John and I are in the midst of a construction project at home and have spent the past couple of nights working with a movie on in the background. Last night, we watched Rain Man, the 1988 movie in which Dustin Hoffman plays a savant. Afterward, we had a lengthy discussion about autism and the mechanics of the human brain, albeit at 2 a.m. Then, strangely, when we turned on the TV to begin working again tonight, we immediately came across a show on the Science Channel titled “Brain Man” that focused on Daniel, a savant in his twenties who sees numbers as distinct figures and shapes in his mind and who, unlike Hoffman’s character in the movie, can communicate freely about his unique way of thinking and processing information. During the program, Daniel met the real Rain Man – the man who originally inspired the story.
The show closed with a rhetorical question about the true nature of intelligence – a question I’ve considered before. I continued to think about it after the broadcast had switched to a program about body clocks (that one’s still on in the background as I write this – and even as I ponder the nature of the human brain, I wonder what it is about my body clock that leads me to get into deep discussions at 2 a.m. but hit the snooze button twenty-seven times every weekday morning).
The reason it’s a rhetorical question is because there isn’t one singular, bulletproof definition of human intelligence. Academic success is probably the trait most often equated with intelligence, because it is achieved in a controlled setting and with the benefit of comparisons between students. But even “academic success” has to be qualified further. Can academic success be rigidly defined by 4.0 GPAs and high SAT scores?
Taylor learned to read when she was three. I won’t ever forget the day she read a book to me in the time that it took my dad to run into Papa John’s and pick up a pizza while we waited in the car. Her preschool teachers tried to teach T and her classmates to read by putting all of their names up on the wall. They had to try a different tactic after they realized T could read all of the names, and did – aloud. At that early age, she also excelled at recognizing figures and shapes. My first car was a Honda Accord. One day, as we drove by a Honda dealership, my toddler sister pointed out the window at the dealership sign and said, “Rar Rar’s car!”
But it wasn’t long after we discovered T’s potential that we also uncovered her struggles. Math was so frustrating for her that even my mom, who pushed me to excel beginning as early as I can remember, was at a loss. I remember the day we sat in Starbucks and tried to tackle T’s math homework. She was in the first grade, and her class was learning about money. Using the cutout shapes from her math workbook, we desperately tried to explain why two dimes and a nickel equal a quarter and five pennies equal a nickel. When we finally noticed the tears in her eyes, we stopped. To this day, my sister struggles with simple math.
While T will likely never be an engineer or an accountant, she is supremely gifted. She has learned the Braille alphabet in less time than it takes many children to learn the conventional alphabet for the sighted. She uses an advanced form of sensory perception to survive without the gift of vision in our visual world, and she retains an incredible amount of information from movies, books and conversations.
My mom recently told me a story that only illustrated what I already knew about my sister’s memory. Mom got the Easter decorations and T’s Easter basket out of the attic a few weeks ago. After the two of them decorated the Easter tree, they decided to put some fake grass around the base of the tree. Mom went to take some grass from T’s Easter basket and found a dinosaur Jibbit (shoe charm) hiding in the grass from last Easter. Mom handed the dinosaur Jibbit to T, and she felt it for a minute. Then, she said, “But Mom, where is the ladybug?” Perplexed, Mom searched through the grass and, sure enough, found the ladybug Jibbit that, like the dinosaur, had spent the past year as a stowaway in the attic.
T has a neurodegenerative disease, and since her diagnosis, I have learned far more about the human brain than I ever cared to know. If I had one wish, I would eradicate Batten disease from the face of the earth so that no child has to suffer in the ways that T has, ever again. But even as I have despaired over her fate and wrung my hands and watched painful moments such as the one T endured in that Starbucks years ago, I have been so moved by her gifts, her intelligence and, above all, her determination and her ability to adapt in the face of unspeakable adversity, that I believe now, more than ever, that the world would experience a tremendous loss if we lost T.