My fifteen year old Asperger's Syndrome son has an astonishing audiographic and photographic memory. He's able, after watching a film only two or three times, to recite the dialogue verbatim. We discovered this years ago, when our then-nine year old announced one evening before bedtime that he had learned the movie "Troy" which he had watched twice earlier that week. My skeptical husband insisted on verifying our son's claim, popping the DVD into our player for a Brad Pitt-Willem Nelis stand off. Sure enough, even as we fast forwarded the film several times to assure that it wasn't only the opening scene ("Good day for the crows...") that had been cognitively sampled and thoroughly digested, we were stunned to watch our son recite, word for word, the film's dialogue (could he not have chosen a better written screenplay for the debut of his neurological party trick? "Citizen Kane", for example?)
Our son's uncanny memory skills surfaced again earlier this week. Sadly, my mother in law passed away and the family flew to Amsterdam for her memorial. Willem insisted on giving a speech at the gathering, which he hurriedly dictated to me earlier that morning on board our cramped British Airways flight. His words were poignant, powerful, and sophisticated, and I was stunned at how effortlessly he was able to put his thoughts into carefully-crafted prose. As Willem read his speech before a crowd of elderly relatives and close cousins, I basked in the warm glow of maternal pride. Later, on the return flight to Heathrow, my son acknowledged my effusive praise with a polite, business-like nod. "Most of the speech comes from 'Iron Man 2'," he explained in a matter-of-fact tone.
Willem had effortlessly retained, retrieved, and reconfigured chunks of language from a film that he had seen a year or two ago.
Language appropriation is clearly one of the challenges that we need to confront as our brilliant but fragile son makes his way through his secondary school years. What do you do with a child who has such powerful memory skills? How can we help him to avoid the pitfalls of plagiarism? It was fascinating a few months back to watch Willem prepare for a practice exam on the Treaty of Versailles. The entirety of pages thirty through thirty nine of his "Making of the Modern World" history text book were hovering right there in his head, as distracting as a busy swarm of gnats on a hot summer's evening. Willem, as he wrote his exam essay, made a careful effort to change every adjective and adverb from these sentences of his textbook that were stuck in his head; still, the basic syntax of many of his sentences bore a close resemblance to those in the textbook.
Our son is a great thinker as well as a great retainer of facts, and is capable of making uncanny parallels, analyses, and inferences that go way beyond his quirky ability to retain and regurgitate data. Still, I realize that his gift comes with its own high price, and Willem will need to recraft the texts that sometimes sit there inside of him like a heavy meal. I hope that as he makes his way through secondary school and later University that he can free himself from the shackles of his uncanny memory so that he can revel in the wonders of creative literary freedom.