“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,” Boardman said. “He is absolutely gifted.”
“If they are interested in a topic … that interest can be a springboard for a really in-depth understanding of those things, such as in engineering or software design.”
The Stanford researchers didn’t rule out the possibility that autistic children’s math skills strengthen due to 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, as well.
They studied 36 youngsters, age 7 to 12. Half had been diagnosed with autism. All participants had IQs in the normal range.
On standardized math tests, the children with autism significantly outperformed the others. The average test score of the control group was 100; for the autistic group, 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 autism children broke the problem down into components — 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 children worked on solving math problems while their brain activity was measured in a magnetic resonance imaging scanner. The brain scans of the autistic children revealed an unusual pattern of activity in a part of a brain just below the ears, called the ventral temporal occipital cortex.