Miracle girl exceedingly rare’
Grandfather of savants ‘never seen’ a case like Sharjah’s Nandana, reports Sajila Saseendran
A nine-year-old autistic girl in Sharjah, whose extraordinary ability to read her mother’s mind was revealed to the world last week, could be the next name added to a worldwide registry of people with savant talents, according to the world’s top expert in savant syndrome.
People with savant syndrome exhibit extraordinary abilities, but have serious mental disabilities including autistic disorder.
Nine-year-old miracle girl Nandana has an extraordinary ability to read her mother’s mind. — KT photo by M. Sajjad
In an exclusive report published on March 25, Khaleej Times brought to light the story of miracle girl Nandana Unnikrishnan, an autistic Indian child who can feel her mother’s emotions and read her thoughts, without any medium.
The story that generated massive response among the readers, other media and experts in the fields of autism and psychiatry also caught the attention of Dr Darold A. Treffert, who is dubbed the grandfather of savant research and was a consultant for the Oscar-winning box office smash Rain Man, which depicted Dustin Hoffman as a savant.
After reading the report on the Khaleej Times website, Dr Treffert wrote to Khaleej Times expressing his interest in the story and his long-term involvement researching savant syndrome.
“(I) have been involved in research on savant syndrome for many years. Savant syndrome itself is rare. But the type of telepathy Nandana exhibits is extraordinarily rare. I am investigating several cases now and appreciate learning about Nandana.”
Dr Treffert conveyed his desire to learn more about Nandana’s talents and called the Khaleej Times report “very convincing”.
He has been actively sharing the story with followers of his website and other colleagues, and said he expected Nandana’s ability to “remain exceedingly rare”.
According to Dr Treffert, Nandana’s story is fascinating even within the world of the savants who are indeed extraordinary people.
“I certainly want to emphasize that Nandana’s case is extraordinarily rare in an already rare condition, but with far-reaching ramifications. I also want to compliment you on the testing you did to confirm the ability...When it is musical skill, or art, the pieces speak for themselves. But in this instance the ability needs to be demonstrated by more rigorous testing of the type you did.”
He said what was most striking was that there was no physical contact between Nandana and her mother as in facilitated communication: “That’s good. Facilitated communication with the parent or another person actually touching the patient’s arm or elbow is a controversial technique.”
KT Report featured on research site on savant syndrome
The Khaleej Times report on autistic child Nandana Unnikrishnan’s miraculous ability to read her mother Sandhya’s mind has now been featured in the world’s best resource website on savant syndrome.
The hyperlink to the article published on March 25 has been posted as a recent update in the What’s New section of www.savantsyndrome.com . The site is part of a larger website of the 170 years-old Wisconsin Medical Society that has the largest physician advocacy organization in Wisconsin, USA, representing nearly 12,500 physicians and their patients.
Dr. Darold A. Treffert, who is dubbed the godfather of savant syndrome research, posted the article with the following note on March 28, 2013:
Extraordinary telepathy as a savant skill
In our 2010 savant syndrome registry, which included 319 savants worldwide, paranormal, psi or related phenomenon were reported in 1% of cases. Now comes this article titled “Miracle Girl” by Sajila Saseendran from the Khaleej Times, Dubai, which documents in unusual detail the telepathic ability of a 9-year-old girl to read her mother’s mind. The article also cites a letter from child psychiatry specialists in Sunny Specialty Medical Center in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, certifying witnessing “the strength of Nandana to read her mother’s thoughts, desires and intentions.”
This is the most highly documented case of this extraordinarily rare savant skill that has come to my attention.
Interestingly, in 1978 Dr. Bernie Rimland reported 561 cases (approximately 10%) of savant syndrome in his sample of 5400 autistic children, based on parent reports. Parents of 4 of these 561 savants reported that their child had extrasensory perception. I describe this finding in more detail in my book Extraordinary People, pages 127-128 and in my 1988 review paper.
Usually, he said, savant skills were in art, music, maths or mechanical visual-spatial abilities: “But Nandana’s savant skill...gives opportunity to explore the origins and mechanisms of this unusual savant skill, comparing it to others.”
Savant syndrome is a condition in which a person with serious mental disabilities demonstrates profound and prodigous abilities far in excess of what is considered normal.
The story that generated massive response among the readers, other media and experts in the fields of autism and psychiatry also caught the attention of Dr Treffert.
Though he was familiar with savants with certain similar skills, Dr Treffert said there was no direct mind reading case as such that has come to his notice.
“So I would clearly classify Nandana as a savant with a very rare skill among savants. In my savant registry of 319 savants, one percent reported ‘paranormal’ abilities such as ESP (extra sensory perception) and Psi (parapsychology). However none reported telepathy or mind reading of the type Nandana exhibits.”
Asked if Nandana would qualify to be included in the registry, he replied: “We have temporarily closed the savant registry while we compile and publish the data. But we will no doubt resume the registry and Nandana would certainly be included.”
Dr Treffert has compiled the profiles of several world famous savants and extensively studied Kim Peek, who was the real life inspiration behind Rain Man, listed as one of the best movies on the subject of autism and savants.
The mission of Dr Treffert’s life was to find out if there was a savant in all of us, he said: “The savant syndrome provides a unique window to the brain. Till we can understand the savant...we can’t understand ourselves,” he has been quoted as saying.
“Savant syndrome has far reaching implications for accessing what I call ‘the little Rain Man’ within us all. By that, I mean that savants, especially now acquired savants, point out that there is dormant potential within us all and the task is to learn to tap into that dormant potential in the least intrusive way possible,” he told Khaleej Times.
Dr Treffert is now in correspondence with Nandana’s parents, clearing their doubts and advising them how to go about further research: “I will be sending them a copy of my (second) book Islands of Genius: The Bountiful Mind of the Autistic, Acquired and Sudden Savant which addresses how to ‘train the talent’ in savants and in so doing improve language, social and daily living skills. I hope that will be of help.”
The book provides an update on well-known savants Dr Treffert has been following for years and explores new cases, particularly the “acquired savant” in which neurotypical persons demonstrate previously dormant savant skills, sometimes at a prodigious level following head injury or central nervous system (CNS) disease. It also explores genetic memory—how savants “know things they never learned”.
When he was briefed about Nandana’s parents’ concern that she may not benefit much from regular classes if her mother continued to accompany her as a shadow teacher, influencing her thoughts, intelligence and learning skills, Dr Treffert said: “I think being a shadow teacher in the current class would still be preferable to a special needs class, depending on what the special needs classroom is.”
He also advised Nandana’s parents to take into consideration the recommendation of speciality clinics here.
With reference to their doubts related to Nandana’s skill and its clinical implications, Dr Treffert said: “I don’t know what implications telepathy might have for her right brain/left brain dynamics since it has been seen so rarely. Perhaps imaging studies might give some clues but those studies are probably quite far off. I don’t think brain imaging would really provide much additional insight at this point that would be of help clinically. I don’t know what treatment resources might be available to you in your area and that is an area for us to explore in the future.”
Miracle Girl: Nandana has access to mother’s memory
9-year-old autistic child can feel her mother’s emotions and read her thoughts
It could be a miracle that went unnoticed for a couple of years, say the parents of a nine-year-old autistic child who is showing an extraordinary ability to read her mother’s mind.
Indian girl Nandana’s parents said they noticed the “unusual coincidence” of her reactions to her mother’s thoughts a few months ago. However, when they realised that it was more than a mere coincidence, they could recollect that the child had begun exhibiting the behaviour a couple of years back.
“We don’t know how this is happening. But, she can feel my emotions and read my thoughts,” said Nandana’s mother, Sandhya.
“I used to feel strange when she would come to me and say the name of the food I was thinking of preparing for her. The same way, if my husband and I had decided to take her somewhere, she would know about it without being told about it and would start reacting to it.”
Sandhya said the understanding power of the child, who was found to be autistic when she was one and a half years old, saw drastic changes in the last couple of years.
“Initially, it was very difficult for me to teach her even the concept of some objects. I had to really struggle to make her understand a cup is a cup. It took about a month for her to grasp it. But, these days it is very easy to make her learn something. She is good at Maths. But sometimes I feel when she does her class work it is because I am thinking about it that she is able to do it so fast.”
Sandhya is not like an ordinary mother looking after a child with special needs. In two years, after she realised her daughter was autistic, she did a certificate course in Applied Behaviour Analysis and a post-graduate diploma in Community-Based Rehabilitation from Bangalore University in India. She is also the shadow teacher of Nandana, a grade 3 student in a mainstream school in Sharjah, which Sandhya says has extended very good support to her daughter.
Nandana was initially diagnosed as a highly functioning child with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) and attention deficit hyperactivity syndrome (ADHD). During her routine clinical assessment sessions, she has shown very good improvement.
“Now I strongly doubt that it was because of my presence with her that she was doing very well during assessment in the past two-three years. She used to answer questions so intelligently that was not expected of a child with her disability level or of her age. I think it was because the answers were in my mind that she was able to do so.”
When Sandhya understood that her child was actually able to read her mind, she informed her husband, Unnikrishnan: “I couldn’t believe it myself when I started realising that it is true. But, Nandana is able to read only her mother’s mind, not mine,” he said.
However, the parents did not know how to prove this to the world. Even after going for speech therapy, Nandana has much difficulty in pronouncing words clearly and in sustaining attention. Because of the very reason, it would be difficult for an outsider to clearly decipher that what the child is saying is actually what the mother is thinking about.
“I taught her to type in the computer to tackle this. Now, if I prompt her to type what I am thinking of, she can do that. Sometimes there could be spelling mistakes and she cannot understand the concept of punctuation marks and the space bar. If I say space in my mind when she types the words, she might start typing the word ‘space’ instead of leaving a space between the words,” said Sandhya.
It was in January this year that Nandana learned to use the computer keyboard. By February end, the parents took her to a Child Guidance Clinic where she had received her treatment. A team of experts comprising a specialist psychiatrist, a specialist social worker and a special educator along with one nursing staff witnessed a demonstration of Nandana’s mind-reading skill.
Khaleej Times’ test
It was after this letter from Nandana’s father, Unnikrishnan, was received that Khaleej Times decided to visit the nine-year-old, to test her unique skill before revealing it to the world.
Sitting cross-legged on the sofa in the living room, Nandana showed no unfamiliarity to the KT reporter and photographer, as if she knew we would be visiting her. She was making some weird gestures with her hands and rocking herself in between. But when her father asked her to sit properly, the little girl with bright eyes and two side braids, obeyed at once.
When her mum asked her who this is, she said something that sounded close to the name of the reporter. Albeit with difficulty, we could also figure out that she did say something that sounded like the Khaleej Times. But we were not satisfied and convinced.
In our test, Sandhya was first given a note. It read “044050799 – the office number of Khaleej Times.” As soon as she read it in her mind, Sandhya sat with Nandana across a table. The computer was kept in such a way that the keyboard faced the daughter and the monitor faced the mother.
When her mother asked her to start typing, Nandana started keying in the numbers without even constantly looking at her mother. As she typed 044050799, it became evident to us that the child can actually read her mind! We were witnessing something unseen and unheard of.
Whenever Nandana’s pace slowed down, Sandhya had to prompt her saying type next.
The mother had already told us that Nandana doesn’t understand the concept of a leaving space between the words.
Because of that, we allowed Sandhya to press the space bar wherever it was necessary. In between, she also had to press backspace (with our permission) to delete any wrong spelling Nandana had typed.
When Nandana successfully completed the first test, we decided to try her telepathic skill. This time the note given to her mother read: “Can I have some warm water please?”
The result came out as a sentence without any space between the words and with some minor spelling mistakes in between. But, it was still as amazing as the first instance.
To determine how the child would react when the mother is away, we sent Nandana to the bedroom and asked Sandhya to think about an object. When she decided the object as “biscuit” and told us that, without letting Nandana hear it, we called Nandana to the living room. Sandhya was then sent to the bedroom.
When Nandana’s father Unnikrishnan asked her what the object was, the child was initially reluctant to say anything. Then her mother prompted her from inside, saying aloud, “say what it is Nandana.” Looking very shy, the child leaned on her father and started pronouncing the word slowly. “bis...ki..t,” she said.
Khaleej Times visited the child to see her unique ability, after receiving a copy of a letter from the specialist psychiatrist Dr Jeena Fiji who certified “witnessing the strength of Nandana to receive her mother’s thoughts, desires and intentions.”
The letter that came subsequent to a call from Unnikrishnan had not convinced us completely. However, we were left amazed and totally impressed when Nandana passed our tests with flying colours.
We spoke to a few experts working in the fields of psychology, neurology and autism to get their reactions on this peculiar phenomenon.
They have read about, heard of or have even seen autistic children and adults with savant skills like having photographic memory, playing music perfectly after hearing it just once, or doing complex mathematical calculations in one’s head. However, none had read or heard about the mind-reading capability that Nandana is exhibiting. After hearing about Nandana’s case, the experts suggested that studies be done to explore the cause and future benefits of the child’s unique skill.
The parents said they also wanted to do the same. But they are anxious and apprehensive, as well. “We want to know how it is possible for her to have this ability and how best we can make use of this for her future benefits or for others. That is the reason we approached Khaleej Times. But I don’t intend to affect my child by exposing her to various media, especially visual media,” said Unnikrishnan.
Sandhya said she was also worried if the child would lose the ability that she had received in recent years: “But, I believe we need to analyse it further.”
Nandana’s mind-reading skills
A team of experts at a Child Guidance Clinic in Sharjah last month witnessed nine-year-old Nandana’s ability to read her mother’s mind.
The specialist psychiatrist at Sunny Speciality Medical Centre in Sharjah, Dr Jeena Fiji, who headed the team, has certified witnessing “the strength of Nandana to read her mother’s thoughts, desires and intentions.”
In a letter certifying this, a copy of which is available with Khaleej Times, Dr Fiji has narrated Nandana’s case as follows.
Nandana was assessed at the Clinic in 2008 and is a case of Autistic Spectrum Disorder. She is undergoing continuous speech therapy and has shown quite an improvement on this front. However, Nandana still has difficulty with clarity words and in sustaining attention.
Nandana’s mother noticed that she has the ability to read her mother’s mind. The strength of the child was demonstrated at CGC on February 21. A team comprising specialist psychiatrist, specialist social worker and a specialist educator along with nursing staff witnessed this demonstration.
Nandana had come with her mother Sandhya Unnikrishnan. A poem of Grade 2 level was written and given to Sandhya. After her mother had read the poem in her mind, Nandana was asked to type in the laptop provided to her.
Nandana could type the entire poem without any prompt. A six digit number was also written and given to Sandhya, which too, Nandana could type after reading her mother’s mind.
Sandhya was given a written, one digit number which she glanced through and left the room. Nandana was asked to write the number and she could type down the same number, indicating her strength to read her mother’s mind even if her mother was not physically around her, Dr Fiji stated in the letter, wishing Nandana the best in life.
What the experts say
The Chairman of the Biological Psychiatry Section of the Indian Psychiatry Society (IPS) Dr Philip John was one of the experts Khaleej Times spoke with to comment on Nandana’s extraordinary ability to read her mother’s mind.
We chose him as the case had been referred to Dr John who is also a visiting consultant at the Child Guidance Clinic in Sharjah, where Nandana had received her treatment for autism.
“We see several autistic children with savant skills like unusual Mathematical skills, extraordinary memory about calendar days and dates. In such cases, they have access to their memory. In some people with schizophrenia, there is a symptom called “thought broadcast” wherein they believe their thoughts are known to others. It is not transmission of memory. In Nandana’s case, she has access to her mother’s memory and there is a transmission of memory, that too without a medium. This is the first time I am seeing a case like this. Here, we are talking about memory as a function which is why it is very surprising. This is a very rare phenomenon of transmission of memory without a medium.”
The veteran psychiatrist said Nandana’s could be a case of peculiar genetic memory which could be found only between the mother and child who are alive at the same time.
He said autism is all about lack of connectivity in the brain circuit and that is why he uses medication to improve autistic children’s connectivity: “We know high functioning autistic children can have better response. But, it is very much surprising that Nandana can connect with her mother’s thoughts and emotions and react to them.”
When briefed about Nandana’s special ability, clinical psychologist at Dubai Autism Centre, Urmi Mala Singh, said she cannot consider it as among the known savant skills, from what she heard. With the experience of two decades in mental health services and seven years exclusively with autistic children, Singh said she had not come across any such telepathic ability among any of the special needs children.
Savvy Kisani, mother of an autistic teen who also became a special educator like Nandana’s mother Sandhya, said she believed that some autistic children at times show certain extrasensory perceptions: “Though they cannot say, they can visualise that something is going to happen. My son Krishna had behaved very weirdly when my father was about to die. He would cry loudly and run into his grandfather’s room and bang his head on the door. My mother then said that probably it was time for my father to leave. Yes it was. So, I believe they can foresee things. But I don’t know about their telepathic ability to read someone else’s mind as you explained in this child’s case.”
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