Saturday, January 24, 2009

Synesthesia, savantism and Asperger's, oh my!

I just finished reading Daniel Tammet's autobiography Born on a Blue Day, which details his experiences growing up with synesthesia, savantism and undiagnosed Asperger syndrome. (He is also the eldest of ten children, and comes from a poor but very close-knit family, and has temporal-lobe epilepsy, and is gay and a Christian, but these aren't examined in the same degree of detail as those first three things are).

Though it was apparent from early infancy that Tammet was different from most children, his parents always hoped he'd go on to live a "normal" life, and did not want to burden him with a label:

Autism as a complex developmental disorder was little known among the general public at this time [when he was two and a half years old, in 1981] and my behavior was not what many assumed then to be typically autistic: I didn't rock my body continuously, I could talk and showed at least some ability to interact with the environment around me. It would be another decade before high-functioning autism, including Asperger's, would start to become recognized within the medical community and gradually better known among the public at large.

There was something else, too. My parents did not want to label me, to feel that they were holding me back in any way. More than anything else, they wanted me to be happy, healthy and able to lead a "normal" life. When friends, family and neighbors invariably asked about me, my parents told them I was very "shy" and "sensitive." I think my parents must also have been afraid of the possible stigma attached to having a child with developmental problems.
I hear this a lot from people I meet who've been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome as adults; their parents knew they weren't exactly normal, even very young, but they either didn't think it was anything significant (I know someone who says his parents just thought he was "weird"), or thought the risks of being pigeonholed as "learning-disabled" outweighed whatever possible benefits might come from having a diagnosis. (See this post by ABFH for an example of the latter possibility).

Several features stick out to me about Tammet's description of his experience of autism: first, because he wasn't diagnosed until later in life (at age 25 --- probably after he became famous for reciting pi), he grew into an understanding of himself and his peculiarities, rather than knowing from the start that he was different in certain internally-consistent ways, and represented a distinct type of person (as I have known for most of my life). However, his story does not have the sense you see in a lot of autobiographical writings by long-undiagnosed autistics of a mystery finally being solved when the diagnosis is gained --- indeed, he doesn't dramatize it at all. He also doesn't separate his autism from his synesthesia or his savant abilities. If anything, he gives the impression that the latter two, at least, are inextricably linked: He can work out complex math problems in his head because of the special way he sees numbers:
Numbers are my friends, and they are always around me. Each one is unique and has its own personality. The number 11 is friendly and 5 is loud, whereas 4 is both shy and quiet --- it's my favorite number, perhaps because it reminds me of myself. Some are big --- 23, 667, 1,179 --- while others are small: 6, 13, 581. Some are beautiful, like 333, and some are ugly, like 289. To me, every number is special.
...
I never write anything down when I'm calculating, because I've always been able to do the sums in my head, and it's much easier for me to visualize the answer using my synesthetic shapes than to try to follow the "carry the one" techniques taught in the textbooks we are given at school. When multiplying, I see the two numbers as distinct shapes. The image changes and a third shape emerges --- the correct answer. The process takes a matter of seconds and happens spontaneously. It's like doing math without having to think.
(Though I am not a savant, and do not have synesthesia, I can relate to what he says about not having to think. My thought processes seem, even to me, to be strangely passive, more like I am watching them unfold than creating them.)

Back to Tammet:
Different tasks involve different shapes, and I also have various sensations or emotions for certain numbers. Whenever I multiply with 11 I always experience a feeling of digits tumbling downwards in my head. I find 6s hardest to remember of all the numbers, because I experience them as tiny black dots, without any distinctive shape or texture. I would describe them as like little gaps or holes. I have visual and sometimes emotional responses to every number up to 10,000, like having my own visual, numerical vocabulary. And just like a poet's choice of words, I find some combinations of numbers more beautiful than others: ones go well with darker numbers like 8s and 9s, but not so well with 6s. A telephone number with the sequence 189 is much more beautiful to me than one with a sequence like 116.

This aesthetic dimension to my synesthesia is something that has its ups and downs. If I see a number I experience as particularly beautiful on a shop sign or a car license plate, there's a shiver of excitement and pleasure. On the other hand, if the numbers don't match my experience of them --- if, for example, a shop sign's price has "99 pence" in red or green (instead of blue) --- then I find that uncomfortable and irritating.
It's like he has an extra sense in which to experience the beauty, pain and immanence of hypersensitivity.

This visuo-numeric synesthesia also gives rise to one of the few instances of figurative language in the book: describing his record-breaking recitation of pi to 22,514 digits, he says, "It felt as though I had run a marathon in my head." For most of the book, his language is really straightforward and artless, and I suspect that this, too, is not so much a decorative flourish as a literal description. He describes the digits of pi coming together to form a landscape in his head, which he moves through as he thinks of all the numbers:
When I look at a series of numbers, my head begins to fill with colors, shapes and textures that knit together spontaneously to form a visual landscape. These are always very beautiful to me; as a child I often spent hours at a time exploring numerical landscapes in my mind. To recall each digit, I simply retrace the different shapes and textures in my head and read the numbers out of them.
...
At the end of each segment of numbers, the landscape changes and new shapes, colors and textures appear. This process continues on and on, for as long as the sequence of digits that I am recalling.

The most famous sequence of numbers in pi is the Feynman point, which comprises the 762nd through the 767th decimal places of pi: ...999999... It is named after the physicist Richard Feynman for his remark that he would like to memorize the digits of pi as far as that point so that when reciting them, he would be able to finish with: "... nine, nine, nine, nine, nine, nine, and so on." The Feynman point is visually very beautiful to me; I see it as a deep, thick rim of dark blue light.

There is a similarly beautiful sequence of digits comprising the 19,437th through 19,453rd decimal places of pi: "...99992128599999399 ...," where the digit 9 repeats first four times in a row, then very shortly afterwards five times over and then twice more again; eleven times altogether in this space of 17 decimal places. It is my favorite sequence of pi's digits in all the more than 22,500 that I learned.

(Earlier in the book, he describes nines as evoking particular feelings of awe and reverence for him --- they are dark blue, huge and at once beautiful and terrifying. Who says autistics can't experience complex emotions?)

There are three aspects of his experience with autism that I found strikingly like my own: first, he had a large, boisterous family with whom he was very close, and who gave him a lot of love and support; second, he had a long period of near-complete solipsism; and, third, he had a very active imagination. He wrote long, involved stories throughout his childhood, and once he started to develop social awareness and feelings of loneliness and exclusion, he conjured up an imaginary friend: an ancient, wise woman named Anne who was as alone as he (her husband being long-dead) and who understood and accepted young Daniel when no one else could. Looking back, he considers her a personification of his feelings of aloneness, and her eventual disappearance a consequence of his decision to concentrate on finding friends in the real world. He had relatively few friends in childhood --- the two boys he does mention making friends with are both foreign-born, and thus shared some of his outsiderdom --- but as he matured, he found it easier and easier to make friends. When he turns eighteen, he joins a volunteer organization and goes to Lithuania for a year to teach English. In Lithuania, he makes friends readily with both native Lithuanians and fellow volunteers.
My experiences abroad had undoubtedly changed me. For one thing, I had learned a great deal about myself. I could see more clearly than ever before how my "differences" affected my day-to-day life, especially my interactions with other people. I had eventually come to understand that friendship was a delicate, gradual process that mustn't be rushed or seized upon but allowed and encouraged to take its course over time. I pictured it as a butterfly, simultaneously beautiful and fragile, that once afloat belonged to the air and any attempt to grab at it would only destroy it. I recalled how in the past at school I had lost potential friendships because, lacking social instinct, I had tried too hard and made completely the wrong impression.

Lithuania had also allowed me to step back from myself and come to terms with my "differentness" by illustrating the fact that it needn't be a negative thing. As a foreigner I had been able to teach English to my Lithuanian students and tell them all about life in Britain. Not being the same as everyone else had been a positive advantage to me in Kaunas, and an opportunity to help others.
One last thing he mentions that I found interesting was his deep empathy with animals. He doesn't spend a lot of time on this subject, but there is one incredibly moving passage about meeting his boyfriend's cat:
I have always loved animals, from my childhood fascination with ladybirds to avidly watching wildlife programs on television. I think one reason is that animals are often more patient and accepting than many people. After I first moved in with Neil, I spent a lot of time with his cat, Jay. She was then a little less than two years old and very aloof, preferring to spend all her time out alone wandering around the neighborhood gardens and growling whenever Neil tried to pat or hold her. ... At first I kept my distance, knowing that she was unused to having someone around regularly. Instead, I waited for her natural curiosity to start to work and indeed it wasn't long before she would walk up to me as I was sitting in the living room, and sniff at my feet and hands if I lowered them for her to rub with her nose. Over time, Jay started to spend more and more time indoors. Whenever she came in, I would kneel down until my face was level with hers and slowly extend my hand around her head and stroke her in the same way that I had watched her stroke the fur on her back with her tongue. Then she would purr and open and close her eyes sleepily and I knew that I had won her affection.

Jay was a smart and sensitive cat. Sometimes I lay down on the floor for her to sit on my chest or tummy and snooze. ... Once Jay was sitting on me, I would close my eyes and slow down my breathing so that she thought I was dozing too. She would then feel reassured, because she knew that I would not be making any sudden movements, and relax and stay close to me. Often I wore one of my thick, coarse sweaters, even in warm weather, because I knew that Jay preferred their texture to smooth T-shirts or other clothes.

For all her affection, at various times Jay could still be remote and indifferent towards us and especially towards Neil, something that I knew upset him very much. I suggested to him that what she needed was a companion, another cat to interact regularly with. I hoped she would learn social skills in the process and become more approachable.
Look at the sensitivity he's showing there, the keen attunement to the cat's feelings, needs and desires. He knows not to overwhelm her, to wait for her to initiate the relationship on her terms, and he knows her tactile preferences. (Impressive enough, he knows that tactile sensation is important to her, and knows that she has certain preferred textures). Temple Grandin has written extensively about her own strong feelings of empathy for some animals --- for her it's livestock, particularly cattle, with which she feels a deep connection. If I'm remembering rightly, she had some trouble getting cats to like her; she was too rough in her handling of them, squeezing instead of stroking, since deep pressure was the kind of touch she craved, and could not stand lighter touches.

That's not to suggest that autistics are some kind of naturally-occurring Dog Whisperers; no, the furthest I would go with this particular anecdatum would be to propose that people (autistic or not) empathize most readily with minds most like their own. Tammet is shy, easily overwhelmed and mindful of sensory stimuli; accordingly he found a skittish cat fairly easy to befriend. Similarly, Grandin is highly visual, prone to anxiety attacks and easily startled by things in her peripheral vision; accordingly, she is able to anticipate what might spook a cow, and eliminate such things from her slaughterhouses. This is why autistics often cannot decipher the motivations of NTs --- not because we are fundamentally incapable of empathy, but because our minds work quite differently from theirs, and it requires quite a bit of imagination to predict an unfamiliar NT person's reaction successfully. (It's also worth pointing out that NTs are just as blind to our motivations, feelings and mental states as we are to theirs --- consider all the descriptions of "meaningless" behaviors and routines, "inappropriate" emotional responses, "meltdowns" and whatever else. Because they can't imagine what might be upsetting --- or otherwise motivating --- us when we do these things, they assume there is no motivation).

7 comments:

freethinker said...

Thank you for this review, Lindsay. Works like this [and your blog] have to be publicized because they cast light on all the unpredictably wonderful ways to be 'human'.

'his story does not have the sense ... of a mystery finally being solved when the diagnosis is gained --- indeed, he doesn't dramatize it at all.'

that's because he didn't care for a label that would give him his sense of self. he knew from the beginning that his experiences set him apart, and he constructed his self out of those experiences, independent of the society. and i can relate to that with my experience of a deviant sexuality [which was 'active' as far back as i remember]. i haven't met with a diagnosis so far and i can imagine my indifference to it when it comes.

' "it's much easier for me to visualize the answer using my synesthetic shapes than to try to follow the "carry the one" techniques taught in the textbooks we are given at school." '

'Who says autistics can't experience complex emotions?'

the world, the social dimension of reality, is constructed around norms which apply to TN. so those who are different, become disabled. they can't function properly, they need help, they need to be cured... but the problem could be seen in another way: the society fails to find a function for them, the society needs help, it needs to be cured.

incidentally, i never did 'carry the 1' either for math problems. i borrowed and gave a ten, hundred, etc.

Lindsay said...

i can relate to that with my experience of a deviant sexuality [which was 'active' as far back as i remember]. i haven't met with a diagnosis so far and i can imagine my indifference to it when it comes.

Ettina covers something like that at the end of this post: she posits that one reason autistics, unlike queer people, rely on professional diagnosis to prop up their self-concepts might be that autism is still primarily considered a medical condition, while queer sexualities are no longer (in the West, anyway --- it may be different in Pakistan) considered such.

I am also a sexual deviant (*snicker*) --- I'm bisexual and polyamorous. I have not known these things forever, only since I began to have sexual feelings, which came later for me than they do for most people.

freethinker said...

oh it is different in pakistan. and although that's changing, childhood sexuality will remain something in the shadows of society's denial for a long time. until then, it is an experience of social isolation when the child is dealing with powerful feelings that he doesn't even know are 'sexual' for a very long time: in a repressive society like pakistan's, children don't have an inkling of what sex and sexuality are about.

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Hilake said...

I know 428 digits, And I am synesthetic. I do not need to be cured

Lindsay said...

Hello, Hilake!

"I know 428 digits, And I am synesthetic. I do not need to be cured."

In case it's not clear from the post, I also do not think these things (synesthesia and autism) are diseases. Rock on with your synesthetic, pi-memorizing self!

(428 digits astounds me; I'm usually only good for five to seven digits.)

Anonymous said...

I would like to have someone comment on my artwork and give an opinion if this is savantism.

I have AS and my autistic severity scoring is "moderate".

I am a healthcare professional by trade but very active (privately) with my hobbies in art and astronomy:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/robertseandavies/2484971411/in/set-72157614407563621/