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From the other side of autism

Memoir offers a glimpse of a rare world

'Numbers are my first language, one I . . . think and feel in,' writes Tammet. "Numbers are my first language, one I . . . think and feel in," writes Tammet. (David Levene)

Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant
By Daniel Tammet
Free Press, 226 pp., illustrated, $24

Daniel Tammet is a man of many talents. He can learn foreign languages -- even notoriously tricky ones like Icelandic -- in a week. He can solve intricate mathematical equations in less time than it takes a prep chef to crack an egg. He can commit vast amounts of data to memory -- as he did in 2004, when he memorized the first 22,514 digits of pi and recited them in record time before a rapt crowd. Oh, and he's even in the process of fashioning a new language, Mänti , which has "a developed grammar and a vocabulary of more than a thousand words."

What makes Tammet's steel-trap mind all the more remarkable is that he's able to discuss the way it works. One of the world's 50 known living autistic savants, he is unique among that group in that he has the capacity to reflect on his gifts. Kim Peek, the inspiration for the film "Rain Man," is a more typical autistic savant: He has committed 9,000 books to memory yet is unable to take care of himself.

Indeed, Tammet is a one-of-a-kind wunderkind with the potential to illuminate at least some of the many mysteries about autism. It's for this reason that scientists in both his native England and the United States have studied his brain so extensively. Unfortunately, storytelling doesn't rank among Tammet's many gifts. His memoir "Born on a Blue Day" is a grab bag of missed opportunities.

The book opens on a promising note. Tammet explains his unusual relationship to the numerical world: "Scientists call my visual, emotional experience of numbers synesthesia, a rare neurological mixing of the senses. . . . Mine is an unusual and complex type, through which I see numbers as shapes, colors, textures and motions. The number 1, for example, is a brilliant and bright white, like someone shining a flashlight into my eyes. Five is a clap of thunder or the sound of waves crashing against rocks. Thirty-seven is lumpy like porridge, while 89 reminds me of falling snow."

This is all fascinating stuff, but that's about as close as Tammet gets to defining himself. There are few other places in the book where the reader gets a full sense of who he is and how he evolved from a toddler prone to banging his head against the wall to an adult with a thriving career and committed romantic relationship.

Tammet wasn't diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome -- a high-functioning form of autism -- until he was 25, but from the beginning it was clear that something was amiss. As a baby he wailed around the clock; as a toddler he favored solitude. Sensitive to noise, touch, and deviations in his routine, he had trouble with any kind of social interaction.

When he was 4 Tammet suffered a massive temporal-lobe seizure. Some doctors believe that his brilliance is a direct result of that seizure, which may have "unlocked" his savant potential. Whatever the case, Tammet's savant abilities at once stimulated his imagination and set him further apart from others.

A primary theme of the book is Tammet's social isolation, yet the author never fully draws the reader into his experience. There are no real scenes depicting Tammet's social disconnection; instead, there's a heap of summary as the narrative jumps from point A to point B. As a result, a lot of crucial information gets lost in the shuffle.

An example: Early on, Tammet alludes to how separate he felt from his siblings. Then we learn that he benefited from having siblings: "Their presence did ultimately have a very positive influence on me, however; it forced me to gradually develop my social skills." But we don't get to see how this process unfolded; we simply have to take Tammet's word for it. More than that, we don't learn until late in the game that one of Tammet's brothers also has Asperger's. The absence of information about Tammet's relationship with Steven raises so many questions: Was Steven similarly isolated as a child? Did the two boys recognize how different they were from their siblings? A more attentive editor would have encouraged Tammet to explore this particular connection in depth.

The highlight of the book is Tammet's meeting with Peek. It's one of the few places where we get to see Tammet in dialogue with another person, and he evokes the kinship he felt with Peek. It's a poignant and profound moment.

Unfortunately that moment is undermined by what follows: a rag tag final chapter that hops from subject to subject and includes detailed updates on siblings who barely merited a mention earlier in the text. What's clear is that Tammet's story is remarkable; what's just as clear is that it should have been rendered in the form of a biography, by a writer who could fully capture what it means to have one of the globe's most extraordinary minds.

Amy Kroin's reviews have appeared in The Washington Post and The New York Times, among other publications.