Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Born on a Blue Day, by Daniel Tammet. Review.

Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Mind of an Autistic Savant, by Daniel Tammet. Free Press.

Review contributed by L

Imagine getting a glimpse inside the mind of someone living with autism. Tammet takes us into his world in this beautiful and fascinating memoir (for lack of a better descriptor) written in his mid-twenties. Tammet's world is one of numbers, counting, language, and other fascinations. It is also a sometimes very lonely place. Finding love changed that.

We meet Tammet as a child, swaddled in the love of his parents, follow him as the family grows (and grows), through the school system (no special ed for this child), and into young adulthood. Tammet takes the reader along as he finds love and launches his career.

As a child (and well into adolescence), when something catches Tammet's attention, it seems that everything else ceases to exist. Tammet tells a story of seeing a lady bug on a bush when he is walking home from the bus. He became so engrossed that he finally just sat himself down on the sidewalk to watch her; people walked around him. Eventually he put out his finger for her to climb onto, then ran home to begin his lady bug collection, a collection later tossed by a teacher who asked him to bring it to class, but then feared the hundreds of bugs would escape into the classroom. Even so, this was not as bad as the chestnut collection that grew so large his parents feared it would come through the floor of his second-story bedroom. There is also the description of precisely the way in which brushing his teeth was physically painful, something he could not explain to his parents (who thought brushing a good idea), and how he dealt with this and figured out a way to brush his teeth that he can tolerate. Tammet's ability to find pleasure in numbers and also use them to calm himself when he is stressed is palpable; not everyone appreciates the beauty of numbers and math in general and fewer still ever see them as Tammet does.

Tammet's family (of eleven!) is featured prominently in this book. In fact, the book is partly a testament to the devotion of his parents, even though they really didn't understand his ailment, and the value of having siblings who understood enough that things at home could "work." It is also, I think unintentionally, a testament to a social service system (UK) that made it possible for this family to survive, even thrive, with nine children--at one point, five children under the age of four--two of them with autism and,  and a father who suffered a series of mental breakdowns.

Naturally there are weaknesses, or perhaps places lacking clarity. Tammet's move from being mostly unable to communicate effectively verbally, having no grasp of emotions, not getting things such as why it isn't cool to just touch people when you want, and the like to signing up to be an international volunteer is one such gap. Yes, he is a savant and has some truly incredible abilities, especially in math and languages. Still, this leap is fairly astounding. His success in Iceland--professional and social--is hard to fathom. The language ability is also hard to understand, in some ways. Yes, languages involve lots of words, something he would be good at, and rules for use, again, something that fits with the math ability. But the ability to truly understand shared meaning, this I would like to see discussed. Similarly, when he finds love, as a reader you are delighted for him. Still, how was that really possible? How much emotion does he really feel? How does the autism impinge on the relationship, beyond the practical things such as his inability to drive and his occasional outbursts when he is overwhelmed? I suppose what we are missing are: (1) some sorting out of where Tammet falls on the autism spectrum, how extraordinary he is beyond the 1 in 100 "prodigious savants", more of a qualitative brushstroke of this autism spectrum to which he refers quite often; and (2) a much better view of how Tammet is seen by others, both his intimate circle and strangers. For this latter to be missing in a book written by someone with autism is, I suppose, inevitable.

Despite these mild frustrations, it is clear that Tammet is an amazing young man. He has written a book that is mature and sensitive way beyond his years. He has also given readers the tremendous gift of a view into his life and mind.

An earlier version of this review was posted to GoodReads.