BBC Radio 4′s book of the week – Thinking In Numbers by Daniel Tammet

I was pleased to see this week that Daniel Tammet has a new book out. Daniel is an adult who has an autistic spectrum disorder and this is his third book. He is lucky enough to have special talents for foreign language learning and numbers. His new book is called Thinking in Numbers and is this week’s BBC Radio 4 Book of the week. Click here to listen to James Anthony Pearson reading the first of 5 excerpts from Daniel’s fascinating book on BBC Radio 4. I really enjoyed listening, not just because of my respect for Daniel’s many talents but also because I found his discussion about the linguistics of counting systems in various world languages genuinely fascinating! But I am a self-confessed language geek after all! Enjoy…

My child has been diagnosed with autism. Will he/she have a ‘special talent’?

Approximately 10% of autistic individuals have what society calls a ‘special talent’ (also known as ‘savant abilities’, ‘savant syndrome’ or ‘savantism’).

People on the autistic spectrum are generally very good at pattern spotting and enjoy the predictability of patterns. They often have exceptional memories for non social, very specific detail. If the pattern that fascinates a person with autism is something society deems ‘special’ like music, maths or language, that person is deemed to have a ‘special talent’ and may be called a ‘savant’.

It is important to remember that all autistic people have strengths and weaknesses, whether or not the are classed as a ‘savant’. It is up to us to support them to make the best of their strengths, whatever they may be.

Some well known autistic savants of the 21st Century are:

  • Stephen Wiltshire – an artist who specialises in architectural drawings.
  • Daniel Tammet – who has exceptional talents in maths and language learning.
  • Derek Paravicini – an exceptional pianist who is not only autistic but also blind.


What is Autism?

Autism is a pervasive developmental condition. That means that it affects many areas of the individual’s skills (‘pervasive’) and that it has been present since very early in life, developing and changing as the individual grows (developmental). Most current research suggests that autism is actually something that starts to develop well before a child is born. Autism is a continuum or ‘spectrum’ of difficulties from people who are very severely affected by their autism to those who are only mildly affected.

Most researchers are agreed that autism is defined by 3 key areas of difficulty, the ‘triad of impairment’. The triad is most widely defined and accepted as difficulties in the areas of social functioning, imagination/flexible thinking (restricted and repetitive patterns of interest) and communication. Some researchers argue that ‘social functioning’ and ‘communication’ should be one heading and that the third part of the triad should be problems with sensory processing. Interestingly, new diagnostic criteria being developed in the USA reduce the triad to two – ‘social communication and interaction’ and ‘restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests, or activities’ (includes sensory behaviours).

However you wish to define the triad, it is certainly the case that people who have autism have a central difficulty with something called ‘Theory of Mind’. Theory of Mind can be defined as the ability to ‘put yourself in someone else’s shoes’. It is what allows us to feel empathy for others, gauge how they are feeling, judge their motives and understand that other people have thoughts, knowledge and preferences that are different from our own. Imagine watching your partner hit their finger with a hammer, chances are you will wince and your stomach will flip. That is your Theory of Mind allowing you to appreciate the experience your partner is having and empathise with their feelings.

Theory of Mind is central to the development of communication and social interaction. The whole point of communication is to get an idea from your mind into someone else’s. If you do not understand that other people’s thoughts are not the same as yours, then you will not see the need to communicate. Often, the first job of speech and language therapist is to show their client the value of communication, especially when working with someone who is more severely autistic.

A good and reliable starting point for learning more about autism and getting the latest news on research into the nature of autism is the National Autistic Society’s website.

Is The Mobile Therapy Room Cool in Summer?

I use a mixture of strategies to keep the temperature cool and comfortable inside the mobile therapy room when it’s sunny. The side windows open to allow fresh air to circulate and I have an electric fan to help airflow. I also use the sunshades to reduce the amount of sunlight coming in and warming the air too much. I conducted a wee experiment over 2 sunny days and found that the sunshades alone take 10 degrees off the average temperature inside the mobile therapy room when it’s in full sun.

Even on the sunniest days, I find that this combination of strategies maintains a pleasant working temperature (high teens – low 20s) inside the mobile therapy room. Indeed it’s significantly cooler than some classrooms I’ve worked in!

The sun shades in action inside Edinburgh & Lothian's mobile therapy room

Working With a Speech & Language Therapist

Speech and language therapy sessions work best if parents and speech and language therapists work collaboratively. Therapy has to be a 2-way relationship after all, while the speech & language therapist is an expert in communication, parents are THE experts on their child!

Speech and language therapy is different form some medical treatments where a doctor can ‘fix it’ by giving you a specific medicine that will make your condition go away. It is more like physiotherapy where the therapist guides you but carrying out the recommended exercises between sessions is what really fixes the problem.

Working with a Speech and Language Therapist is an advice sheet for parents. It gives you some handy tips and ideas about how to work well with your child’s speech and language therapist to get the most out of your child’s treatment programme. Click on the link below to download it:

10 Top Tips for Working with a Speech & Language Therapist


You have to love East Lothian!

My last few posts have been quite serious so I thought I’d go with a more light-hearted one today! Mainly because I’m feeling the love for East Lothian, I think it’s the nice weather we’ve had the last week or so. Here’s a picture to illustrate my point…

Barley field at sunset, Gullane, East Lothian

You have to agree, that’s pretty special. I hope it makes you smile. Have a good weekend whatever you’re up to!

First, Then Card

A first, then card is the first step in developing a visual timetable system for your child. Visual timetables help development of all sorts of important concepts like ‘finished’, sequence vocabulary and moving on from one task to the next. They are also useful for developing independent working for children who wouldn’t otherwise cope with being left to complete a task independently. A visual timetable prepares a child for what is coming and can be used to reduce anxiety by giving warning of surprise, a change of plan or an unusual activity. Download an example of a first, then card by clicking on the link below.

First, Then Card

Working For… Card

Some children have a bit of difficulty staying focused on activities that they haven’t chosen themselves.  A useful strategy for many is to use a little reward system where the child collects tokens as they work to get a reward when they’ve finished. Download the one I use by clicking on the link below:

Working for…

You’ll need to cut out and laminate either the 3 or the 5 token card, whichever you choose to use, and the set of tokens your child likes. You’ll also need some pictures of whatever your child might like to work for. There are some general ones in the download. To stick your tokens on you can use either blu-tack or self adhesive velcro, whichever you have to hand. You can even use sellotape if everything is laminated.

Goals aren’t just for Olympic athletes!

Lots of people get very intimidated and bogged down in setting targets or goals so I thought I’d do a little guide to make you (hopefully) feel a bit calmer about it. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll talk about ‘goals’ in this article but you could equally call them targets or aims.

Setting goals is really important for lots of things including working on speech and communication skills. You don’t have to be an Olympic athlete to need goals! Even children benefit from having clear goals although they may need an adult to set them, especially if they are younger. That’s what sticker reward charts are all about! So what’s so great about goals then? Well, having one in mind helps both adults and children to:

  • know and remember what they’re trying to achieve
  • stay motivated and focused
  • feel good about achieving something

There are two main types of goal, long term and short term. A long term goal is something ‘big’ that you think will take a long time to achieve. Short term goals are smaller things that can be achieved quickly and are often steps on the way to reaching your long term goal. So how do you set a good goal then? Well, much as I hate acronyms, this one is actually quite handy. All goals, long term or short term, need to be SMART:

S – Specific. If you choose something that is to ‘big’ or vague, it will be very difficult to achieve so make sure you chose something clear and defined.

M – Measurable. Make sure you have a way of knowing if you have achieved your goal or not. How you do this depends on what your goal is. Do not get too bogged down in counting or trying to put arbitrary numbers on things. Sometimes a measure can be as simple as a statement like ‘Next time granny visits, we are aiming for her to understand most of what little johnny says to her.’ You can answer yes or no to this and you will have measured whether or not the goal was achieved!

A – Achievable. Everything we want to achieve needs to be broken down into steps. You may have a very large long term goal but in order to get there, you will have to break it down into smaller, easily achievable chunks. Achievable goals maintain motivation and help build confidence.

R – Realistic. There is no point in having a goal that isn’t realistic for you or your child, really this is a bit like making sure it’s ‘achievable’.

T – Time-limited. Set yourself a review time for your goal. Hopefully by the time you chose, you or your child will have achieved what you set out to do but if not, it gives you the chance to look at why not and make adjustments if necessary. It’s ok if the goal isn’t achieved within your time-limit, the time limit is just there to remind you to take a rain check and review what you’re doing.

It’s really important to remember that any goals you set for you or your child are flexible. That means it’s ok to change them!!! Sometimes you have to make a best guess at what will be a good goal and it becomes apparent that it’s either too easy or hard. Don’t flog a dead horse, change it!

When working with younger children, I find that a ‘working for’ card like this is a really good way to translate my goals into a language that is clear for them.

Working for card that Isla usesThe idea is that the child chooses what they’d like to work for from a choice of options and they then have to collect either 3 or 5 tokens to get it, depending on the child. During the session, I’ll give them a token each time they complete a specified task (goal!) until they have filled their card. Once their card is filled, they get the reward immediately. Some children will need smaller targets so you may find that you need to give them tokens very frequently. If that’s the case, just let them fill the card and get the reward then start again or, if you need to, work in shorter sessions. You can download the working for card that I use from the downloads page or by clicking the link below if you’d like to give it a go yourself.

Working for card

Please email me with any questions!