Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Math Prodigies & Autistic Savants

On our vacation a couple weeks ago, I was terribly proud of myself. My daughter gave me a math problem to do in my head. She started with a 9-digit number times a 9-digit number, which caused me to howl with laughter. "I can't remember the numbers," I told her, "much less multiply them. Give me something reasonable."

She ended up giving me a 4-digit number times a 2-digit number, it may have been 5974 x 37. Due to the fact that 5974 is so closes to 6,000, I was able to do it easily. I just did 6x37, added three 0's to the end, then subtracted 37X26, which was a math problem I could do.

It was the first time I'd ever done a 4-digit times a 2-digit number in my head, and at age 51, I'm way out of practice. I was excited, and admittedly a bit proud.

Today, however, I'm finishing The Spark, which you absolutely must read. I'm having trouble finishing these last 20 pages because I keep writing about it.

It's about this autistic kid who was delivered from his autism by some brilliantly creative thinking by his mother. By "brilliantly creative," I mean her methods should have been obvious to everyone, but no one else thought of it. ("No one else thought of it" is an exaggeration, but since her central idea runs contrary to "mainline" therapy for autistic kids, I felt free to say that.)

Her child did not so much come out of autism as he was allowed to benefit from it. At one point, Kristin Barnett, the mother, says, "Trying to cure autism is like trying to cure science or art."

This video is about savant Stephen Wiltshire. Jacob Barnett can't draw like Stephen, but he can memorize cities like Stephen can.

I'm toward the end of the book—only 10 pages from the end—so now I'm getting to read the superstar stories and not just the "oh, wow, how are we ever going to get through this" stories. Let me try to quote you this one.

To set the story in place, Jake (Jacob Barnett, the autistic son), has a summer job researching theories relating to light and fiber-optics. His mom is wondering why he has so much free time, and Jake, who may be the smartest person in history, explains that he's been getting the problems he's been assigned solved on the drive home from the university.

This week, he said, would be the exception. He didn't think he'd be able to solve the latest problem he'd been given in time for his meeting on Tuesday.

   I launched into a stern lecture about the importance of a strong work ethic. "You have a job now, Jake. You're being paid, and people are counting on you to do whatever is asked of you. These problems are not optional. ... "

   "I'm not sure I can," he said. ... "In that case, you give your best effort," I told him. "... And remember, there's no shame in asking for help."

A couple hours after that, Jake was leaving the house with his brother. His mom checked on him, and he assured her that he thought he had something he could use. Mom was happy, proud that her son had done the work required of him.

When he went back to research on Tuesday, he called, very excited.

"I did it, Mom. I did it!"

   "Slow down, honey. What did you do?"

   "I solved it! I solved the problem!"

   "That's great! I'm so glad you stuck with it."

   "No, Mom, you don't understand. It was an open problem, a problem in math nobody has been able to solve. And I solved it!"

   I had misunderstood. This hadn't been any ordinary homework assignment, but the kind of problem that career mathematicians take months, years, even decades to unravel. Yet in two hours, between working on his jump shot and playing on the Xbox, Jake had solved it.

I know this story makes it sound like mom's bragging, but there is nothing boastful about this book.

Sponsored Link

The other story I wanted to tell you from the book is when his story finally hit the mainstream media and people began hearing about this amazing kid. A researcher on child prodigies asked if she could run tests on him, and because this researcher seemed to care for Jake and be very "human," Jake's parents allowed it.

In the midst of the test, she read him off 60 random animals. He recited them back in order. She then assigned random colors to each of the animals. He recited the animals back, with their colors, in order again. At that point, she moved on to other questions, then a few minutes later asked him about the animals and colors again. Once again, he recited them back, in order.

The researcher told Ms. Barnett, "No one has ever done that before. Never" (Paraphrase).

Ah, well, I'm still pretty proud of that multiplication problem I did for my daughter. I want to go practice multiplying again, because I saw a guy doing math tricks on a Youtube video, and I figured out there's a secret to multiplying two 5-digit numbers that should put that within my reach, too. I'd have to practice, though.

Anyway, the book is a lot better than I'm describing. I cried through large portions of it, and I think her central theme for teaching not just her own autistic child, but several others as well, is brilliant and obviously, incontrovertibly true.

Who will benefit from this book? You get to ride the incredibly roller coaster of this family's life. I had to take a walk when I read this completely overloaded mom suffered a stroke at age 30, caused by lupus, an incurable auto-immune disease. I couldn't keep reading. But the highs in this book are so high and so amazing that I had to keep a tissue box with me when reading it.

But both you and everyone you know will benefit from reading this book because you will get a new insight into human nature. Probably it won't be a completely new insight, but after you get done listening to Kristin Barnett, you are going to see places to apply that insight everywhere you go.

Now I have to go back to learning how to be a savant. I think it's just a matter of learning how to use different parts of your brain to do things a new way. I just have to find out if it's possible for me to make those kinds of adjustments in my brain. I'm hoping that being pretty weird already will give me a jump start.

No comments:

Post a Comment