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Child's Autism Helps Author Write Mnemonic Book

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Child's Autism Helps Author Write Mnemonic Book

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Child's Autism Helps Author Write Mnemonic Book

Child's Autism Helps Author Write Mnemonic Book

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British journalist Christopher Stevens talks about his new book, Thirty Days Has September: Cool Way to Remember Stuff. Stevens says the book is aimed primarily at children and was based on his experience teaching his autistic son.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. I confess, I don't remember much about trying to learn to play the piano. But I do remember, some 40 years later, that the lines on the treble clef staff correspond to the first letters of every good boy does fine. For the bass clef: great big dreams for America. These are mnemonic devices, memory jogs. And Christopher Stevens has compiled a bunch of them in his small book, "Thirty Days Has September." For example, if you're ever called on to name the main royal families who have ruled England over the last millennium, keep this mnemonic in mind.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER STEVENS (Author, "Thirty Days Has September: Cool Ways to Remember Stuff"): No point letting your trousers slip halfway. It's slightly rude, and it's very silly, and it's very simple.

BLOCK: You'd probably remember it.

Mr. STEVENS: (Laughing) It sticks in the mind, doesn't it?

BLOCK: Well, then, though, you have to remember, well, OK, so P...

Mr. STEVENS: And now you have to translate it.

BLOCK: P is Plantagenet. And L is Lancaster.

Mr. STEVENS: Exactly. The key is that it's the first letter of each word. So, no point is N-P. And that reminds you that the first two royal families were Norman and Plantagenet, which is a great English name.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEVENS: It's with a P. The next one, letting, for Lancaster, your for York, trousers, T, for Tudor - Henry VIII and his lot - slip, Stuart, and then the Hanovers for halfway. The Hanovers are still here but with a German name. They decided that it was a little bit politically incorrect to have a German name. They changed it to the much more English Windsor.

BLOCK: And that's where you are with the last word, way.

Mr. STEVENS: Yeah. They are Windsors now. So, that's where no point letting your trousers slip halfway - that's where that gets you.

BLOCK: And did you make up that mnemonic, or is this something that school kids around Britain would be taught from the...

Mr. STEVENS: Most of these mnemonics are things that have been handed down for a long time. Some of them are centuries old. I'll tell you the quick one. If you need to know the four heads on Mount Rushmore, think, we just like Rushmore. That's W - Washington, J - Jefferson, L - Lincoln, and a R - Roosevelt.

BLOCK: Where did the idea for this book come from? And what demographic are you aiming this toward?

Mr. STEVENS: It's aimed primarily at children because it's come out of quite an intense educational experience which my family has gone through over the last 10 or 15 years. My older son, James, is sitting with me at the moment, very quietly in the studio.

We haven't brought his younger brother, who is 12 years old, who wouldn't be sitting quietly. He's a very profoundly autistic boy named David. He's a lovely lad, but he can't communicate. He can't understand spoken language or sign language. And learning to educate him has been a very steep curve for us indeed.

What we discovered was that different parts of his brain do work very well. And one of the parts that works well is his musical intelligence. He can recognize thousands of tunes. Despite the fact that he can't understand what the words of the songs might be, he can imitate the sounds of the songs, including the words, by reproducing them with that musical part of his mind.

And the psychologist suggested that we should start applying music to everything in his life. And that began with very, very simple things like when he was to take a bath, he always enjoyed his bath, but it always started with a terrible panic because he didn't know what was coming next.

And the same happens with going out of the house and getting into the car. Stepping outside of the house was like stepping out of the air lock in a rocket ship for him and going into outer space. He had no idea what was coming next. For all he knew, it was the most desperate peril that he was being taken into. What we did was we sang a song which applied only to that situation.

Mr. STEVENS: (Singing) David's riding in the blue car. David's riding in the blue car.

Mr. STEVENS: It was a Woody Guthrie song originally. And for having a bath, it was just as simple as...

Mr. STEVENS: (Singing) Splish, splash, splish splash, splosh, take a bath.

Mr. STEVENS: And we'd sing that as we were going up the stairs. After he'd done that once or twice, he tweaked, he got it completely. And he started doing the same, applying songs to virtually every situation you can imagine. Even though he wasn't communicating with us, we could tell what he was thinking because of what he was singing.

So, there was a song from a favorite puppet show that went...

Mr. STEVENS: (Singing) Windy Miller, Windy Miller.

Mr. STEVENS: And that meant it is 3 o'clock in the morning, and I'm sneaking downstairs to find something to break.

BLOCK: (Laughing) I see.

Mr. STEVENS: So, when you heard Windy Miller, you knew you had to move fast.

BLOCK: That was your mnemonic device.

Mr. STEVENS: That was - exactly. That's a mnemonic device. And through learning to apply these to David, we realized that all children can use the whole of their brains. David, unfortunately, can't use the spoken word, but that doesn't mean that a child who can use spoken word should only use spoken word.

Why not switch on all those other parts of the brain, the bits that are working so well with David, and let an ordinary child access that kind of intelligence. And it's amazing how much easier it is to learn and to remember if you use a wide spectrum of your mind.

BLOCK: You know, one of my favorite - it's not really a mnemonic, but it's a sort of a trick in your book, is for kids who are learning their nine times tables.

Mr. STEVENS: Oh, that's brilliant.

BLOCK: And if I was taught this when I was little, I don't remember it. But it's great.

Mr. STEVENS: Yeah. James taught me this one. My oldest son taught me this one. This is astonishing. Hold out your hands, palms down. Stretch your fingers and thumbs out. Now, if you want to know the answer to any of the nine times table, count your fingers off from left to right.

Curl down your little finger, your pinky finger on your left hand so that you're left with nine fingers up, yeah. So you've got one down and nine up. So one times nine is nine. That's simple. But then, fingers out, stretched out again, and now curl down your ring finger, the second finger. You've got two down and that leaves, to the right of that, that leaves eight up.

BLOCK: Right, so this is nine times two.

Mr. STEVENS: Yeah.

BLOCK: Which will - of course, 18.

Mr. STEVENS: And then the third one down gives you two, seven. Fourth one down gives you three and six, which is 36. Four nines are 36, and so on.

BLOCK: Right, so it's the fingers to the left of the one that's down that make the tens column, the fingers to the right that make the ones column. And you sort of - your fingers get kind of crampy trying to do this, but it works.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: It's a fun way to learn your nine times tables.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Well, Christopher Stevens, thanks very much for sharing your mnemonics.

Mr. STEVENS: Lovely to talk to you, Melissa.

BLOCK: Christopher Stevens, his book is "Thirty Days Has September: Cool Ways to Remember Stuff."

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