January 14, 2009

Daniel Paul Tammet, born Daniel Corney, has an extraordinary ability with languages and numbers. In independent testing, he has learned a basic fluency in the Icelandic language in a single week, a challenge which ended with a television interview on Icelandic television.

He has also been diagnosed autistic, specifically a high-functioning version of Asperger syndrome, accompanied by epilepsy and synaestesia. Like so many diagnoses in mental health, this one seems to have been an empirical fitting of symptom to syndrome: find a match which works well enough, and then don't look any further.

Synaestesia seems a useful catch-all, so far as it goes. We might want to remember that it describes the symptom of understanding one type of sensory perception as another, and not the reason. For example, a person with synaestesia might experience music as colour, as in the apocryphal drug-induced "I can see the music". In Daniel's case, this diagnosis is used to cover Daniel's perception of numbers as having tangible shape/form/feel/landscape and thus very different associative connotation from the standard teachings which assume that numbers are abstract symbology without emotive association. Conventional synaestesia does not act in such a fashion, although artistic and spiritual metaphor and symbolism often does.

Other things too do not fit. Asperger syndrome children tend to express earlier than Daniel did. They usually show a tightly focused interest to the exclusion of much else. Frustration is quickly expressed through whatever means the child has at hand, be it screaming or self-biting. Daniel is also part of a family of nine children, and autism is rare where there are more than two or three siblings.

I am not alone in seeing this. From the Wikipedia talk page:
I'm autistic and have autistic friends and he certainly doesn't exibit any symptoms that I've seen.
More and more, "high functioning" seems less like a diagnosis qualifier and more like an attempted wedging of a square peg into a round hole.

The key points of diagnosis seem to have been:From what I have seen of him, he seems also to demonstrate a happiness which seems alien to most autistic children. (Even the higher-functioning autistic children and adults usually seem at best relieved rather than truly happy: when a long-delayed communicative success finally translates into agreement ... and how many of us would not agree with them?) He is extremely adept at translating not only languages we recognise as languages, but also his own personal mathematical landscape into language that can be recognised by the researchers. He might have been a loner as a child, but his ability to communicate strange concepts in terms another might understand is better than ours.

Yet it is communication -- inability to communicate, due to an inability to imagine the other person's perspective -- that is usually the clincher in any autistic diagnosis.

Let's revisit the other points:He also describes a profound sense of loneliness during the same time. Yet neither of these is unique to autism, and both of these are commonly found within children considered "normal" (whatever that is). I was a loner myself, growing up and now: and if I was ever lonely, I don't remember it. I do know that I had become completely secure within my own company and my own decisions by kindergarten. (Bluntly, the other children's interests bored me. They were learning about the letter "a", I had been reading for nearly three years.) For that matter, I sometimes wonder whether autistic children really are truly lonely, or are simply taught through operant conditioning to associate their condition with the term called loneliness.Two of us together happened to hear this: and then we looked at each other, the other knowing me, and laughed. That other knows well to get my attention on the street by stepping directly into my path (and yet not absent-minded: strong environmental awareness, just not paying recognition-attention to individuals, don't ever ask me to give a description of a person). Our society sets much store by this, and I can say from experience that life can get very ... interesting ... when you don't recognise your chess partner of a year as your next neighbour during your physics lectures. I don't recognise faces without a great deal of effort and many work-around tricks. I think it is simply that I don't usually focus on people's faces. In fact I don't much look at things. But let the person speak: and I will know them at once.

I don't know why I am so non-visual. I am not even certain that I really am: according to others I notice small things in a given environment that pass completely unnoticed by them -- but I recognise famous actors and actresses not at all, until they speak, and then no costume can conceal them from me. I can identify facial features, but for the most part I don't find them relevant: only their expressions. Considering it now, I wonder if it is not a by-product of my having acquired and then forgotten my correctional lenses so often in Grade 2. I used to go up to the board, memorise one or more lines of whatever was written there, and then go back to my desk and write them down. I did notice that Daniel too wears correctional lenses, as do nearly 80% of modern western populations.

As I have described it, even clinical psychology would not name my inability to recognise faces a handicap, rather just a quirk, another on the wide range of normal ways to experience the physical and social world: unless I were to present it as a symptom, and perhaps one among many symptoms, and then it would be difficult indeed to see it otherwise. Once a label is applied, it is almost impossible to remove it. That subject was opened by psychologists who wanted to discover whether, having been voluntarily admitted into a psychiatric facility with a specific symptom (a voice saying "thud"), the staff would ever discover that they were not in fact mentally ill. After two weeks all but one of the researchers were released: all, without exception, with a diagnosis of "schizophrenia, in remission".

(Today, we know that 4% and perhaps as much as 10% of the population experiences hearing voices at some point in their lives, most commonly linked with a traumatic experience, without ever experiencing anything else that we would call schizophrenia. Most such experiences are startling, and some can turn out to become extremely positive. At least, we know this ... in theory.)I combine these two for a reason. The context in which I learned about the existence of Daniel Tammet also included other cases where haemorrhagic strokes somehow triggered compulsive artistic expression, completely overturning the previous way of seeing the world. It even has a name ("artistic compulsive disorder"), although the only thing that name accomplishes is to give symptoms a name, similar to "irritable bowel syndrome". It does not in any way imply understanding.

One thing every person who had survived such a stroke mentioned in common: they were hideously painful. Additionally, in many cases, the stroke itself was preceded by bad and blinding headaches, weeks or months of them, in some cases. One thing every parent knows: a very young child in pain will scream and fuss. The child won't usually understand, or be able to express that pain in any other way. They only know pain, and maybe one thing that eases it a little.

My mother had smallpox as a child. (Yes, that smallpox.) I grew up knowing what smallpox scars looked like. I learned that the sores are very painful. She described to me how her parents had found only one way to ease the pain a little: by placing her into a blanket and swinging her gently back and forth.Slightly under 50% of the world's population is also male.After many years of trying to figure out Daniel's odd abilities, researchers finally figured out that he somehow perceives what to the rest of us are abstract numbers (which happen to be symbolised by a particular shape and size) as distinct shapes, with distinct sizes and emotional connotations, each part of a flowing landscape. The visual world around him becomes a constant expression of these numbers. When Daniel came to New York City, he described how he perceived how he perceived the skyscrapers as looming 9's. In fact, researchers have been able to significantly disrupt his mathematical ability simply by presenting him with numbers that happen to be opposite in size to his template (and one of them comments on that Talk page about just that).

So let's try looking at it from the opposite direction. If his diagnosers had known first how Daniel has perceived numbers for as long as he can remember -- and then took into account the incapacitating schizophrenia suffered by his father, known to have genetic links: which diagnosis they would have come up with then?

And would even that one be accurate?

Daniel is said to have been born into an atheist family. However, as a teenager he began exploring Judaism, then converted to Islam at 15, then converted again to Buddhism at 21, and then to Taoism, and then (for now finally) to Christianity. These were not casual conversions. He actively pursued each belief structure, and often was also active within the local community of that belief structure. This is not just casual religious "shopping".

Science has given Daniel's condition a number of labels. At the same time, science has utterly failed to find a real explanation for Daniel's way of perceiving the world.

However, the Judaic and Arabic languages are cored in one possibility: the same letters which make up the linguistic symbols which describe the world are also numbers. In the mystic traditions, this truth is an expression of God: in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God. (And from this derives a large part of modern western numerology.) What normal teenager, knowing himself to see the world differently from those around him, would not seek for a reason?

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