Anecdotal reports have long suggested that people with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are better at math than their neurotypical peers, but there has not been enough research to substantiate the claim. Vinod Menon, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, led a study designed to reveal connections between mathematical skill and ASD. The results suggest that there may be a link between enhanced math or problem-solving performance and ASD due to neuroplasticity in the brain.

The subjects of the study comprised of 36 children—18 with ASD and 18 typically developing. There were 14 boys and four girls aged seven to 12 in each group. The two groups were age, gender, and IQ-matched. The children with autism were verbal and had normal IQs.

Each child took a standardized math test. The results showed that the ASD group performed better numerical and mathematical ability. To further investigate the performance gap, the children were then ask to complete 18 simple addition problems and explain their accompanying thought process. The explanations included recall, counting, and decomposition—a technique that involves breaking problems into simpler components. The children with ASD used decomposition 22% of the time—twice as much as the neurotypical children.

These findings could indicate that children with autism are “at a more advanced stage of math development than their peers,” according to Menon.

Afterwards, the children were asked to complete a set of problems while inside an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scanner. The researchers observed that the same brain areas are active while doing math for children with and without ASD; however, there was a difference between groups in the the use the ventral temporal-occipital cortex (VTOC), a part of the brain used for processing visual information, words, numbers, and faces.

There was a correlation between problem-solving skills and a deviation from typical neural patterns. The children with ASD whose VTOCs were most different from those of the typically-developing group also exhibited the best math skills. Although this association was clear in the children with ASD, it was not present in the neurotypical children.

These findings suggest that highly plastic sectors in the brains of people with autism are repurposed for other tasks. Menon explains that “There’s a lot of competition for this cortical space” and that the neuroplasticity of the region may allow the development of “specialized expertise in areas such as math.”

This research is published in the journal Biological Psychiatry.

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