Meet eight-year-old Vishal, an autistic savant who “knows without studying.” He attends a school for autistic children, where he learns social skills rather than academics. He doesn’t have the attention span to study from books or teachers and doesn’t understand why he should because information just comes to him. Like other autistic children, he is socially reticent, but unlike most autistic children, he has an engaging smile and conveys his feelings through his writings. During our several hours together he spoke less than a handful of words, instead answering questions by typing one finger at a time into his laptop while looking away from it or me. His mother Vidhya provided reassuring touch to his forearm to help him focus. Otherwise his thoughts race wildly… about strategies for harnessing nuclear energy, creating renewable energy from organic material, travelling to Mars, and other scientific quests. He also has corresponded with researchers such as Abhishek Shivakumar (a research scholar at Sweden’s KTH University) about his scientific musings.
Vishal published his first book when he was just six — Meadow Of Moods. It challenges the mistaken stereotype that people with autism can’t be introspective or spontaneous. He displays both attributes in his uniquely worded descriptions of his mood swings… from the torment that grips autistic children to elation… from mischievous acts to serious musings about the laws of nature. In a story called “Mood Mess on Box of Crayons” he wrote, “It started on one dousy day at one of my boring schools. I was given a box of crayons to enjoy coloring. But my moods played very foolish and I started to scribble on the wall. I roamed around the wall with my hands making weird color patterns resembling modern art of Mona Lisa’s face. My teacher with glasses very willingly sown with anger, warned me to fear. Alas! Moods make mess in books of my life.”
Mythily Chari, founder director of the Institute for Remedial Intervention Services, is both a mentor and fan of Vishal, “He teaches us to approach life like him — with fun and enjoyment.” She also calls him a “walking Wikipedia.” So how could I not go to India to meet Vishal and two other savants?