Children with autism face many challenges – difficulty with communication and social interactions, heightened sensory sensitivities, and many other common co-occurring issues that can throw a monkey wrench into many everyday activities. There are also several well-documented strengths that tend to co-occur with autism, including a strong, photographic memory, artistic talent, and an affinity for animals. Some individuals with autism are also extremely talented at mathematics.
Are these children born with mathematical talent, or does it develop as they mature? A study of typically-developing children published in the August 17 edition of Nature Neuroscience found that changes in the hippocampus, a brain area associated with memory formation, paralleled changes in math strategies used by the children.
The study presented two groups of children and adolescents, ages 7-9 and 14-17, with simple single digit addition problems. Not surprisingly, the younger children tended to use strategies such as counting their fingers, while the older subjects relied more on memory. When the same children were re-tested one year later, researchers found less finger-counting and more reliance on memory. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) showed increased activation of the hippocampus between the first and second testing, along with decreased neuronal activations in the prefrontal and parietal cortices involved in counting. These results suggest that memory plays a bigger role in math computation as children’s brains mature.
But what about children with autism?
There have been stories of very young children with the diagnosis who are able to solve complex mathematical equations that are beyond the abilities of most average adults. Is there a reason why autistic brains are better able to understand these problems?
A study from the Stanford University School of Medicine and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital found differences in the brains of children with autism who demonstrated superior mathematical abilities. The study, published August 17 in the online journal Biological Psychiatry, administered a math test to 36 children, ages 7 to 12, half with an autism diagnosis. After the test, researchers interviewed the subjects to determine what strategies they had used, counting, breaking down the problems into components, or decomposition, an advanced strategy relying on analytic strategies. The children with autism were more likely to use decomposition strategies, and their test scores were higher than those of the typically-developing children.
Next, the children were asked to complete math problems while undergoing an fMRI scan. The brains of the children with autism showed unusual activity in the ventral temporal occipital cortex, an area usually devoted to processing visual objects and faces.
Teresa Luculano, Phd, head author of the study, says,
“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.”
Of course, not all children with autism are mathematical savants, but this study may explain why some are. Further research on the differences between typical and autistic brains may shed light on other behavioral differences, and may help parents of children with autism utilize their natural strengths while helping them to navigate the world.