Like quite a few people no doubt, the first time I came across autism was watching the film Rain Man. I loved the film, which saw Dustin Hoffman get an Oscar for his portrayal of autistic savant Raymond Babbitt. Although I thought that Tom Cruise had the trickier acting job, as he had to show his character’s progression from money obsessed chancer to finally gaining compassion. One criticism that was leveled at the film was that it gave the impression that all autistic people had some incredible skill, such as memory or mathematics. Whereas, the proportion of autistic people that are actually savants is very low.
About 8 years ago I spotted a book in the local library which followed autistic people into adulthood: unusual because a lot of books were written about autistic children, but not many about adults. It was fascinating to read about how learnt behaviours have to be unlearnt as they become inappropriate in older adolescence.
5 years ago I very seriously considered bidding for a painting by the autistic artist Stephen Wiltshire. If you haven’t seen his work I urge you to take a look at his videos. He has the ability to memorize a scene and then recreate every detail as a pen and ink drawing. There are some great videos out there, such as there series of him being flown in a helicopter over cities and recreating them all on a massive sheet of paper back on the ground.
Memory does seem to be a common theme with autistic savants. Recently I’ve been watching videos of Derek Paravicini. He was born extremely prematurely, but unfortunately the local hospital lacked the equipment to monitor the amount of oxygen being administered to him, which meant he received too much. This resulted in damage to his retinas causing permanent blindness and also brain damage meaning that he is severely autistic. At the age of four he was taken into a room where a little girl was receiving a lesson from Adam Ockleford, who at the time was the Director of Education at the RNIB. Derek ran up, pushed her off the stool and started playing. It seems that he hasn’t stopped playing since. Adam is still his piano teacher and recalls how in early lessons Derek used to push him off the keyboard. He had to pick Derek up, take him to the other side of the room, to allow time for him to play something as Derek ran back to the piano.
There’s a generally held belief that when a part of the brain is not being used for its primary function, then other senses will utilize it. It is believed that Derek’s brain has done this, resulting in his increased capacity to understand and remember music. And, boy can he remember music. He can recall and play back any piece of music that he has ever heard, even ones from twenty years ago. Remarkably, in an echo of Stephen Wiltshire, if he is presented with a new piece of music, he is able to recreate the notes perfectly after a single hearing. That skill in itself would be incredible, but he has a number of others…
Some people have perfect pitch, which means that they can hear a note and identify it exactly. Quite a few people can do this, but they tend to be able to do it for the white notes, or those in the middle of the piano. Derek can do it for any of the 88 keys on the piano. Pretty cool, but that’s not the full story. He can recognize multiple notes together. In fact Adam can press ten notes and Derek (who remember is blind) can instantly press all the same notes, whatever combination of notes are played. Adam says that he doesn’t know how many Derek could go up to, because they both only have 10 fingers. However, he was put in front of an orchestra whilst they played complex chords, and he was able to distill the sounds on the piano.
I’ve linked to couple of videos that feature Derek. One of which follows him performing in America. Something that they always do at his concerts is invite members of the audience to suggest songs to play. This might come across a bit distasteful as if he is being used like a trained pet for tricks, but this really isn’t the case, Derek clearly enjoys playing for everyone.
His great love is early jazz music, and is able to play any tune in the style of some of the greats such as Fats Waller, or George Shearing. He is also an accomplished improviser, which he also clearly loves doing.
Despite his severe autism he seems to be very happy with his life and to be well looked after. He even has his own YouTube and Facebook sites; every so often he will upload a video of him playing requests received from his online followers.