SAN JOSE, Calif. — Stanford researchers have unearthed clues about the formidable brains of some autistic children, suggesting that the diagnosis may signal a different cognitive style, not disability.
Superior math skills were found in autistic San Francisco Bay Area children with average intelligence compared with matched children who were not autistic.
The two group’s brain scans were different, as well. Images of the autistic children’s brains while calculating math problems revealed a different pattern of activity than those of non-autistic children.
This small but important study, the first of its type, “makes us better aware of the unique talents that these people have, which could help them have better academic and professional lives,” said postdoctoral scholar Teresa Iuculano, lead author of the study. “We think it could be reassuring for parents,” she said. The study is being published online Saturday in the journal Biological Psychiatry.
Like all people with autism, the children had difficulty with social interactions. But they showed strengths, as well, according to the team of scientists at the Stanford University School of Medicine and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital.
“It is not necessarily a deficient brain, but a different brain,” said Iuculano.
Autism comes in many forms. It can be a devastating diagnosis with profound retardation. But people can also have exceptional skills or talents, known as “savant” abilities. The 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.
“This different brain architecture might even be suitable for certain strong skills to develop, such as problem solving, even though there are things that they may not be good at,” said Iuculano.