Friday, March 23, 2007

Building bridges between "countries of the mind"

It was just last Thursday that I first learned about Daniel Tammet, a young man with Asperger's Syndrome who was featured on 60 Minutes due to his amazing math and memory abilities. The next day, I wrote Living together in different worlds, in which I shared some of the similarities I noticed between Tammet and my son, who also has a diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome.

Later, in Daniel Tammet on Asperger's and "fitting in", I shared some of what he said in an interview on NPR's Talk of the Nation. I've been meaning to post one more segment of that interview. But as someone once said, "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." And there's been just a whole bunch of life happening to me lately. Some of it has involved my son, and a situation with his school.

And no, I don't mean a *good* situation, although I suppose you might have guessed that. There have been school "situations" to one degree or another since Son in Ohio first set foot inside a school--minus those three and a half years we homeschooled him. I wish I could say it's getting easier, or that we're building on past successes. But I can't.

I mention this because, as I was listening to the interview segments you see below, I was, of course impressed with Tammet's ability to convey something of his inner world to the rest of us. Because he is able to express, intelligently, his feelings of bombardment and isolation, and his experience of "being a foreigner in his own country", it is easy to feel empathy for him. Not so easy to feel that way toward a kid who has very similar feelings, but, since he has not yet reached that level of insight, they come out as behavioral issues. And that young person is going to have a much easier time learning appropriate coping and communication skills, and developing that sort of insight, if there are people *helping* him learn those things.

Some kids have disabilities when it comes to reading or writing or math, and they need special help in those areas. Other kids, like mine, seem to learn those subjects almost effortlessly. The skills my son, and others like him, need help learning are those social skills that many people seem to think are just supposed to come naturally.

Anyway, here's more of that interview. This caller can be heard just after the 20 minute mark...

Caller (Jeff): I work in the Portland area. I'm called in to evaluate people in emergency rooms who are there being held involuntarily for psychiatric reasons. And I've been absolutely appalled at how many misdiagnoses I've seen--people who've been diagnosed as schizophrenic, biploar, borderline personality disorder, who truly have Asperger's or some other pervasive developmental disorder, who have been struggling their whole lives. And once they're properly diagnosed, and their treatment is shifted from antipsychotic medications and things like that to a more supportive and involved treatment, they thrive! So, they've spent their entire lives in this limbo of being diagnosed as mentally ill and ostracized, and I was just wondering if that has ever happened to Daniel, or if he knows other people who face that kind of problem.
The host noted that Daniel, in his book, described taking "inappropriate medications" that made him drowsy. Daniel responded those were for his epilepsy. Daniel also said that he's read and heard of stories like that, but more so in the past, before the Asperger's Syndrome diagnosis was on the books. In the 1920s and 30s, before autism was well understood, many such children were diagnosed as having "infantile schizophrenia".

Daniel: So, I'm so grateful to be alive today, in the world in which we are now, where science is able to diagnose much more accurately, conditions such as this. And give people with autism a real shot at a good quality of life.
The host asked psychologist Ami Klin about the the nature/nurture issue--to what extent is autism hereditary, or caused by various environmental agents we've been hearing about in recent years. Dr. Klin responded: Strongly genetic. When we talk about environmental factors, typically we are talking about environmental factors in utero, and not things that happen later on.

Finally, at around the 33 minute mark, a mother of a child with high functioning autism called in talked about her son's facility with foreign languages, and the fact that he has taught himself Swedish and Russian fluently. He has explained to her that he feels like a foreigner in his own country, and, by immersing himself in foreign languages, he doesn't feel so ostracized.

The host then asked Daniel if that sounded familiar to him, since he also has a facility for languages.

Daniel Tammet: It sounds incredibly familiar. And in fact that description just there of being a foreigner in your own country, and learning foreign languages in order to feel less a foreigner, is absolutely right. I speak ten languages--I can learn a new language in a few days. For the documentary film Brain Man, I was flown to Iceland and had 7 days to learn Icelandic, and was put on a television interview program where all of the questions for me at the end of the week were given to me in Icelandic, and all of my answers were in Icelandic.

I definitely think that one of the real challenges for people with autism is that we really do feel uncomfortable in this world. There is so much bombardment of our senses: too much noise, too much texture, too much information, and it can feel overwhelming. And then we retreat into our own private world to feel calm and cope with that experience. And language, like numbers, is another way of doing that, of creating anther world in which you can belong. And for me, I'm very lucky--in a sense, I have dual nationality. I belong in the world of people, *and* the world of numbers. I belong to two countries of the mind simultaneously.

And the challenge, I think, for any person with autism, is to find that bridge from one country of the mind to that of people. Because we need people, we need social interaction. We need people that we can love, people we can trust, people we can have emotions towards and to believe in and to hope for the better of. And language, actually, is a wonderful way of doing that, because, if your son is learning Swedish, hopefully he can interact with Swedish people. It can give him a way of forming that bridge. Maybe your son is taking the words of Swedish, and one word at a time, he's building a bridge as we speak.
Daniel Tammet's book: Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant.