How a Yorkshire mathematician with Asperger Syndrome inspired a new film

As X+Y hits the big screen, Rob Parsons meets the real star of the movie.

Undated Film Still Handout from X + Y. Pictured: Asa Butterfield as Nathan Ellis. See PA Feature FILM Film Reviews. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/Koch Media/Origin Pictures/Nick Wall. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature FILM Film Reviews.

Though he had already seen the movie, Daniel Lightwing admitted feeling overcome with emotion as he watched X+Y with his family at a cinema in York this weekend.

The 26-year-old’s success in overcoming the challenges of Asperger Syndrome was the inspiration for the soon-to-be-released film and he spent time with the lead actor Asa Butterfield to ensure his portrayal was accurate.

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X+Y tells the story of Nathan Ellis, a teenager on the autistic spectrum who gains confidence, makes friends and eventually falls in love after his gift for maths is nurtured. When asked for his verdict after the preview screening, he described being “really happy with how it turned out”. He told the audience at the City Screen Picturehouse: “It made me cry again when I watched it this time. There are moments in the film which made me feel like I am watching myself.”

Asa Butterfield and Sally Hawkins star in X+Y

Though in some parts fictional, the film, released nationwide tomorrow, is based largely on Daniel’s life as a boy and young man living with Asperger Syndrome. The film is inspired by the BBC documentary Beautiful Young Minds, shown on BBC2 in 2007 which told the story of Daniel and other brilliant teenagers battling it out to represent the UK in the International Maths Olympiad (IMO).

Daniel, originally from Warthill, near York, had problems at school which were only explained after he was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, a condition which affects how he relates to others. He overcame this to graduate with double honours degree in maths and oriental studies from Trinity College, Cambridge University, and is fluent in Mandarin Chinese. He went on to work as a programmer for Google and now works in the City of London.

X+Y’s director Morgan Matthews came across Daniel while making Beautiful Young Minds. The documentary was meant to be a back-up in case other projects, including one about the world taxidermy championships, fell flat, but ended up eclipsing them all.

The new movie stars Asa Butterfield as Nathan and Sally Hawkins as his mother. “I met with the actor and there are a lot of times where he is frustrated and the way he shows that, that came from me,” said Daniel. “There are scenes where Nathan is closed off from his parents and not able to connect with them emotionally, I don’t have that but I think that is an important message.”

Professor Sylvia Johnson, a retired academic from Sheffield and trustee at the National Autistic Society, was in a better position than most to judge the accuracy of the film’s portrayal. Her son Samuel Cropton, 27, who has been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, is also a mathematician and gained a first class honours degree in the subject at Sheffield Hallam University.

She said: “What came across very well was how someone who is very able on the autism spectrum can cope with these very abstract concepts but struggles on a day-to-day basis with some of the more social situations. My son said afterwards to Daniel’s mother Carolyn ‘I really felt for him for some of the things, I was squirming thinking it was really awful for him’.”

Professor Johnson, 64, said there was now increased awareness of autism, but that many diagnosed with a condition still find it hard to overcome the challenges they face.

“This [film] is one end of the spectrum,” she said. “There are some people who are extremely disabled on the spectrum and have no language and require 24 hour support. They find it extremely difficult to cope with the environment, some people are extremely sensitive to sound and light.

“For people who are on the high end of the spectrum they are better able to find strategies for dealing with the things they find more difficult, but these things do not disappear in terms of how difficult they are.”