Autistic kids who best their peers at math have a unique pattern of brain organization, according to a new study.
Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital found that children with autism and average IQs consistently demonstrated superior math skills compared to non-autistic children in the same IQ range.
“There appears to be a unique pattern of brain organization that underlies superior problem-solving abilities in children with autism,” said Vinod Menon, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and a member of the Child Health Research Institute at Packard Children’s.
The autistic children’s enhanced math abilities were tied to patterns of activation in a particular area of their brains — an area normally associated with recognizing faces and visual objects, noted Menon, who is senior author of the study.
Children with autism have difficulty with social interactions, especially interpreting nonverbal cues in face-to-face conversations. They often engage in repetitive behaviors and have a restricted range of interests, the researchers said.
But they sometimes exhibit exceptional skills or talents, known as savant abilities. For example, some can instantly recall the day of the week of any calendar date within a particular range of years — for example, that May 21, 1982, was a Friday. Others display superior mathematical skills.
“Remembering calendar dates is probably not going to help you with academic and professional success,” Menon said.
“But being able to solve numerical problems and developing good mathematical skills could make a big difference in the life of a child with autism.”
The participants in the study were 36 children between the ages of 7 and 12. Half had been diagnosed with autism. Each group had 14 boys and four girls, as autism disproportionately affects boys, the researchers noted.
All of the children had IQs in the normal range and showed normal verbal and reading skills on standardized tests administered as part of the recruitment process for the study. However, researchers found that on the standardized math tests, the children with autism outperformed the other children.
After the math test, researchers interviewed the children to assess which types of problem-solving strategies each had used: Simply remembering an answer they already knew; counting on their fingers or in their heads; or breaking the problem down into components, a comparatively sophisticated method called decomposition.
The children with autism displayed greater use of decomposition strategies, suggesting that more analytic strategies, rather than rote memory, were the source of their enhanced abilities, the researchers said.
The children then worked on math problems while their brain activity was measured in an MRI scanner, in which they had to lie down and remain still. The brain scans of the autistic children revealed an unusual pattern of activity in the ventral temporal occipital cortex, an area specialized for processing visual objects, including faces, according to the researchers.
“Our findings suggest that altered patterns of brain organization in areas typically devoted to face processing may underlie the ability of children with autism to develop specialized skills in numerical problem solving,” said postdoctoral scholar Teresa Iuculano, Ph.D., the study’s lead author.
Menon added that previous research “has focused almost exclusively on weaknesses in children with autism. Our study supports the idea that the atypical brain development in autism can lead, not just to deficits, but also to some remarkable cognitive strengths. We think this can be reassuring to parents.”
The research team is now gathering data from a larger group of children with autism to learn more about individual differences in mathematical abilities.
Menon emphasized that not all children with autism have superior math abilities, and that understanding the neural basis of variations in problem-solving abilities is an important topic for future research.
The study was published in Biological Psychiatry.