NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Daniel Tammet is a whiz with numbers. He can multiply them, divide them, calculate sums to the umpteenth decimal point quick as a wink, all in his head. For Daniel numbers have color, shape and emotion. His number nine is blue. Five is a clap of thunder.
Daniel Tammet has a rare type of autism called savant syndrome. He is a high-functioning autistic with a form of the condition called Asperger Syndrome. That facility with numbers is part of the package. He can also learn languages easily. But he is shy and quiet with a compulsive need for routine and order. He drinks a cup of tea every three hours at exactly the same time everyday. Daniel Tammet writes about his life in a new book, "Born on a Blue Day."
A little bit later in the program we'll be joined by an autism expert. And further on in the hour, much of Washington's A-list will testify in the trial of vice president's former chief of staff which starts tomorrow.
But first, if you have questions about savant syndrome or autism, or if you or a family has Asperger Syndrome, give us a call. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Daniel Tammet joins us from our bureau in New York City. And it's great to have you today on TALK OF THE NATION. Welcome.
Mr. DANIEL TAMMET (Author, "Born on a Blue Day"): Thank you.
CONAN: And let me ask first about the title of your book. To most people listening, to say "Born on a Blue Day" would mean it was a sad day when they were born. Is that what you meant?
Mr. TAMMET: No, I meant that I was born on a Wednesday. Every day of the week has its own color and texture, and Wednesdays are always blue to me.
CONAN: Wednesdays are always blue, and the other days of the week have letters, too?
Mr. TAMMET: Have colors.
CONAN: Colors, too. Excuse me. And I wonder, you write in the book that that's one of the things - there's similarity to numbers, which makes its easy for you and others with your skills to calculate calendars.
Mr. TAMMET: Yes, that's correct because calendars have patterns, and the numbers form patterns and the colors help me to make those sorts of calculations.
CONAN: And you describe numbers as your friends. That's something that a lot of us find difficult to understand.
Mr. TAMMET: It's - people with autism, high-functioning or not, have a real problem with social interaction, things like body language, eye contact, understanding really basic stuff like when to laugh at a joke. It doesn't come easily to us at all, isn't intuitive. And I found as a young child that I had no feeling for people whatsoever until about maybe the age of eight or nine. Before then, numbers were what filled my mind, what I played with, and they surrounded me. My mind was always filled with their colors and shapes and textures because numbers mean something to me. I have a personal bond, a relationship with numbers, which I didn't realize until, I think - until I was a teenager that was something that was unique to me. Other people don't relate to numbers at all like that.
CONAN: And I wonder, as hard as it is for most of us to imagine life without those signals that you talked about - without analyzing body language, without analyzing the slight turns of voice that make us understand the difference between somebody when they're being serious and somebody when they're telling a joke - the idea that the numbers that we see as cold facts would have personalities, that's very unusual.
Mr. TAMMET: Yes, and I had no idea growing up that this was anything unusual. I assumed that the things that I could do, the things that I felt and saw, were how everyone saw numbers and understood numbers and understood math. And it took me a long time to realize that the way that I saw numbers and the way that I understood them was very different from most other people's.
CONAN: The comparison you draw in the book - and I guess the comparison everybody will leap to - is that of the Dustin Hoffman character in "Rain Man." I'm sure you've seen that picture.
Mr. TAMMET: Yes, and it was I think the first film, suddenly the first of that scale, to really open up the whole issue of autism and bring a lot of awareness for the condition. In more recent times there's been the novel "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time" by Mark Haddon. And that is I think a more subtle representation of what it's like to have savant syndrome and to be high-functioning autistic, because in that novel the character is more able to lead a relatively normal life.
CONAN: There are not many people who have savant syndrome and are high-functioning autistics.
Mr. TAMMET: savant syndrome is very rare. I think the estimates are about 50 people worldwide. Autism itself, I think because science is always improving - brain scan technology and genetic understanding is growing all the time - so now public and scientific understanding of the condition is much better. And I think something like one million people in America, for example, have some sort of autistic spectrum disorder, whether it's very low-functioning, very severe form, or whether it's a much milder form.
CONAN: But that means that you're in a very rare category of a very rare category. Have you met other autistic savants? Do you talk with them?
Mr. TAMMET: It's very hard to meet other savants because there are so few of us in the world. The one that I have met is Kim Peek, and I describe meeting him in "Born on a Blue Day" because that experience was so special for me. It happened in 2004 when I was brought to America to appear on a film, a documentary film called "Brainman." And Kim Peek lives in Salt Lake City with his father, Fran, and he was and is the inspiration for the Dustin Hoffman character in the movie "Rain Man." And though he is not as high-functioning as I am, we found that there was a real bond between us because of the condition that we share. And it was an extremely moving experience in actual fact, and I came away from meeting him feeling just elated that I had met someone who finally I had this bond with.
CONAN: Could you two communicate with those numbers with which you are so familiar?
Mr. TAMMET: In a way, yes, because Kim loves books. He loves reading. We met in a library, which was full of books, and I was able to, you know, calculate the day of the week he was born on. He was born on a Sunday.
Mr. TAMMET: I was - he calculated my date of birth for Wednesday. And there was that rapport, that connection straight away, which I can imagine doesn't - I wouldn't have that same bond with other people. I find it much harder to sometimes relate to people, to know what to say in a social situation, how to interact with people that I haven't met before. But with Kim there it was, our only meeting, our first and only meeting, it was - we spent hours together. And we just, both of us, came away from that meeting feeling so happy and excited.
CONAN: Our guest is Daniel Tammet. His book is "Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant." If you'd like to join the conversation, our number is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. E-mail is email@example.com. Let's begin with Mary Jane. Mary Jane's calling us from San Jose in California.
MARY JANE (Caller): Hi.
MARY JANE: Thanks for taking my call.
MARY JANE: I have a 12-year-old son diagnosed with Asperger's, and he's not a savant but he has extremely high IQ testing. We struggle all the time with the school system, with getting him educated in a way that's going to help him function when he's older.
You know, I listened to Daniel, and he sounds like he's doing OK.
MARY JANE: So I'm wondering, you know, as he was growing up, what his education was, what has the foundation needed to be made, you know. What worked; what didn't work.
Mr. TAMMET: That's a very good question. When I was a child - I'm 27 now - Asperger's wasn't actually a diagnosable condition. So I had very severe seizures as a small child, epileptic seizures. And unfortunately, epilepsy is a condition that runs concurrent with concurrent with autism in many cases.
So I had to take medication for my epilepsy, and it made me very drowsy. So ironically, I was quite a slow learner in my first years of school because I was asleep all the time; I couldn't learn in the classroom. But the teachers were very sympathetic. They understood that I was different. They protected me from the other children; sometimes children can be very cruel and they have an instinct for knowing when you're different from them.
And I had to be protected sometimes because I was not aware of what to do. I didn't even know what the protocol was for being bullied. Was there something that I should do when I was being bullied, when I was being teased? Was there something that I should say or do?
And all I could do was to put my fingers in my ears, and sit on the floor, and count in powers of two because that soothed me. So I would go two, four, eight, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1,024, 2048, 4,096, 8,192, 16,384, 32,768, 65,536 - and I would go on and on and on. And the longer I went on, the further and further into my mind I went into this other world, this country of the mind, filled with these numbers and the shapes and the colors and the textures.
And it would just make me feel really calm and soothe me. And away from the children, in this place in my mind, on the far shores, the far corners of my mind, I would feel safe. I would feel totally apart from the other children, and totally apart from all the teasing and the bullying that they tried to put on me.
MARY JANE: So you withdrew yourself?
Mr. TAMMET: I withdrew myself, and I think that's quite a common part of being autistic. And it - then, there is a double edge to that, of course. Because once you withdraw, it can be very difficult to come back out of that. You feel safe where you are; you don't feel safe coming out of that. You can feel like an alien, like you don't belong in a world of people, like you belong in a world of, in my case, in a world of numbers. For others, it will be other things that they find regularity in and comfort in.
MARY JANE: Reading.
MARY JANE: Thank you so much.
Mr. TAMMET: Thank you.
CONAN: And Mary Jane, we wish you and your son the best of luck.
MARY JANE: Thank you. Goodbye.
CONAN: We're talking today with Daniel Tammet about his life with savant syndrome and his new book, "Born on a Blue Day." After the break, an expert on autism will join us. If you have questions about savant syndrome or autism in general, give us a call - 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
I'm Neal Conan. We'll be back after the break. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
We're talking with Daniel Tammet about his book, "Born on a Blue Day." It describes his life growing up in England with a form of autism called savant syndrome. You can read a chapter from the book and see several drawings, including what the numbers 89 and 37 look like to Daniel at npr/talk. If you have questions about savant syndrome or autism, if you or a family member has Asperger's, give us a call - 800-989-8255. 800-989-TALK. E-mail is email@example.com.
And Ethan is on the line. Ethan calling us from Boston.
ETHAN (Caller): (Unintelligible) Asperger's unless I'm a terrible (unintelligible) and I don't it by chance, which seems like a possibility. I'm just wondering if to what extent damage done may be to people by trying to make them be normal?
CONAN: I'm not sure you got all that, Daniel. Daniel, did you hear that?
Mr. TAMMET: I did.
Mr. TAMMET: I think that's actually a very good point to make, that for many people with autism there is a real challenge to feel that you can fit in with society, and also a question in your own mind as to whether you should fit it and to what extent you should sacrifice the things that make you different in order to fit in.
As a child, I would have given everything to be normal. I would have given up all of my abilities in numbers and language just to be like the other children, just to feel like I could belong. You know, I would actually - sometimes I would stay awake at night in my bedroom. I would look up at the ceiling, I would close my eyes, I would imagine what it might be like to have a friend, because I had no friends at all.
And I had no idea what it would be like to belong, to feel that I could connect to other people. And that was profoundly isolating and profoundly frightening, actually, although I didn't necessarily know at the time the words for those feelings that I was experiencing.
And now, it's a little bit different. I feel that I have reached a point in my life where I have a partner who loves me. I have friends; I have a career. And I've overcome so much to reach the point that I have now, and a part of what I wanted to write about in the book was to show that such a journey is possible from profound isolation and sadness to achievement and happiness, to real happiness. Not just the happiness that comes from giving yourself up to the trends and expectations of others, but the real happiness that can only come from finding what it is that is unique about you and having the courage to live that out.
CONAN: Ethan, does that sound something that you could pursue in your life?
ETHAN: No, not really. I don't feel like the game is worth the candle. And I feel like society has an immune system and I'm on the other end of it.
CONAN: Well, I hope it works out for you, Ethan. Thanks for the call.
Joining us now is Ami Klin. He directs the autism program at the Yale Child Studies Center. He's an associate professor of child psychology and psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine. He's with us with today from the studio on the school's campus in New Haven, Connecticut. Nice of you to be with us today,
Dr. AMI KLIN (Yale University): Glad to be here.
CONAN: And I know you've been listening to our conversation. And this form of rare autism - this form of autism, rather, is extremely rare, as he's mentioned.
Dr. KLIN: Well, it is true that individuals with prodigious skills like Daniel are rare. And having said that, I think it is the norm that individuals with autism have a great variability in their skills; there are some things that they can do better than others, and in the extreme manifestation of that, you have individuals who have autistic savant skills.
CONAN: Is this, as far as we know, a condition, something with a genetic or biological basis, or is it a disease?
Dr. KLIN: Well, autism...
Dr. KLIN: ...or the savant syndrome?
CONAN: Well, autism in general.
Dr. KLIN: Autism, indeed, autism is probably the most strongly genetic condition of all of the developmental and psychiatric disorders. So it is a condition that impacts on socialization. It's something that begins very, very early in life, so it's a developmental disorder and it has impact on the way that the mind is formed, and in the way that the brain becomes specialized in some things and not in others.
CONAN: And as Daniel has mentioned, there's certainly a spectrum of people who are afflicted by it in various degrees.
Dr. KLIN: Absolutely. The manifestations of autism are extraordinarily heterogeneous, from people who have profound mental retardation to individuals who are very gifted, individuals who don't talk at all and individuals who talk too much. Individuals who are so socially isolated that if you observe them in a school, you see them running the periphery fence of the school all day, if you let them. And then there are individuals who are very much trying to make connection with the world, but they are unable to do so.
CONAN: Here's an e-mail we got. Daniel, I think this is for you. This is from Bryan(ph) in Louisville, Kentucky. As a young child, until 8 or 9, I was consumed with even whole numbers; things had to fulfill this order. Aside from the high-functioning level of Daniel, I see the scope of autism. My question relates to my experience now as an artist - is Daniel involved in the production of art, painting, sculpting, drawing, et cetera? Can art soothe the mind with autism?
Mr. TAMMET: I certainly think it can. There are savants who have not numerical ability, but artistic ability, who can do amazing paintings and sculpture, for example. So one of the goals that I have for the future is to work with an artist and to try to perhaps put into painting and sculpture my shapes, the way that I see numbers. How different numbers have different shapes.
The number 37 is lumpy - a lumpy number, like oatmeal. And other numbers, like the number one or the number 11, are very bright and shining like someone pouring light into your eyes and you have to blink very hard. I would love to be able to, you know - in the book, I draw some of my shapes. Each of the chapters, the numbers I draw, how I see them in my head. I think definitely art can go some way in helping autistic people to express themselves.
CONAN: Ami Klin, is that right?
Dr. KLIN: Well, absolutely. And I think that it's important to understand that individuals with autism, very much like any one of us, we try to connect with the world through the things that come more easily or come more intuitively. In the same way that when you meet someone you may have an intuitive sense of the other, and maybe some weeks later you may have an amorphous, less articulated sense of that particular experience, individuals with autism will try to make the same connection through the skills that present themselves to them.
And I do recall one individual, a local individual in Connecticut, who very much like Daniel saw the world through dates. And unfortunately for him, his family caregiver was once assaulted in the street and later died of those injuries. And that young man, for him, that particular date and many, many dates that were associated with it, became very negative indeed.
And as someone who was working with him subsequently had to in a way decode that language of emotions that was all written in calendar in order to better help him and predict the kind of difficulties that would have on a daily basis.
CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Jeff, Jeff with us from Portland, Oregon.
JEFF (Caller): Yes, hi. Thanks so much for taking my call.
JEFF: I work in Portland, in the Portland area, and 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 have been diagnosed as schizophrenic, bipolar, 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 anti-psychotic medications and things like that to a more supportive and involved and 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 even happened to Daniel, or if he knows other people who have faced that kind of problem.
CONAN: Well, Daniel, you were describing, when you were in school, taking inappropriate medication that left you feeling drowsy.
Mr. TAMMET: Absolutely. That was for the seizures that I had, for my epilepsy. I do totally agree with that caller. I have read and heard the same things, that autism, particularly in the past, perhaps not so much nowadays because awareness is so much better, though I'm sure it does still occur, but in the past certainly individuals who would today be diagnosed as having Asperger's syndrome, when that diagnosis wasn't available, had to be given some sort of diagnosis.
They would have been diagnosed, for example, as schizophrenic. And many children in the 1920s and the 1930s, for example, when autism wasn't understood, wasn't diagnosed, were described as schizophrenic. Infantile, I think was the term, infantile schizophrenia.
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.
CONAN: Jeff, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
JEFF: Thank you very much.
CONAN: So long. Let's turn now to George. George is with us from Ann Arbor in Michigan. George, are you there? I guess George has left us. Let's go instead to - this is Marty. Marty on the road to California.
MARTY (Caller): Actually, on the way to Whistler - Whistler, British Columbia.
CONAN: Whistler. And you're on the road in California on you way to - I get it. Go ahead, Marty.
MARTY: No, well actually from Chicago. But it's not important. Thank you for taking (unintelligible) call. I'd like to say that first of all I look forward to buying and reading this book. And second of all, I'm fascinated by the link that Daniel has between colors and textures and numbers.
And immediately what popped into my mind is if there's a color and texture related to the number nine, for example - Daniel, when you multiple by itself or add it together or you look at the number 99 is there a (unintelligible) relation? Does it become more of that color, like a deeper blue, I believe you mentioned the number nine was?
Mr. TAMMET: Yes. Absolutely. The more nines the deeper, the darker the blue becomes.
CONAN: And that could be nines even as in terms of 81, the square of nine?
Mr. TAMMET: Absolutely. But also the shape as well, because nine isn't only a color, it's a shape. It's kind of like a - like when you take an elastic band and when you pull it out as far as you can go. It forms a very particular shape.
And so when I picture two different numbers, for example, or the same number side-by-side in a multiplication, what I'm doing is I'm taking the two shapes, the different shapes, I'm putting them side-by-side in my mind. There's a space that is then created in the outline of those two shapes and it creates a third shape in my mind.
And I can just pull that out. I can visualize it and straightaway I recognize what that shape is, what the number is off that shape. And that's the answer to the sum.
MARTY: That's fascinating. I really look forward to reading your book.
CONAN: Marty, thank - drive safely, Marty.
MARTY: Thank you.
CONAN: So long. Here's an e-mail we got from Fran in Missouri.
When Daniel gave a brief demonstration of counting by the powers of two just a few minutes ago, he said one, six, four, eight, three when it should have been one, six, three, eight, four. And I'm wondering if he just simply misspoke or is it common to have dyslexia in conjunction with autism?
Mr. TAMMET: I'm unaware that I misspoke. It definitely is one, six, three, eight, four. He's correct. I don't know if I misspoke. If I did, I apologize.
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CONAN: OK. Your guest today seems to - this is another e-mail, this from Kevin in Ann Arbor - both an expert on and a personal friend of numbers. I was curious about his relationship with a few specific numbers that have fascinated artists and mathematicians for a long time. What does he think, for example, about pi, the Fibonacci sequence - which I can't give for you if you don't know it - or the golden ratio, for example?
Mr. TAMMET: Pi is one of my favorite numbers. I devote a chapter in the book to it. I have a peculiar claim to fame with the number pi. I hold the European record for reciting the number pi to 22,514 decimal places at the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford in 2004 on pi day - 3/14 - March 14th. And it took five hours to recite from start to finish. There were mathematicians to check the digits to make sure that I was accurate.
And when I am thinking of a huge number like pi - I mean pi is an infinite number, it goes on forever - what I'm doing is I'm pulling all the different colors and shapes and textures into a kind of landscape and then I can just watch and become totally absorbed in how those numbers flow. The visualization of all of that flowing into this beautiful landscape that goes on and on and on, and I can get totally wrapped up in those numbers.
People who came in, members of the public, to watch me reciting the number, some of them actually broke into tears as they listened to me reciting it because for them it was a spiritual experience. Some people were interviewed by the media afterwards and they said that it was like someone reciting the Bible or the Koran. It was a very spiritual experience to listen to these numbers being unearthed from a number that nobody normally gets to listen to perhaps beyond the fifth or sixth or seventh decimal point.
CONAN: Daniel Tammet's book is "Born on a Blue Day." Also with us is Ami Klin, a director of the Autism program at the Yale Child Study Center in New Haven, Connecticut.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And here's another e-mail question. This from Chris.
I'm a neuroscience graduate student at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor. I was wondering if he - presumably meaning Daniel - could describe the difference - oh presumably this is for Ami Klin - describe the difference between Daniel's form of autism and synesthesia, a mixing of the senses.
And I'm not sure there is a difference. Is there?
Dr. KLIN: Oh, yes, there is. In a way, Daniel is the intersection of two very, very rare skills. In a way, synesthesia is our ability to see something that usually comes from one modality into another. And the savant skills have to do is perform those of prodigious skills that we've been hearing about. And Daniel in a way has both. And to my knowledge he's the only person who has those two skills.
CONAN: OK. Here's another e-mail question from Tim in Portland, Oregon.
When you do what would be a very difficult and involved computation for someone else, do you just know the answer or do you compute it? Is there a process you go through that you would describe or that could even be learned? Daniel?
Mr. TAMMET: It depends on the nature of the computation. Some numbers I have a particular affinity for. If they are involved in a calculation, it makes the calculation very easy for me. I can see the picture in my head straight away. Other numbers I don't like necessarily, I don't have a relationship to.
And so I - it's very idiosyncratic, my approach to numbers and how I relate to different numbers in terms of calculations. But I've been tested by scientists, for example, in California, in Cambridge as well in the U.K. They're fascinated to know how it is I do calculations by visualizing the numbers, because it might open up new understanding of the brain which would be applicable for everyone.
Because it - numbers, calculations, these are skills that everyone can learn to some extent. Not necessarily in the way that I see numbers, in a very personal way, but certainly they could learn more about the relationship between numbers, the pattern driven numbers. Things that I can do intuitively I think to an extent at least can be learned by other people. Absolutely.
CONAN: Ami Klin, we just have a few seconds before we have to go to the break, but is Daniel right? Is this something that we can learn from?
Dr. KLIN: Well, we certainly try. The scientists - we wouldn't be able to ask someone how do you do it, because most people don't have conscious awareness of it. And as for experimental psychology - absolutely. We've learned that there's many, many, many, many irregularities in calendars and so there is a much better sense now than even five years ago.
CONAN: Well, stay with us. We'll have a couple more questions for Daniel Tammet and Ami Klin after we come back from a short break. This is the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
We are talking with Daniel Tammet, author of "Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant." Also with us is Ami Klin, director of the Autism program at the Yale Child Study Center in New Haven and associate professor of child psychology and psychiatry at Yale University's School of Medicine, with us today from the studio at Yale University.
And Daniel, I have to ask you - you were talking before the break about how you were challenged in various, you know, testing programs in this country and in Britain, of course, where you grew up. I wonder, when you're introduced to people in social settings and it's disclosed to them that you have this unusual facility with numbers, do they try to test you, too? Do they come up with some impossible calculation?
Mr. TAMMET: No, not really. I'm perhaps quite fortunate. People I think have really become much more sensitive to savants and (unintelligible) autism. They want to treat you like anyone else. They know that it can be very hard for people with autism to relate to other people. They don't want to make it any harder by treating you like a performing animal. So I really respect that.
CONAN: So it's not like you're being asked - it's not like a parlor trick that you wheel out at engagements.
Mr. TAMMET: No.
CONAN: No. OK. This is a question for Ami Klin. Can Dr. Klin speak to the issue of gene environment interactions in determining susceptibility to autism? People may have a genetic susceptibility but without specific environment exposures might they may never manifest with the condition, things like breastfeeding or not, specific fatty acids that are needed for appropriate neurodevelopment, exposure to pesticides et cetera? Also, do researchers know why males are more susceptible to autism spectrum disorders?
Dr. KLIN: Well, there's several questions then. First of all, we know that there is a very strong genetic contribution to autism from twin studies. We know that identical twins, if one identical twin - and by the way, they are DNA carbon copies of each other - if one twin has autism, the other one will have autism something between 60 and 90 percent of the time. Whereas the fraternal twins who share only 25 percent of their DNA, this is going to happen maybe two to 25 percent of the time.
So this difference means that autism is strongly genetic. But note that it's not 100 percent concurrence rate even for identical twins. So there is room there for environmental interaction. However, we know very little as yet as to the way that the genes - and we're talking about maybe five to maybe 100 genes that maybe associated with autism - how they interact with something environmental in order to give rise to this syndrome.
And it's also important to know that genes interact with each other. And when we talk about environmental factors, we typically talk about environmental factor in utero and not necessarily things that happen to the child after the child is born.
CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Katie. Katie with us from Anchorage in Alaska.
KATIE (Caller): Hi, Daniel. Thank you so much for having this show today. I really appreciate the opportunity for families to learn more about high-functioning autism. And I'm calling because I wanted to share a gift that my son has discovered for himself, and that is the gift of foreign languages.
And he's taught himself Swedish fluently and he's taught himself Russian fluently. He prefers Swedish. I'm not quite sure why, but he's more comfortable speaking in that language. And if he had his way, he would do all of his American homework in Swedish and then translate it into English. But, of course, teachers in our school district don't have time for that.
But what he's explained to me is that he feels like a foreigner in his own country, and by immersing himself in foreign languages he doesn't feel so ostracized
CONAN: I wonder, Daniel, you also have a facility for languages. Does that sound familiar?
Mr. TAMMET: It sounds incredibly familiar. And in fact that description just there with being a foreigner in your own country and learning foreign languages in order to feel less a foreigner is absolutely right. I speak 10 languages. I could learn a new language in a few days. For the documentary film, "Brainman," I was flown to Iceland and had seven days to learn Icelandic and was put on a television interview program where all of the questions 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 to cope with that experience.
And language, like numbers, is another way of doing that, of creating another 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 interaction, social interaction. We need people that we can love, people that we can trust, people to 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 that bridge as we speak.
KATIE: Well, it's really interesting that you say that because he's formed a relationship with a couple of people here in Anchorage that speak Swedish fluently and now wants to become a member of the Sons of Norway.
But he also wants to be a television broadcaster and work for TV-4 in Stockholm.
Mr. TAMMET: OK.
KATIE: So anyway, the language has been a really wonderful gift for him. And he is forming relationships with people who speak the languages he's interested in, so...
CONAN: And Katie, we welcome competition for Swedish broadcasters.
(Soundbite of laughter)
KATIE: So thank you so much for being on the show today and sharing your experiences. It's very helpful, and inspirational.
Mr. TAMMET: Thank you.
CONAN: Katie, thanks for the call. We wish your son the best of luck.
And we'd like to thank our guests for today for their time. There are more questions but we have to move on. Daniel Tammet, author of "Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant." He joined us from our bureau in New York.
Thank you so much for your time today, Daniel. Good luck with the book.
Mr. TAMMET: Thank you. Thank you very much.
CONAN: And also our thanks to Ami Klin, director of the autism program at the Yale Child Study Center in New Haven, with us from a studio on the campus there at Yale. Appreciate your time today.
Dr. KLIN: Thank you.
CONAN: And when we come back, we'll be talking about the Valerie Plame case.