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Math whiz kids with autism show different brain patterns, study shows

Jacob Hall, 3, swings at the Highlands Center for Autism playground, Thursday, April 18, 2013 in Prestonsburg, Kentucky. Photo: John Flavell/Lexington Herald-Leader/MCT

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Autism is usually thought of as a serious developmental problem. People who are autistic often have trouble communicating with others and may have a tendency to do things over and over, or to focus on one interest to the exclusion of everything else.

Now, though, new research suggests that autism may not be a disability, but rather a different way of thinking.

A group of Stanford researchers set out to study children who are autistic, but who also have extraordinary skills. They compared San Francisco Bay Area children of average intelligence with autism to otherwise similar children who are not autistic. The children with autism were found to have superior math skills.

The two group’s brain scans were different, as well. Images of the autistic children’s brains while calculating math problems revealed a different pattern of activity than those of non-autistic children.

Study The First Of Its Kind

This small but important study, the first of its type, “makes us better aware of the unique talents that these people have,” said postdoctoral scholar Teresa Iuculano, lead author of the study. This new understanding has the potential to help autistic children "have better academic and professional lives," she said. “We think it could be reassuring for parents.”

The study was published online in the journal Biological Psychiatry on Saturday, Aug. 17.

Like all those with autism, the children had difficulty talking with people. They could be very shy, and had trouble understanding what mood people were in, which could make them behave inappropriately, but they showed strengths as well, according to the team of scientists.

The autistic brain doesn't necessarily work less well than a normal brain, said Iuculano. Instead, it could just be "a different brain."

Autism comes in many forms. It can involve profound retardation, but autistic people can also have exceptional skills or talents, known as “savant” abilities.

Like Dustin Hoffman’s character in the movie “Rain Man,” they may excel at calendar calculation. This skill allows them to quickly identify on which day of the week someone was born, based on the year of birth, or they may have stunning visual memories. For example, they may remember how many windows are in a skyscraper they've seen only once.

"Absolutely Gifted" Mathematician

But the discovery of math talents in such children is particularly significant.

“The study backs up what we already know — that some of these kids have great talents and can often excel. But they look at the world differently, organize it differently, and sometimes focus on things differently,” said Brad Boardman, executive director of the Morgan Autism Center in San Jose, a school for youths and adults with autism.

Jeff, a 43-year-client at the center, solves multiplication problems for relaxation, Boardman said. “He will … do intricate multiplication — pages and pages of problems. He is absolutely gifted."

Boardman added, “If they are interested in a topic … that interest can be a springboard for a really in-depth understanding." They can do really well in things like engineering or software design, he added. 

The Stanford researchers didn’t rule out the possibility that children who had autism had stronger math skills because of years of obsessive practice — and that other children might show similar skills if they had the motivation.

But the researchers believe there is a biological basis for the difference, as well.

They studied 36 youngsters, age 7 to 12. Half had been diagnosed with autism but all participants had IQs in the normal range.

Unusual Pattern Of Brain Activity

On standardized math tests, the children with autism did significantly better than the others. The average test score of the non-autistic group was 100; for the children with autism, it was 125.

In interviews after the test, the children with autism described a more analytic approach to problem-solving. While other children counted on their fingers or memorized answers, the autistic children broke the problem down into parts — a method called decomposition. For instance, if asked the sum of 7 plus 4, they would add 7 plus 3, then add one.

Then, the researchers used a magnetic resonance imaging scanner to measure the children's brain activity as they worked on solving the math problems. The brain scans of the children with autism revealed an unusual pattern of activity in a part of a brain just below the ears, called the ventral temporal occipital cortex.

Normally, the ventral temporal occipital cortex specializes in processing visual objects, including faces. That led the team to wonder whether autistic children’s focus on math undercuts their ability to recognize the emotional cues in conversation.

“This different brain architecture might even ... [help] certain strong skills to develop, such as problem-solving, even though there are things that they may not be good at,” said Iuculano.

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