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Unusual brain organization found in autistic kids who best peers at math

math homework - smallPeople with autism are often portrayed in popular media as dysfunctional savants – think Dustin Hoffman’s character in the movie Rain Man – or worse yet, simply dysfunctional, hobbled by a debilitating lack of social and communication skills, compulsive repetitive behavior and narrowly focused obsessions.

But there is far more subtlety to the range and intensity of symptoms associated with autism than that.

There is also, it seems, much more going on in the mind of someone with autism than meets the eye, as shown by some School of Medicine researchers who conducted brain scans on autistic and nonautistic children as they solved mathematics problems while lying in a magnetic resonance imaging machine.

In the study, published today in Biological Psychiatry, children with autism and average IQs outperformed a control group of nonautistic kids in the same IQ range on math problems. As I describe in our our press release:

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.

“There appears to be a unique pattern of brain organization that underlies superior problem- solving abilities in children with autism,” said Vinod Menon, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and a member of the Child Health Research Institute at Packard Children's.

People with autism often have difficulty interpreting the facial expressions of others, which contributes to their difficulties in social situations.  It may be that some of their lack of ability in that realm arises because they’re using the visual processing area of their brain for numerical tasks.

“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,” Menon said. He is senior author of the study and postdoctoral scholar Teresa Iuculano, PhD, is lead author.

The cognitive strengths possessed by some people with autism include an extraordinary ability to concentrate and stay focused on extremely detail-oriented or repetitive tasks such as data entry or software testing. They often surpass the performance of nonautistic people at these jobs.

A New York Times Magazine article last fall, "The Autism Advantage," looked at some of the superior skills people with autism sometimes possess and some of the jobs at which they can excel.

“Remembering calendar dates is probably not going to help you with academic and professional success,” Menon told me. “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.”

Menon emphasized that not every child with autism has superior numerical abilities. But for those who do, their potential for holding down a job in adulthood and being self-supporting appear much more promising than long thought.

Previously: More Stanford findings on the autistic brain, Stanford study reveals why human voices are less rewarding for kids with autism, New public brain-scan database opens autism research frontiers and New imaging analysis reveals distinct features of the autistic brain
Photo by r.nial.bradshaw

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