'Wired differently': Movie highlights plight of Asperger's sufferers
By Stephen Taylor / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
"Pick a 3-digit number less than 364."
"254. That's September 11th. That's the 254th
day of the year."
"Pick a 5-digit number less than
"If I count seconds from 12 a.m. midnight,
126.96.36.199.1...it's gonna be 6..ah 6.13 and 31 seconds in the morning."
To say that Jerry Newport has got a head for
figures is a bit like saying that Tiger Woods knows his way around a golf
His extraordinary ability with numbers is one of
the symptoms of Asperger's Syndrome (AS), a form of autism. Newport was in
Tokyo to promote the film based on his life, Mozart and the Whale, which
focuses on an AS support group and particularly the relationship between the
group's leader, Donald (played by Josh Hartnett), and a female member, Isabelle
(played by Radha Mitchell).
To coincide with the movie's Japan release, a book
with the same title was translated into Japanese and published by Japan
Broadcast Publishing Co. It's an autobiography cowritten by Newport and his
wife, Mary, who also has AS.
"Somebody asked me before, 'How do you do
that [mental arithmetic]?' I just said, 'Fast,"' he explained in an
interview with The Daily Yomiuri on his first trip to Japan. "I guess my
brain's just wired differently. There's something about numbers that give me a
great sense of security.
"To me, fooling around with four or five
digit numbers is as simple as if you ask most people what's 3 times 7. It could
be, what's 12,132 times 3,048 and I can tell them it's 36,930,336 with the same
amount of ease that someone can say 3 times 7. It's just relative."
Newport was diagnosed with AS after a friend
advised him to watch Barry Levinson's Oscar-winning movie Rain Man in 1989 and
found himself identifying with the main character.
"When the guy asked him to multiply a couple
of numbers...I came up with the answer faster than Dustin Hoffman said it in
the movie," he says.
In the same way that Barry Levinson's Rain Man
raised awareness of autism almost 20 years ago, Mozart and the Whale,
coproduced and written by Rain Man cowriter Ron Bass, aims to highlight the
plight of AS sufferers.
There are differences between the two conditions,
as Newport was keen to point out.
"They [autistics] don't usually start having
difficulties until they face the social challenges after puberty.
"I think the difference is that people with
Asperger's have an uncontrollable interest, an obsession with some subjects and
collecting lists of information," he says.
Newport believes in spreading the word about AS
and feels the movie can do just that.
"It's a wake-up call saying, 'You know, it's
OK to talk about therapy and all this, but you'd better be ready to help these
people when they're adults 'cause a lot of them are gonna need it,'" adds
the 58-year-old Newport, who currently organizes an AS support group and writes
and lectures about his experiences while working part time as a taxi driver in
But it's been a long road for the film's
producers, one that started in October 1995.
"The movie started about a year after my wife
and I got married," he says. "We were interviewed by the Los Angeles
Times...They did a front page story about our support group, but it was mainly
about the two of us.
"People who make movies were gonna read it,
see a picture of my wife with a cockatiel on her head and say, 'Oh this might
be a story!' This might be our next movie."
And more than 11 years later, was he happy with
the final version?
"They did a very good job. It's similar to
the way things happened. Where it's different it's still something I can
imagine someone with that condition doing," he replies positively.
Though Newport had to wait until middle age for
his condition to be formally identified, he was was aware of his tendency to
obey rules too rigidly, another symptom of AS and a trait that goes back to
when he was 5 years old.
"I got home and it was getting dark and I was
supposed to be in the house, but there was nobody home. So I took my lunch box
and just smashed the glass of the front door and reached through, opened the
door and let myself in. I obeyed the rule," he reveals.
On reaching school age, his remarkable knack for
solving difficult calculations became apparent and led to him entering the
University of Michigan as a mathematics major. But after a promising academic
start, Newport ran into barriers that he feels could have been avoided.
"People with autism and Asperger's Syndrome
really need mentors in college," he says.
As a student in the United States at a time of
social and political upheaval, he admits that it posed problems for him.
"The last couple of years [of university] I
got kinda lost. It was partially the lack of a mentor, it was also going to
college in '68, '69 and '70 when there was a lot of stuff going on that was
disillusioning a lot of people, not just people like me," he sighs.
"I went to Los Angeles and started driving a
taxi 'cause it was easy to do...I was very lost," he admits.
These days, Newport is very positive about life.
"I found a soul mate...That's made a huge
difference and not just having Mary in my life. It's also being able to start
the first support group we had in Los Angeles.
"I think there's a lot to be said for...having
a group of people that you can hang out with...For some people that's church,
maybe for some people that's their bowling league. I feel really good about
being able to contribute on a worldwide basis," he says.
Newport is proud of his achievement and recommends
the advice of his father when he was a child as an inspiration not only for him
"We went to this art exhibit in New York City
[of things] that they found in the tomb of King Tut [Ankh Amon], and I found
out that he had a pyramid and said to my father, 'Someday I'm gonna do
something that's so great that I'm gonna have my own pyramid,'" he says.
"My father says, 'Do you realize what kind of world it would be if every
great person had a pyramid named after them? Do you think there'd be much land
left for anything else?'
"I said 'Dad, if I can't have a pyramid, what
can I do?'
"He says, 'You know what you could do?
Someday, do something that's so good that it'll live longer than you. If you do
that, you won't need a pyramid. What you give back the world will be your
"For me, the movie, the book and the support groups, those are my
pyramids. All it took was the belief that something good could and should
happen. Everybody in the world can have a pyramid without wasting any bricks.
Everybody in the world can do something, sometime in their life that makes a
And if that's not worthy of the Hollywood
treatment, nothing is, though the speech doesn't make it into Mozart and the
Nevertheless, the movie succeeds in portraying the
plight of AS sufferers with wit and sensitivity.
As we were winding up the interview, Newport seemed a little anxious before
revealing the cause for his concern.
"I made a mistake on that calculation,
though. I was afraid you were gonna play the tape and bust me. I'll just show
you that I did it correct and this is the real answer," he explains,
holding up a piece of paper with the number 36,978,336 written on it.
As brilliant as he is with numbers, even savants
like Newport get it wrong occasionally.
"Mozart and the Whale" is currently