Calendar Game

Alexandra Wright’s

Calendar Game

First drafted 2009 now revised and updated 2011

Alex is fourteen and has autism

She is a joy bringer

Alex can give you the day of the week for any date, in any year, you give her. (We have experimented with years up to 2400 and back to 1800)

It takes her about 2 seconds when she is concentrating.

This is a calculation.  But how does she do it?  We have no clear idea but it is almost certainly linked with her synesthesia.



Alexandra’s Calendar Game


During 2008/9 Alex  increasingly made reference to the date and day on which something happened in the family.  She frequently dated exactly when we went on holiday and when we came back, referring to holidays taking place six or seven years before.

In July, 2009, while we were travelling in England on holiday, Timi, her fourteen year old sister, found the calendar for 2013 on her mobile and asked Alexandra to give her the day of the week for ten randomly chosen dates.  Alex responded with the correct day for all ten dates.

Later, I wrote out ten random dates from 2010  plus the days and asked her for the days giving her only the date eg

Me:  2010. January 30.  What day is it?

Alex: Saturday.

Me: Yes.

Alexandra got 9/10 and the wrong one she got right with her second shot.  The wrong one was the first one and I think she was simply not in full concentration mode.

I then gave her ten dates from 2012 knowing it was a leap year.  She only got 4/10.  I was sure it was lack of concentration.  I asked her the same ten dates four hours later and she got 9/10.  The one she got wrong was March 25 which was a Sunday.  She said, Monday.  I said, Try again and she said, Sunday, ie correctly.  I asked if she had not concentrated when saying Monday. She said, ‘No, I was thinking of 2013.’ I looked up 2013 and March 25 was a Monday.

We refer to this as her ‘calendar game’.  We did 2010 and the first attempt at 2012 when she was just sitting there ready to play the game.  We did the second attempt at 2012 and then 2020 when she was working on the illustrations in one of her books.  She seemed, evidently, to be able to do both things at the same time.

A few weeks later I looked up ten dates for 2050.  I wondered if it would be too difficult.  Alex was doing the illustrations in one of her books when I went in.

Would you like to play the date game?

She responded very cheerfully,  Oh, yes.

Its going to be very difficult.  Its for the year 2050.

She grinned and said, Very difficult.

For the first two dates I read out she only got the correct day on her third attempt.

Then I changed my way of asking from saying April twelth, for the second one, to October twenty six, for the third one.  I left off the ‘th’.  She got the next eight right the first time.  I went back and asked the first two dates again and she got them right immediately.

By the way when she said Wednesday, for October 26, she added, ‘Just like in 2005.’

I looked up October 26 in 2005 and it was a Wednesday.

January 2011 (the time when the first draft of this article was revised)

By January 2011 when I came to revise this article, her ability to do the calculation had become more fluent.  Using the computer, I took the years 1800 and 2400 as two examples of the Gregorian calendar from the website.  Alex was very tired; it was 10.30 pm and she had stayed up until 2am on New Years night, the evening before.  Her performance was incredible but, given her tiredness even more remarkable.

When I said 1800 she immediately said, ‘A leap year.’  (Two years earlier, in spite of her calculations she did not know the phrase, ‘leap year’, though clearly she must have known the concept it refers to.)  The first date I gave her was January 1 which was Wednesday but she said Monday…Tuesday.  I said, No, try again and gave her the next date of February 8 which was a Saturday. She said, ‘Thursday’.  I said, ‘Try again.’ And she said, ‘Saturday’.  We then did March 30 and she took 3 goes to get it right as Sunday.  Then April 10 and she got it right first time, Thursday.  And after this she got every date right immediately.

We then did 2400.  The first date she only got right the fourth time but all the other eleven dates she got right the first time and immediately…less than one second to respond.

(Later in the day, visitors came and we did the game with 1800 and 2400 and then she did not make a single mistake.)


How does she do it?

Calculating or remembering?

Obviously she is calculating and not remembering because she can never have seen a calendar for 2400 and so on.  It is true that she has become fascinated by calendars and can find them on a mobile phone but she first did the ‘calendar game’ before she knew that and, furthermore, mobile phones don’t give calendars for 2400 and 1800.


Alex, when she is not writing and illustrating her stories, often stands or sits with her eyes closed and moves her head and her hands in a brisk and precise manner.  She says she is thinking…usually she says she is thinking of numbers or of dates.  By the way, she has allotted a colour to every day in the week during each year and has done so for years up to 2080 and has gone to the trouble to type this out…page after page.  She puts her clothes out every night according to the colour of the following day.

As she is calculating and not remembering in her calendar game it may be that she is using colours in some way.  Colours and shapes have been declared as the way in which some other people who are capable of extraordinary calculations, work out their particular challenges.

For Alex every day and every year has a particular colour.  Experiencing colours as representing other concepts is called synesthesia. It may be that she is seeing colours rather than numbers as numbers.  It may be this allows her to do these extraordinary calculations.

(For more on synesthesia see the two articles below)

Immediately after she had done the 2400 experiment she wanted to do 1935 and 1947 which she said were green years…which she qualified a moment later by saying, ‘light green’.  She got all twelve randomly chosen dates for 1935, right first time and within a second.

Then we did 1947, the other light green year. I used the same dates as for 1935 to see if years with the same colour had the same dates and days.  It was interesting to find out that they were one day apart throughout.  She got all twelve dates correct first time.

We did 1936 which said was a red year and a leap year and she got all twelve dates correct and instantly.

We need a researcher with a highly tuned brain to be able to carry out research and to track down what system she is using. Whatever her system is it is self taught or self realised.  When I ask her she makes no attempt to explain it.  However, colour constantly comes up as a reference.  Furthermore, it is not a general mathematical skill because she finds quite simple sums difficult to do.

Here is a dialogue between Alex and her teacher in January 2011:

Enid: Alex what is six minus one?

Alex: Three.

Enid:  Alex that is ridiculous.  If you give me silly answers like that again I will take your head off.

Alex: Don’t take my head off!

(They are a wonderful pair…the teacher is as eccentric as Alex.  They have been working together for several years now and we admire Enid immensely.)



Reflections on her ability

How do I feel about Alex’s ability to perform these extraordinary calculations?  The first time Timi did her formal bit of research,  while we were travelling,  ‘my blood ran cold’.  All my life I have rejected the mystical except the mystical quality of infinite complexity.  I felt awe in the presence of this glimpse of the infinite complexity of the human mind.

How do I think about this?  All my instincts tell me that Alex is probably exceptional, not in her intelligence, but in her ability to access particular aspects of her intelligence.  Qatar is a desert.  They have found exactly how to access immense gas reserves beneath the gritty desert surface.  Alexandra is no gritty desert but a totally engaging and wonderful young girl of twelve who climbs trees, swims in stormy seas, swoops on skiis on high Alpine slopes, sings and works on her books five or six hours a day…but has no friends and does not know how to ‘be’ with other young people.

We all have these extraordinary depths of intelligence (there are 100 billion neurons in every head!) and we do use some of them everyday.   We walk and don’t fall over.  We recognise people we know.  We  organise our thoughts and articulate words.  We drive a car or ride a bicycle.  On the other hand, my guess is that the potential of our immense reserves of intelligence remain largely untouched during our entire lives.  Millionaires making do on a sandwich.

What do I conclude?  Any attempts to access this vast reserve of intelligence is worth trying in all of us.

For Alex?  The last thing we want is for Alexandra to be seen as another, ‘Rainman’ autistic freak.  Being able to calculate dates and days is not very useful…not exactly central to one’s daily needs.  But it is a beautiful reminder of our huge potential and acts as an inspiring reference for our daily work in trying to help Alexandra to access those parts of her intelligence which will allow her to take a more normal part in daily life which she so much wants to do…and must do if she is to survive in this harsh world of ours.

For all our children?  This experience with Alexandra is, I believe, a clear signpost to the vast intelligence which all children bring to us.  Our job is to help them to access more of their intelligence for their benefit and for ours.

Are we doing that? Or are we focussing their minds, too much,  on relatively trivial information and skills…helping them to become water skater insects on the surface of their deep wells of intelligence?





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