Monday, January 26, 2009

A profile of author Daniel Tammet, who writes about his life with autism

The intro to a profile of author Daniel Tammet (pictured) in The Times in the UK:

I would be lying if I said that I didn't expect Daniel Tammet to be at least a little odd. He has Asperger's, a form of autism, and is a savant with a talent for languages and numbers. This is a man who taught himself Icelandic in a week and once recited the first 22,514 digits of pi - from memory. For those of us who knew pi was infinite but never really got beyond 3.14, it all seems, well, almost alien. He hates that idea. Daniel thinks savants get a bad press and it is true that the only really famous savant is Raymond Babbitt, the hopeless but engaging genius of the film Rain Man. Daniel has been called the British Rain Man but bridles at the comparison. As he has said, he has a partner, a job, friends. “How could I be considered a Rain Man?”

Daniel is 29 (a prime number and therefore, for him, good) and, the moment we meet, I can see he is no Rain Man. He may have grown up in the East End, one of nine children, lonely and odd. But, over the years, he has taught himself, with amazing pertinacity, to behave “normally” and now, I have to say, he's almost cracked it. “Savants have been seen as something supernatural or alien,” he says, almost as we shake hands (a learnt behaviour for him). “We have been marginalised and mysticised. But people like myself are very much human.”

He gives a little smile and, for someone like him (Aspergerians often do not show emotion), this is the equivalent of a church peal. His voice, as light as his handshake, seems continental or, I note, a bit Eurotrash. He doesn't blink an eye (he is looking straight at me, another learnt behaviour). How did that happen to an East Ender? Well, he says, he now lives in Avignon, where the French also think his accent has a continental twang.

Why Avignon? “I fell in love,” he says. He met his partner Jerome while promoting his bestselling autobiography Born on a Blue Day a few years ago. Before its publication Daniel lived a quiet life, a rigid existence aimed at calming his many anxieties. “I was very happy but it was a small happiness,” he says. With Jerome, though, his life has changed. His new book, Embracing the Wide Sky, is, as its subtitle says, a tour of the horizons of the human mind. It is about liberating our brains and he agrees that this also reflects his new life.

I ask first about numbers, which, for many people, including me, make them feel stupid, not free. Daniel imbues all numbers with meaning and he loves primes. “But all numbers are beautiful,” he says. “All have a kind of beauty.”