New study suggests autism may be a different way of thinking
SAN JOSE, Calif. — Autism is usually thought of as a serious developmental problem. People who are autistic often have trouble communicating with others. They may repeat things over and over, or focus only on one interest.
Now, though, new research suggests that autism may not be a disability after all. Instead, it may simply be a different way of thinking.
A group of Stanford researchers set out to study children who are autistic, but who also have special skills. They compared autistic children of average intelligence to otherwise similar children who are do not have autism. The children with autism were found to have superior math skills.
The two group’s brain scans were different, too. Images taken while the children were calculating math problems revealed that the children with autism used their brains differently.
Just "A Different Brain"
This small but important study, the first of its type, “makes us better aware of the unique talents that these people have,” said Teresa Iuculano, lead author of the study. This new understanding may help children with autism have a better experience in school and, later, at work, she said. “We think it could be reassuring for parents.”
The study was published online in the journal Biological Psychiatry on Saturday, Aug. 17.
Like all those with autism, the children had difficulty talking with people. They could be very shy, and had trouble understanding what mood people were in, which could make them behave inappropriately. But they showed strengths as well, according to the team of scientists.
The autistic brain doesn't necessarily work less well than a normal brain, said Iuculano. Instead, it could just be "a different brain."
Autism comes in many forms. It can involve extreme retardation. But autistic people can also have exceptional skills or talents, known as “savant” abilities.
Like Dustin Hoffman’s character in the movie “Rain Man,” they may be very good at calendar calculation. This skill allows them to quickly identify on which day of the week someone was born, based on the year of birth. Or they may have stunning visual memories: For example, they may remember how many windows are in a skyscraper they've seen only once.
A Significant Discovery
But the discovery of math talents in such children is particularly significant.
“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, who runs a San Jose center for youths and adults with autism.
Jeff, a 43-year-client at the center, solves multiplication problems for relaxation, Boardman said. “He will do [complicated] multiplication — pages and pages of problems. He is absolutely gifted."
Boardman said, “If they are interested in a topic … that interest can be a springboard for a really in-depth understanding." They can do really well in things like engineering or software design, he added.
The Stanford researchers admit it is possible that children with autism have greater math skills only because they practice so much. Perhaps other children would do just as well if they had the motivation.
But the researchers believe there is more to it than that. They suspect there is some biological difference as well.
They studied 36 youngsters, age 7 to 12. Half had been diagnosed with autism. All participants had IQs in the normal range.
Brain Scans Show Unusual Activity
On standardized math tests, the children with autism did significantly better than the others. The average test score of the non-autistic group was 100; for the children with autism, it was 125.
The autistic children also used a different approach to problem-solving. While other children counted on their fingers or memorized answers, the autistic children broke the problem down into parts. For instance, if asked the sum of 7 plus 4, they would add 7 plus 3, then add one.
Researchers then used a magnetic resonance imaging scanner to study what was going on in the children's brains as they worked on math problems. The brain scans of the children with autism revealed an unusual pattern of activity. This occurred in a part of a brain just below the ears, called the ventral temporal occipital cortex.
Normally, the ventral temporal occipital cortex is used to interpret visual objects, including faces. Perhaps, the researchers say, that the autistic children use this part of their brain to focus on math makes them less able to read people's expressions.
“This different brain architecture might even ... [help] certain strong skills to develop, such as problem-solving, even though there are things that they may not be good at,” said Iuculano.