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From the April, 2008 issue of Touchstone


Colored by Numbers by Franklin Freeman

Colored by Numbers

Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant
by Daniel Tammet
Free Press, 2007
(256 pages, $14.00, paperback)

reviewed by Franklin Freeman

"I was never purposefully impolite,” writes Daniel Tammet in his memoir of life with Asperger’s Syndrome. A high-functioning form of autism, Asperger’s is characterized by a lack of the “social sense” most of us take for granted.

“I did not understand that the purpose of conversation was anything other than to talk about the things that most interested you. I would talk, in very great detail, until I had emptied myself of everything that I wanted to say and felt that I might burst if I was interrupted in midflow.”

Tammet also has synesthesia, “a rare mixing of the senses” (hence the title), and is also a savant—think of Kim Peek, the basis of the character Dustin Hoffman played in the movie Rainman. In fact, Tammet met Peek himself, and they hit it off by telling each other their birth dates and then telling the other what day they were born on, without referring to a calendar.

Tammet grew up in England, in a large family which taught him by necessity some of the social skills he needed to get on in the world. Eventually he learned about his synesthesia and his Asperger’s and decided to use them for good. To raise money for a charity, for example, he attempted and set a British and European record for the longest recitation of the number pi: “22,514 digits of pi without error in a time of five hours and nine minutes.”

A Religious Man

He is also a religious man: “Many people are surprised when they learn that I am a Christian,” he notes, because they assume “that being autistic makes it difficult or impossible to believe in God or explore spiritual issues.”

It doesn’t: “It is certainly true that my Asperger’s makes it harder for me to have empathy or think abstractly, but it hasn’t prevented me from thinking about deeper questions concerning such things as life and death, love and relationships.”

Tammet was not interested in religion or God when he was younger, because “God was not something that I could see or hear or feel, and because the religious arguments that I read and heard did not make any sense to me.”

Discovering G. K. Chesterton’s works as a teenager was the “turning point.” Tammet speculates that Chesterton himself was possibly “on the higher-functioning end of the autistic spectrum,” not only because of his brilliance—“His secretaries reported that he would dictate one essay while simultaneously writing another by hand on a different subject”—but also because he “was always getting lost, so absorbed in his thoughts that he would sometimes have to phone his wife to help him get back home.”

But Chesterton helped Tammet find a spiritual home by helping him “arrive at an intellectual understanding of God and Christianity. The concept of the Trinity, of God as composed of living and loving relationship, was something that I could picture in my head and that made sense to me. I was also fascinated by the idea of the Incarnation, of God revealing Himself to the world in tangible, human form as Jesus Christ.”

After taking a course at a local church (not specified), he became a Christian during Christmas of 2002. Because his Asperger’s makes him uncomfortable with crowds, he rarely attends church, but when he does, he enjoys the “complex and beautiful” architecture and the music, especially “Ave Maria.” He also reads and enjoys the Bible, his favorite passage being First Corinthians 13.

A Disconnection

Yet Tammet also describes his own open homosexuality—he lives with his partner, Neil, in England—and does not seem to be aware of any disconnection. This puzzled me, to say the least, and there was no explanation or comment in the text.

Despite this, Born on a Blue Day is a good book for those who know a person with Asperger’s or wish to understand more about it from the inside, including how it may interact with grace.

Franklin Freeman is a freelance writer living in Saco, Maine, with his wife and four children.

“Colored by Numbers” first appeared in the April 2008 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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