Why are some autistic kids good at math?

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

math problem kid
Breaking down a math problem into bite-sized chunks can help if trying to do the whole thing at once seems overwhelming.

Though children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) usually have a difficult time communicating and understanding the world, they are more likely to be a savant – a person who is incredibly gifted in a particular subject. New research from Stanford University says that even autistic kids with normal IQs tend to be much better at math than non-autistic ones!

Researchers from Stanford University School of Medicine and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital enrolled 36 children ages 7 to 12 into their study. While half of the children were autistic, all of the kids had average intelligence. When the researchers gave the participants a math test, the autistic kids did much better than the rest of the children!

Of course, the researchers wanted to know why they did so well. What techniques did they use? What formulas were the most useful? According to a majority of the autistic children, however, they didn’t use special rules or formulas taught in class. Instead, they just analyzed the problems, broke them into smaller parts, and worked them out logically.

The researchers also scanned the brains of the autistic children to find a reason why they did so great on the test. Apparently, the area of the brain saved for recognizing faces had an unusual pattern, which heightened their math abilities. “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 [math],” said researcher Teresa Iuculano.

Does this mean that all autistic kids are super math geniuses? Not quite, but the researchers are going to expand their study to test more autistic kids. I don’t know about you, but I’m definitely going to use their techniques of breaking down problems into smaller bites. I really want an “A!”

Featured image courtesy of Daniel Kulinski on Flickr. Math student image courtesy of Ian MacDonald on Flickr.