Former York College student Daniel Lightwing whose sky-high abilities in maths inspired a new film tells his story to CHARLES HUTCHINSON.

DOMENTARY plus feature equals two films that relate the story of maths whizz and former York College student Daniel Lightwing.

First came Morgan Matthews’ BBC documentary Beautiful Young Minds in 2007, which followed some of the brightest mathematical brains of a generation as they prepared to compete in the International Mathematics Olympiad. Seventeen-year-old Daniel, from Warthill, was among them, training for a year with the UK maths squad, teaching English in China and travelling. Now comes X+Y, the feature film version.

Daniel, the son of Elvington GP David and Maths teacher Carolyn, had been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism that affects the way a person communicates and relates to others. That story is being told again by Matthews in X+Y, now showing at Vue Cinemas at Clifton Moor and at City Screen, York, where Daniel attended an invite-only preview screening earlier this month with the director.

“Morgan kind of mentioned his idea about three years ago that he wanted to do a feature film, but we didn’t talk about it in depth until two years ago, when I saw the first draft, which wasn’t as good as it is now,” says Daniel, now in his 20s, on the phone from London, where he works as a programmer in the online betting odds industry.

“I did make suggestions at the time, like there was a motif of traffic lights running through the film, something that the writer thought could be linked to a car crash where the central character’s died. Originally in the script was because the traffic light system wasn’t perfect, but I asked if that could be changed, along with a few other changes.”

Daniel’s story still forms the basis of X+Y, wherein a young man with Asperger’s, who struggled with social interactions and relationships, attained a silver medal in the International Mathematics Olympiad, representing the UK. The boy, played by The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas actor Asa Butterfield, is now called Nathan, who finds the comfort and security he needs in numbers and mathematics.

“It’s become a wider story,” says Daniel.

“I would say Nathan’s personality is based on me and lot of things that happen are from my story, but things like the boy’s complicated relationship with his mother, that’s something they added, and of course, my father didn’t die in a car crash. The fictionalised version is always more interesting than real life, like the way it can kill off my father.

“And whereas I have Asperger’s, which makes me hyper-emotional, I think Nathan’s character is a blend of myself and someone else on the spectrum. There are other characters too, like Luke, who is always talking, whereas I’m shy, so it shows a range of people on the spectrum.”

Daniel has found further contrasts between the documentary and feature film.

“When I watched the documentary, there were parts of it that made me feel embarrassed because of what I said, but in the film, a lot of the words had been said by me, but the writer came up with other things too, and as an actor, Asa could play me better than I could,” he says. “Things like physical expressions, as I don’t know what I look like when I’m talking.”

Daniel was struck by one quote in X+Y.

“There’s a line that say ‘it’s OK to be weird if you’re gifted, but if you’re not gifted that just leaves weird’,” he says. “It’s what I felt when I was in that competition at that time of my life, but no one was saying it, but it’s how I should have expressed it all along.”

Daniel had once said “it’s good to be different”. “And I still very much agree with that sentiment. My confidence in life now comes from feeling different, but there are lots of things I would have said then that I would think differently about now, but at the time, everyone I knew was a mathematician and that would skew things.

“At primary school maths teachers were the ones I liked the most and I didn’t like the others. The school was like a prison to me; when I think back to when I was eight or nine, I was quite good at most subjects but wasn’t particularly focused on that, but there were times when I would test out the teachers, and maybe it was a coincidence that the teacher I got on with was the Maths teacher.

“The less social contact I had to have with a subject the better. Maths was easier to understand but subjects like English and History required social interaction. Maths is not a language but a system that you can understand more easily; it’s not random and chaotic.”

Daniel’s love of China, its language and his marriage to Yan Zhu all featured in Beautiful Young Minds and find many similarities in X+Y. In his own life, he went on to study mathematics and oriental studies at Cambridge, move to London, work for Google and now in the betting world.

As he reflects on the potential impact of X+Y, he wants it to have two benefits. “I hope it makes more children interested in maths, and I think it does a pretty good job making it look exciting,” he says. “I also hope it shows there’s nothing wrong with having Asperger’s, more than we have characteristics and gifts that others don’t and there’s something good in differences from others.”