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Early Childhood and an Introduction to Maths

I often think about where a talent in mathematics comes from? Is it a side effect of having Aspergers? If I can't understand the society around me, Maths might seem like the easiest subject to relate to. A pure subject, untainted by human bias.

Maths forms the major underlying context of the film X plus Y. The primary character - Nathan' - is largely based on myself during the teenage years participating in maths competitions. Both Nathan and myself felt that doing maths was the entire purpose of life.

As I once said in the documentary Beautiful Young Minds; most subjects we study at school are totally irrelevant outside human society. Only science helps us to know those truths beyond human society; everything in our observable universe. But maths is surely even stronger; it also helps us to understand truths beyond observation, beyond the universe.

I often think about where a talent in mathematics comes from? Is it a side effect of having Aspergers? If I can't understand the society around me, Maths might seem like the easiest subject to relate to. A pure subject, untainted by human bias.

But the truth is not so simple. Before the age of nine, I had no particular attraction to mathematics. I learnt to read very young, before attending primary school. And I did read all kinds of things - books aimed at children 5-10 years older. At primary school, I read the entire library.

In my family, we were also strangely talented at "geography" - or rather, knowledge of placenames, regions, capitals, populations, mountain names and so on. Perhaps because my dad secretly wished to be a geography teacher, there were countless poster maps and globes lying around the house. We were obsessed with maps. At dinner, we would play at making lists of mountains and rivers, or test each other with quizzes. Even today, the same is true for my baby brother, who often tries to catch me out with obscure flags I have long forgotten.

I fondly remember reading atlases in bed, trying to memorize the location of all the rivers in england, or all the states of india. But it didn't end there for me. The periodic table; positions of all the nearest stars; all the roman emperors. Or all the Pokemon, for that matter. I'd try to memorise any information I could extract from the world around me, especially lists.

Teachers at primary school were a little perplexed what to do with me. I wasn't learning anything I didn't already learn before starting. They gave me a Key Stage One test but I finished it too quickly, so they gave me the Key Stage Two test as well; five years beyond my class. Anyway, around age eight, my parents decided to send me to a private school in York.

It is worth noting that at this stage, there was still no realisation that there was anything unusual about me. And I still had no interest towards maths in particular. That shift happened during my second year at the school.

That year, there was a teacher who taught most of my lessons - I hated her. She forced me to sit under her desk and be ridiculed for no reason I can remember. One day I got extremely angry and jumped on top of the desk to denounce her. After that, she only went more out of her way to bully me.

I recall going to the computer room each lunch break to play some games. I collected games from much older sixth form students onto a floppy disk; and took it around with me. One day, the teacher caught me and absurdly accused me of trying to spread a virus. She forced me to throw away my floppy disk.

I did still respect many of the other teachers. But one teacher in particular - my maths teacher - suggested that I have a special 'one-to-one' class in maths. I really enjoyed those classes and found them to be the only exciting part of going to school. I certainly felt 'special'. Before long, I had made my mind up that maths was what I wanted to do.

But perhaps maths ability is a lucky gene I have inherited separately from aspergers? My mum often tells an anecdote about when I was three years old, when she asked me how many tiles there were on the ceiling; I told her almost instantly. I had realised that you could multiply height by width. This seems obvious to an adult, but it wasn't the first time I discovered something by myself.

Aged eleven, I had to do a homework project about finding a formula for a quadratic sequence. As a bonus, I wrote about how the method could be extended to cubic sequences and so on. I pointed out how there must be infinitely many formulas for any sequence. My maths teacher (a different one) went berserk. She gave me a low mark because she said my mum must have helped me. I was so angry about this, I started to view many teachers as inferior; and to idolise 'real' scientists and mathematicians.

Incidentally, the same thing came up a few years later, when I did an IQ test as part of a psychological evaluation. I scored the maximum, 180, on the numerical part. The test was about finding the next term in a sequence. I argued with her that the test was meaningless because any sequence would have infinitely many formulas; and therefore every one of the multiple choice answers was correct. Surely I should have infinite score? She kindly explained to me that I "couldn't" understand the maths behind the sequences. I was angry, again, but had no way to show it.

So, once more, I was just diagnosed with 'genius' IQ, and nothing else. Perhaps Aspergers wasn't known or recognised at this time? She arranged for me to have counselling sessions at school, during which I talked about my frustrations with the teachers not listening to my theories. Nothing useful came out of it.

It got even worse when, aged 13, I emailed a professor on an american 'Dr Maths' forum about the problems I was facing. This was one of the first things I did after discovering the internet. The very long email - during which I elaborated on my "theories" - was actually quite bizarre. Of course, he replied that I was 'a crank' and berated me about 'real maths'. This had a massive impact on me.

One final example that heavily influenced me. I went to a maths summer camp for gifted children at York university. One evening, I discovered how cubic equations could be solved by using trigonometry. I was so excited, I worked overnight to write it up, and I rushed to show the professor the next morning. Once again, I was accused of copying from somewhere else. After all, how could this child have figured out how to do it by himself? I had idolised mathematicians at university; but now I felt totally disillusioned.

Around this time, I felt very confused about my future. Could I really cope with being a mathematician? Thankfully, at a 'Intermediate Maths Olympiad' competition, I came in the top 5 nationally. This drew the attention of the British 'Maths Olympiad' coaches, who drafted me into their very different training system. Things would never be the same again.

I have always wondered what would have happened if I'd have had a different set of teachers when I was nine years old. If I was treated more fairly, I might have felt school to be less like a prison. Perhaps one day I might have become interested in a completely different field of study?

In X plus Y, Nathan has a simplified relationship with mathematics. But, of course, his interest has its own trigger. His teacher - Mr Humphries - is a wonderful and inspirational character. While fictional, he lightens up and adds a new dimension to the entire film.

X+Y is released in UK cinemas from Friday March 13th.

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