Autistic children with average IQs possess superior math ability compared with non-autistic children in the same IQ range, a new study suggests. For some readers this comes as no surprise, as more than a few autistic children have shown exceptional numerical skills.

What is astonishing is that these exceptional math abilities are associated with activity in an area of the brain associated with recognizing faces — a skill typically found to be lacking in autistic children.

"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," said Vinod Menon, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine, in a press release. Menon is also senior author of the study, conducted by researchers from Stanford University School of Medicine and Lucile Packard Children's Hospital, and slated for online publication tomorrow in Biological Psychiatry.


The participants in the study were 28 boys and eight girls, divided into two groups: one group had been diagnosed with autism, the other not. The children ranged in age from seven to 12 and all showed normal verbal and reading skills on standardized tests.

When the researchers processed the standardized math tests, though, they found the autistic children had shown greater ability than the children in the control group.

Afterwards, the researchers interviewed the children to understand what problem-solving strategies each had used. Did they count on their fingers? Or maybe they simply remembered an answer. How often did each child break the problem down into component parts, a technique known as ‘decomposition,’ they wondered.

Collecting and analyzing the information, the researchers discovered the autistic children used decomposition strategies more often than the non-autistic children.

Next, the researchers requested the children solve math problems while their brain activity was measured in an MRI scanner. For this part of the study, the children lay down within the MRI bed and remained still while working on the problems. The scans of the autistic children showed a pattern of activity in the ventral temporal occipital cortex, an area of the brain that specializes in processing visual objects, including faces.

Symptoms of Autism

Menon emphasized that not all children with autism have exceptional math abilities; in fact, some children with autism have superior skills in the areas of music and art.

The autism spectrum disorders appear in early childhood and encompass a group of serious developmental problems. Generally, autistic children have difficulty in the areas of language, behavior, and social interaction, finding it especially difficult to interpret nonverbal cues in conversations. Frequently they have a limited range of interests and prefer inanimate objects to people. Autistic children often engage in repetitive behaviors, such as rocking, spinning, or hand-flapping. In addition to such deficits, children with autism sometimes exhibit exceptional and in many cases unusual talents, known as savant abilities. For instance, some can instantly recall the day of the week of any calendar date — an example would be that June 3, 1990, was a Sunday.

Menon explained that gaining information and understanding the neural basis underlying variations in problem-solving abilities is an important topic for future research. The research team is gathering data from a larger group of children with autism to learn more about similarities and differences in their mathematical abilities.

Source: Biological Psychiatry. 2013.