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What Makes You Different, Makes You Unique

Book recommendation: “Born on a Blue Day” by Daniel Tammet

Daniel Tammet knows ten languages but has a difficult time understanding idiomatic expressions such as “I got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning.” He once publicly recited 22,514 digits of pi but he has to remind himself to make eye contact during conversations. At a young age he created an eighteen-move strategy for chess that was published in a magazine, yet for many years he found brushing his teeth challenging because the act created a sound disturbing to him. Daniel Tammet is a savant with Asperger’s syndrome whose autobiography “Born on a Blue Day” offers special insight into the mind of someone who experiences the world in a different way than most.

Understanding Autism

The book was recommended to me by Suzy, a friend I made at Triform (a community for people with mental handicaps). The people we engaged with at Triform have a difficult time communicating how they are feeling. It is only with time, and by paying special attention, that some of their unusual behavior (suddenly jumping up from the dinner table with no obvious trigger to cause such agitation) begins to make sense. The fact that Daniel Tammet is so clearly able to express his thoughts is a talent in and of itself but, even more importantly, allows for a platform of understanding.

His words also shed light on how it isn’t necessarily individuals who are disadvantaged, but the way the world is designed that puts those individuals at a disadvantage. The distinction is important. Consider the following quotations as an example:

“People on the autistic spectrum can bring much benefit to a job in a company or organization: reliability, honesty, a high level of accuracy, considerable attention to detail and a good knowledge of various facts and figures.”

Yet…

“Research in 2001 by the U.K.’s National Autistic Society indicated that only 12 percent of those with high-functioning autism or Asperger’s syndrome had full-time jobs.”

Why?

Because… “Interviews for selection require communication and social skills, which are particular areas of difficulty for someone with autism. The National Autistic Society’s Employment Information sheet suggests a work trial instead of a formal interview as a fairer alternative.”

Traveling, Growing and Persevering

In addition to being insightful, “Born on a Blue Day” is an inspiring story about persevering in the face of adversity. Daniel Tammet makes it clear that he takes life one day at a time, and sees each day as an opportunity to learn and grow. He writes, “Whenever I mastered a new skill, such as keeping eye contact, it felt so positive because it was something that I had had to work very hard on and the ensuing personal sense of achievement was always incredible.”

It was particularly interesting to read about how spending a year in Lithuania was a big turning point in his life. Traveling forces one’s independence, increases one’s confidence, and broadens one’s mind. Daniel reflects, “My experience abroad had undoubtedly changed me… [I now] had a database of widely varied experiences that I could reference in all manner of future situations. It gave me a greater confidence in my ability to cope with whatever life might bring to me. The future wasn’t anything for me to be afraid of anymore.”

But what stood out the most for me was how he seemed to feel more accepted in Lithuania than he did in his native country. Abroad, so much is different (customs, manners, aesthetics etc.), that you aren’t as quick to jump to conclusions. Interacting with people from other cultures is a beautiful thing because you expect the other to be different, and hope to learn from those differences. In fact, after reading this book I wrote to my high school Theory of Knowledge teacher and told him it really reaffirmed the idea that a different way of knowing (another language for instance) allows for a different understanding of the world around us.

I strongly encourage you to read “Born on a Blue Day”, because it will allow you to see the world through a different set of eyes. 

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Xx, Sabrine

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