond. No doubt the world of parenting I experienced was very different from hers.

Wrap this thing up with some sort of conclusion? I wish. For now, all I've got is that we really need to work on being gentle to each other, because we have no idea what kind of world our neighbor might be inhabiting.
More links about Daniel Tammet:

Transcript of the 60 Minutes Segment here.
Audio on NPR's Talk of the Nation: A Look at an Autistic Savant's Brilliant Mind
Daniel Tammet's website and blog
From the Science Channel (includes more video) Brainman.