Sunday, April 6, 2014

Measurement, Memory, and Mathematics

“Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes/Five hundred twenty five thousand moments so dear/Five hundred twenty thousand six hundred minutes/How do you measure, measure a year?” –“Seasons of Love”

Yesterday, we took Alex to a family restaurant for dinner, and as soon as we sat in our booth, he realized that he had forgotten to wear his watch. In the past, he might have panicked that he didn’t have his watch to keep track of the time, and we would have had to leave immediately. However, he has learned to roll with things much better lately, staying calm and solving problems. First, he looked around the restaurant for a wall clock, but there was none to be found. Then, he decided he would just borrow one from us. In a scene reminiscent of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” he tried and rejected our watches. Ed’s watch had the wrong date, which was unacceptable, and my watch was too snug on his wrist. Finally, I handed him my cell phone with the digital clock showing on the screen, and this item, like Baby Bear’s porridge, chair, and bed, satisfied Alex, who found this substitute for his watch to be “just right.” Crisis averted.

As I have mentioned in previous blog entries, Alex makes sense of the world by measuring it and keeping records of statistics that matter to him. His favorite subject has always been math, and he possesses almost savant skills in working with numbers, enhanced by his amazing visual memory. From memorizing nearly 1500 digits of the irrational number pi to remembering people’s birthdates to calculating math problems mentally, he has a gift for remembering and understanding numbers. To assist him with measuring the important aspects of his world, Alex always keeps his measuring tools close at hand, which are among his prized possessions. Calendars, clocks, tape measures, calculators, and thermometers line his bedroom desk and chest of drawers, ready when he needs them. Because he relies upon them greatly, he has more than one of each type of measuring tool in case he mislays one of them and can’t find it. In addition, he keeps notepads and pens handy to record his measuring data.

When dealing with measurements, Alex values precision. If I tell him something costs six dollars, he will correct me and say, “Or $5.99.” If I tell him something will last about a week, he will ask, “Approximately a week or exactly six days?” When his behavioral therapist or music therapist arrives for his sessions, he immediately records their precise arrival time on a notepad as he consults his watch. Even though I have told him that they will be here around 1:00, he wants to keep track of the minute that they actually ring the doorbell. We have also learned not to dispute him when he proclaims certain information about when past events have occurred. For example, he likes to keep track of gasoline prices and will tell us how much gas cost in a particular year. Even when the figures seem a bit off, I never question them. Whenever I go online to check his accuracy, I discover that he is always right, and I find his keen knowledge of the history of gas prices a little eerie.

While some people with autism have amazing abilities to calculate days and dates, I don’t really think Alex possesses that skill. So-called calendar savants can be given a particular date and immediately figure out what day of the week that date was. Recently, my aunt and uncle came to visit from out of town, and Alex commented that my uncle had been born on a Sunday. My uncle didn’t seem to know what day of the week he was born, but trusting Alex’s confidence, he thought that fact was likely. After looking up my uncle’s birth date on a perpetual calendar in the almanac, I confirmed that Alex was right about what day of the week my uncle had been born. However, I suspect that Alex probably had also used the almanac as his source of data instead of calculating the day in his mind.

Nonetheless, Alex does possess outstanding mental calculation skills. A couple of weeks ago, I asked him how he had liked the dinner I had made. After quickly assessing his plate, he told me he liked it “91.6 percent.” Although we’ve grown accustomed to Alex’s percentage rating scale for meals, we were surprised by this odd figure since he usually rates foods in less specific figures, such as 90 percent or 85 percent. When we asked him how he had arrived at that number, he said, “Pasta 90 percent, sauce 90 percent, Italian sausage 95 percent.” As I was trying to add up and divide those figures, Ed, who is much better in math than I am (and from whom Alex has probably inherited his math skills), quickly confirmed the accuracy of Alex’s calculations.

Similarly, yesterday Alex was telling me that he had a “little voice” in June of 2004. Alex has a great fascination with people’s voices, especially those of children, whom he says have “little voices.” I suppose he was reflecting upon when his own voice changed. After I figured out how old he would have been in June of 2004, I commented that he would have been twelve and a half years old in June 2004. However, he corrected me by noting that he was thinking of when he was “12.482 years old.” Fortunately, he shows patience with my lack of mathematical precision, seeming almost bemused by my approximation.

At the restaurant yesterday when he was using my cell phone clock as a substitute for his forgotten watch, Alex noticed the message on the bottom of the screen and asked me what “232 service days left” meant. I explained that my phone service is “pay as you go,” and that I had paid for a year in advance and had that many days left before I need to renew my phone. He didn’t respond, but then he quickly said, “November 24th.” Ed and I exchanged a look and then realized that Alex had rapidly calculated back to the date I had renewed my phone contract. When he said that, I remembered that I had signed up for a year of phone service around Thanksgiving, so his comment seemed likely. A couple of minutes later, Ed, who had been contemplative, commented that Alex was right because he had mentally calculated to see if Alex’s date was correct. The two of them astonish me with how quickly they can figure out in their minds the problems I need some time and a calculator to solve. However, I am grateful that not only has Alex inherited Ed’s math skills but that he also finds using numbers entertaining and satisfying, a way to make sense of the world that sometimes overwhelms him.

“Great is the Lord! He is most worthy of praise! No one can measure his greatness.” Psalm 145:3


frtchr said...

It's great Alex has something comforting to him!

Pam Byrne said...

Hi K.C.,
To be honest, I feel out of sorts when I don't have my watch or a clock to check, so he probably gets that from me. Hope you're doing well.