Driving him to school one morning, I heard him in the back seat reciting what at first sounded like random dates and names. Then I realized what he was doing: listing the months in calendar order, each followed by the names of everyone he had encountered whose birthday fell in that month.
It was an early glimpse of what I came to realize was an extraordinary — even superhuman — memory. Ezra, now 15, has high-functioning autism. Experts will tell you that the disorder’s most significant characteristic is difficulty communicating and forming relationships. Ezra knows he has autism, but to him one of its primary characteristics is that he can remember things better than most people.
Of course, autism is a spectrum disorder; not every person with the condition has an uncanny memory. Researchers aren’t certain what proportion of people with autism possess powerful recall, nor can they pinpoint exactly what about the brain wiring of people such as Ezra gives them this ability. But many, like Ezra, display remarkable recall that can leave mere mortals floored.
“We don’t know why this is or exactly what brain differences are associated with these traits,” says Susan Bookheimer, a UCLA autism researcher, who says individuals with autism often excel at rote learning while suffering deficits in mastering more fluid areas, such as negotiating social situations.
Flashes of brilliance
My wife and I began noticing this capacity not long after we first realized that Ezra had challenges. Though he seemed to occupy a world of his own — avoiding eye contact, rarely conversing and almost never playing with other children — he would occasionally show flashes of a brilliant mind.
He was 6 when he pointed out the numbers above the door of a house as our minivan drove past. My wife explained that was called an address.
“Bubbe has numbers on her gray house,” he said of his grandmother, who lived in another city. “Bubbe has 2, 7, 6 and 4.”
He was correct.
He went on, flawlessly ticking off the addresses of several of our neighbors, a relative’s Oregon vacation house, even the digits he had noticed above the door of the kids’ gym he visited once a week. What made his recall even more stunning to us was that it so contrasted with his outward appearance: spacey, aloof, lost in his own thoughts.
“How do you remember that stuff?” I asked.
His answer: “I just know.”
In fact, he knew far more.
In second grade, he became fixated on the release date of an animated movie.
“ ‘Shrek 2’ is coming May 19,” he reminded us morning, noon and night. He’d learned the date from preview trailers at the theater and billboards dotting the boulevards of our Los Angeles neighborhood. Once he took in such trivia, it seemed impossible for him to forget it. In time, he built a calendar in his mind, matching movies such as “Home on the Range” and “Shark Tale” with their release dates.