In the Academy Award–winning film “Rain Man,” actor Dustin Hoffman played a man who had autism and extraordinary math skills. The film was based on anecdotal evidence accumulated over many years suggesting that high-functioning individuals with autism are particularly talented in math.
And now new research seems to add to the evidence that certain individuals with autism have exceptional math skills, and the researchers speculate as to why this might be the case.
The study was headed by Teresa Luculano, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in psychiatry at Stanford University, and the findings were published online August 19 in Biological Psychiatry.
The study included 36 children aged 7 to 12. Eighteen had autism spectrum disorder (ASD), but all were within an IQ range considered to be high functioning. The other 18 were typically developing children who were matched with the former on age, gender, and IQ score.
The researchers evaluated all of the children’s arithmetic problem-solving abilities. They found that those with ASD excelled significantly more in this area than did their peers without the disorder. Moreover, the children with ASD were significantly more likely than controls to use an analytical technique called decomposition to solve arithmetic problems. Decomposition involves breaking down a problem into smaller problems. Even when typically developing children use decomposition, they tend to be at a more advanced stage of math-skill development than their peers who rely on less-sophisticated strategies such as finger counting.
Subsequently, the researchers used functional MRI imaging to examine the brain activity of all the study subjects while they were attempting to solve arithmetic problems.
The children with ASD engaged the same brain areas as their typically developing peers did. However, those in the ASD group showed different activation patterns in certain regions of the prefrontal cortex, the medial temporal lobe, the posterior parietal cortex, and the ventral temporal-occipital cortex that are known to be involved in numerical problem solving.
But perhaps most interestingly, the left ventral temporal-occipital cortex was the only brain area where activation patterns predicted numerical problem-solving skills in children with ASD. This brain area, Luculano explained during an interview with Psychiatric News, “is normally devoted to face processing, which other researchers have shown to be hypoactivated in children with autism when processing faces.” Thus “cortical regions typically involved in perceptual expertise may be utilized in novel ways in autism,” Luculano and her team suggested in their report.
The findings “provide new evidence for numerical problem solving as a domain of cognitive strength in children with autism,” the researchers said. And as Luculano stressed, “It’s vital that not only clinicians, but parents and educators, keep in mind that individuals with autism might be gifted with superior abilities, math being one of them.”
The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health, the Stanford Institute for Neuroscience, the Singer Foundation, and University College London. ■