Yesterday, I got to go to a small part of IdeaFestival. Daniel Tammet was speaking. His website describes him as “a writer, a linguist, and an educator.” He’s written two very successful, best-selling books. He has “high functioning autistic savant syndrome,” or, as he often says when speaking, “an autism spectrum disorder.”
His website says:
“Tammet set a European record March 14th 2004 when he recited the famous mathematical constant Pi (3.141…) to 22,514 decimal places from memory in a time of 5 hours, 9 minutes.”
His picture might give you a better sense of who he is:
Or if I tell you that he spent years methodically studying other kids at school, working on learning to interact with them. That when he went to Lithuania at 18 to teach English, he felt like he fit in for the first time. “Any oddities of mine,” he says, with understated humor, “I was able to attribute to being English.”
Or if I tell you that numbers, for him, have color and shape and personality. That he memorized the numbers of pi because they “made a beautiful landscape.”
Now I have a confession to make. A year ago – maybe two years now – I ran across the idea that “autism is a gift.” I don’t remember who said it, or the context, but I scoffed.
When I expressed my scepticism to my friend and co-worker, Laura, she looked at me a little strangely. “Fausta,” she said, “Haven’t you ever heard of Temple Grandin?”
“No,” I admitted, “I haven’t.”
“You haven’t seen the movie?” Um, no, I hadn’t. Laura shook her head, “Oh, you should see it. Temple Grandin – she’s really something – she changed my way of thinking about autism spectrum disorders.”
Ok, more confessions. I kind of shrugged it off. Not that I didn’t believe Laura, I did. But I didn’t pursue it. I stuck a mental post-it note in my head with a question mark and, “Think about this some day,” scrawled on it.
Yesterday was that “some day.”
It’s not that I ever thought people with autism spectrum disorders didn’t have full value as people, or didn’t deserve respect, or didn’t have strengths. I totally believed all that. I equally didn’t believe that autism could be a gift, or that it wasn’t a burden to overcome.
The fact that Mr. Tammet can recite the numbers of pi for five hours still doesn’t convince me. It’s that he memorized them because they “created a beautiful landscape.” When he recited them, some of the journalists present for the exhibition cried. Why? They said it had been “a spiritual experience” to listen to him; they were moved.
That made me think I might actually be missing something.
Maybe it’s because he thinks words have shape and weight and color too – and I can relate to that. I “know” that words have personalities and texture and the way they look and feel matters. (Doesn’t everyone know that?)
Maybe it’s because I can imagine a child in our school system who sees numbers as having color and shape. Picture it. The teacher says, “What number is that?” and he says, “Red.”
Teacher: “No! What number?”
He says, “Triangle,”
They have him tested for expressive language problems, and send him to a language specialist who “fixes” him. He learns not to say the color he sees or the shape he perceives. But what would happen if we were open to exploring that idea instead?
If instead of saying, “No,” and correcting him, we explored his perspective. If we followed his lead in how to learn. Crazy, right?
But we don’t know what might happen – our systems are designed to package people, not unfold them. If autism is a way of thinking differently that has benefits, we don’t even know what gifts it might bring. There might be a world of knowledge that we’re missing, ignoring and supressing. A world that we could explore too, if we were open to the possibilities.
So, after listening to Daniel Tammet, and getting my world shaken up a little bit, I was ready to be moved by the next speaker too. I was surprised to find myself – not much moved. It was an interesting talk, and I wasn’t bored or anything. It just didn’t speak to me in the same way.
I was pondering that idea while I listened, how some ideas snatch us up at one moment and not at others. And it occurred to me that I was just filing this information away for now. That, for all I know, I might feel passionately about the topic some day, and find myself saying, “And I saw this speaker at IdeaFestival, but I didn’t really appreciate it then…”
Still later, I was sharing this insight with my sister, Julia. “Well, yeah,” she says, “You’re just filing it in the attic. Then you can pull it out when you want to. A lot of times, people say, ‘Nickel knowledge – what use is that?’ but….”
And I interupt her – “Nickel knowledge? What’s that? I don’t think I’ve every heard that phrase before.”
“Really? People say that all the time. You know, they’ll say something about Cortes’ siege of the Aztec city in Peru, and I’ll say ‘Oh, right, Tenochtitlán.’ And they’re like – ‘Nickel knowledge.'”
(Just as an aside – I don’t have any friends who talk about Cortes’ siege of an Aztec city. Or use the phrase “nickel knowledge.” I just don’t. One of the things I appreciate about my sister is that she does.)
Anyhow. Julia went on to say, “But you know, in one of the presentations this morning, they were talking about creativity. And he said, ‘In order to have creativity and innovation, you have to have ideas stored in the attic. Ideas you can bring out when you need them, when you find a use for them.'”
“Ideas stored in the attic” – I love that idea! So if this post doesn’t speak to you now, that’s ok. It’s still an idea to store in your attic, waiting for another day.