In 2002, a furniture salesman named Jason Padgett was viciously attacked outside a karaoke bar in Tacoma, Washington. As a result, he became a math genius and was able to visualize complex geometric and physics concepts.
"I see shapes and angles everywhere in real life" — from the geometry of a rainbow, to the fractals in water spiraling down a drain, Padgett told her. "It's just really beautiful."
It may be beautiful, but how many of us would choose being beaten within an inch of our life in order to gain what, in another context, could be called savant skills? (Padgett says it's worth it, even though he developed, interestingly enough, PTSD, OCD and social anxiety. I'd rather skip the whole thing, and I'd certainly like a vote before the hammer came down on me.)
I’ve been collecting stories like this for a while, in which being a savant is associated with damage of one kind or another, and now seems a useful time to put a few together. With the rise of Neurotribes and the overall normalization of autism in which Sheldon Cooper of the Big Bang theory – a physics whiz with obvious autistic traits – is supposed to be funny, you would think that the modern world of computers and phones and flying machines essentially depended on autistic savants who just love calculating things in seconds so the rest of us can gape.
And yet, what a truncated world they so often end up inhabiting – if autism is a brain injury, which I believe it is, then savant skills are a rare side effect that are hardly worth the trouble. I believe we, and they, would get along just fine without this kind of collateral damage masquerading as a gift. I mean, in the context of a raging epidemic of human-induced suffering, who really cares if cows have a calmer trip to the slaughterhouse?
It’s wild the number of times that I come across metal, and not the kind you get clobbered with outside a karaoke club, in connection with savant skills and autism. Exposure to toxic metals, both from without in the form of family or workplace exposure, and within in the form of vaccine ingredients, just about cry out “Guilty!”
A few months ago I picked up a book about an autistic savant, Jacob Barnett from the Midwest, who reputedly has an IQ higher than Einstein and has done interesting work on the Big Bang as a child, scrawling equations on the windows of his home. The reason I did so was that I had seen so many connections between metals and savant skills, I suspected I would find them again. I did.
“Jake was an ordinary baby, having an ordinary babyhood,” his mother writes in The Spark. “Then he began to withdraw from us, and with that additional diagnosis of Asperger’s, any hope of normalcy disappeared.”
His mom, Kristine, doesn’t question the why of this regression, but I was fascinated to learn that “Grandpa John Henry was an incredible man, not only a machinist, an engineer, and an inventor but also an expert craftsman and carpenter. … a machinist on the floor of Westinghouse’s tool and die plant, as his father had before him.
“He couldn’t help but noticing inefficiencies in the process known as annealing. To drill a hole in steel, workers had to hear the metal to soften it to the point where a tood could pierce it… but Grandpa John had a partner eventually solved the puzzle by inventing a new set of tools and a new process that allowed workers to drill hard steel, which revolutionized steel manufacturing.”
They spent countless hours together. After retiring, he kept up his work. “When we were not at the church site, we were by his side in the superb mess of his garage workshop.”
To my mind, this kind of evidence of maternal exposure to metals is a powerful and repeated clue. We found those same clues in the first 11 cases of autism reported in 1943 by Leo Kanner. The father of Case 2 was a plant pathologist experimenting with ethyl mercury dust when his son was born (and doubtless tracked it home on his clothes); the mother of another case was a public health pediatrician promoting the thimerosal-containing diphtheria shot. Case 1, Donald T., had savant skills; he lived (and still lives) in a house built the first year that ethyl mercury containing lumber treatments were pioneered nearby.
Metals, namely mercury, explain the rise of autism, so there’s no surprise they are often evident in the background of autistic savants.
Consider Britain’s Daniel Tammet, who memorized Pi to 22,514 digits and learned Icelandic in a week to appear on a talk show there, and has Asperger’s. When his mother went into labor, his father – “his clothes still caked in oil and grease from his sheet metal work” – rushed her to the hospital.
I’m also thinking of the father of Child 11 in Andy Wakefield’s case series. The father grew up in his family’s business in California – electroplating, in which metals like aluminum are plated onto each other. If you’re looking for an anecdote to illustrate how a background load of metals could open the way for the MMR to trigger brain damage, look no further. (Another father of a child in the case series was a plumber in England – nothing in common with a businessman in California other than exposure to metals.)
And I’m thinking of the early autism case cited by Bernie Rimland whose father was a “plater,” no further elaboration given.
And I’m thinking of Eric Gladen, who after being poisoned with ethyl mercury by a tetanus shot as an adult describes, in his movie Trace Amounts, how he suddenly became able to read the blueprints that went with his job as an engineer in a fraction of the time it took before. He could conceive large projects in one fell swoop.
Of course, he was intensely miserable, in fact suicidal. On the whole, I’m guessing, he would prefer not to have been whacked in the head with vaccine damage.
And I’m betting a few million other people and their families would agree.
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism.