What is life like for a teenage prodigy?
- 7 November 2011
- From the section Magazine
Cameron Thompson is a 14-year-old maths prodigy from north Wales. He passed with high grades at maths GCSE and A-level and is now taking an Open University degree in pure maths. So what does it feel like to be a teenager growing up with raging hormones and a towering intellect?
At the age of 11, Cameron sat a school entrance maths test.
"One hundred and forty one out of 140, I broke the system, I think I did well," he says.
At the same age, he sailed through two GCSEs in maths and additional maths, and in the same year passed his maths A-level with flying colours. But being brilliant at maths has become Cameron's entire identity, and trying to fit in at school and develop his social skills has somehow become left behind in a desire to escape mediocrity.
"I have the social ability of a talking potato," he says.
"Most people my age do despise me. I've been like this for years. I'm used to being ignored."
The foundations of his academic success have also been shaken by the fact that his grades for his degree course have been dropping, and he is panicking. In the first year, his marks were up in the 80s, putting him in the top 0.5%. But on a recent assignment, he scored 72%, a healthy grade by most people's standards, but not enough to secure the distinction that he wants.
"I am a bit worried about failing the Open University," he says. "I just am, despite the fact that, technically, I shouldn't be doing it for about another five years."
Although Cameron can easily identify the answers, he has trouble explaining how he came to his conclusion, bringing down his overall marks, and he will only be able to continue with the degree if his marks show signs of improvement.
His parents, Rod and Alison, who live near Wrexham, are unsure whether his struggle to explain is due to his age, or the fact he has been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, a type of autism that can occasionally combine great mental prowess with communication problems.
"Apparently plenty of people with Asperger's are really intelligent, high achievers," Cameron says. "People like Einstein and Newton, they had supposed Asperger's."
The pressure of making sure his marks improve on his next assignment is a worry for Cameron.
It is not his parents that drive this ambition to achieve, but Cameron himself, and to add to this stress he is also growing up.
"Mum first noticed a moustache, she saw it and told me about it," he explains. Not long after that, one of his younger sisters, 10-year-old Beth, accidentally ripped it off with a piece of sticky tape.
With his family moving house, however, Cameron is facing a fresh start at a new school and the opportunity to try to establish a new social life.
"It gives me a chance to start again, so they reckon [I'll] actually work my way up the social ladder, instead of just staying at the bottom," he says.
"If I can make it to the middle I'm less likely to be bullied there, certainly not physically."
One characteristic of Asperger's is a difficulty to make friends, and Alison worries that her son does not always listen to social cues.
"Sometimes tact goes right over his head. Naive would be the best word for it," she says.
"He is a brilliant kid. He couldn't do enough for everybody. At the same time, while sometimes he is oblivious, he is also very sensitive," she says.
Choosing the right school for Cameron was critical, as his parents want him to develop a full range of skills and not just be an academic success.
"We need to give him a good balance, we need to cater for his emotional needs, we need to cater for his social needs and develop a broad range of skills," says his father Rod.
"Quite where we go when he hits GCSE year and he turns up with an honours degree is going to be a strange one."
Cameron's new high school specialises in looking after children who are on the autistic spectrum and his teacher, Enid Moore, is keen to make sure that he takes his social studies seriously.
She stresses that it is not enough to have examination certificates - Cameron needs to learn how to relate to people his own age and maintain friendships.
On his first day he met Tim, another intelligent teenager who also has Asperger's Syndrome. The two share similar interests and issues, which means they can support each other through the difficult times.
"It's amazing to have a new friend because he's funny... and he is also into the same computer games as me. The main thing that keeps us together is we both agree on the fact that [Justin] Bieber is an idiot," says Tim.
Inspired by his new social life at school, Cameron has also - for the first time in his life - gone on a day out with a friend from his karate class to a computer games expo or "geek convention".
Away from his growing teenage pursuits, Cameron is hoping to complete his degree course by the time he is 16. The mark on his last degree paper shows an improvement. With a total of 77%, Cameron can continue with the course, but is still disappointed with the result.
"I expected above 80," he says. "I'm desperate to achieve, I'm desperate to get high marks. I'm too hard on myself."
Prof Imre Leader, a maths fellow from Trinity College, Cambridge, has assessed Cameron's maths skills, and believes there is no point fast-forwarding through exams and qualifications unless someone is achieving 99% on every exam.
"There's quite an important distinction between progressing, taking lots of exams as fast as you can, getting four or five years ahead of yourself, and relaxing and enjoying the level that you are at - what we call enrichment - doing some harder thinking material on your own level of maths.
"That's often a more fruitful thing in the long run," he says.
He has suggested that Cameron slows down a little and studies for a degree in maths at Cambridge or Oxford University at the age of 18, with those his own age. He also recommends that he takes part in summer camps with talented maths students from other schools.
Although he still wants to complete his Open University degree, Prof Leader's advice has given Cameron another option in life.
"He taught me that you need to go behind the scenes in maths. Not just on the surface but deep within. And as Prof Leader said, there are other people like me, high maths abilities, bad school lives, I am not alone. Spooky."
Since he turned 14, Cameron has a new-found interest in girls and has been on his first date without his parents.
"I started becoming interested in women about a few months ago," he says. "I started to like them instead of being disgusted by them."
So, as Cameron is very happy with his new social life and has more of a plan for his long-term future, the growing pains are definitely easing for this teenage prodigy.