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Autistic Kids Who Best Peers at Math Show Different Brain Organization

Autism is a developmental disorder diagnosed in more than 1 percent of children in the U.S. The disorder is considered a spectrum, which means that affected children experience symptoms in varying degrees of severity. The general symptoms of autism include impaired social skills, difficulty with language and behavioral problems. Kids with high-functioning autism can get by in spite of their symptoms, while those on the severe end of the spectrum cannot function daily without help.

Researchers are trying to unravel the reasons for the increase in autism diagnoses, what causes the disorder, and how to effectively treat it so that children can live more normal lives. A recent study found that autistic children may have better math skills than their peers. This helps further tease out the workings of the autistic brain, while also pointing to a positive aspect of having the disorder.

Autism and the Brain

Autism is considered to be a developmental disorder. This means that researchers believe the disorder begins early on in life, maybe even while a fetus is developing in the womb. The developmental abnormalities in autistic children are related to the brain. Researchers have found significant differences in both the structure of the brains of autistic children and how the brain functions.

One example is that a certain part of the brain, called the amygdala, is less active in kids with autism when they attempt to read facial expressions. For those without autism, learning to read facial cues is natural and easy, but for autistic children, there is a clear defect in the part of the brain responsible for this skill.

Autism and Math

A recent study, published in the journal Biological Psychiatry has found that children with autism show more brain activity in certain areas when solving math problems, and that they are generally better at math than other kids. The research was small, but important. Researchers from the Stanford University School of Medicine and the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital looked at 36 children between the ages of 7 and 12, half with autism, and half without the disorder.

All of the children involved in the study had IQ scores in the normal range, and when tested for verbal and reading skills, scored normally. For the study, the children were given a standardized math test. Those with autism scored higher. To investigate those results further, the researchers asked the children about the strategies they used for math problems. The autistic children used more complex strategies, such as breaking a problem down into its component parts.

The researchers also scanned the brains of the children with an MRI while they performed math problems. The scans showed that the autistic children had a different pattern of activity in the region of the brain that is normally used for visual processing. Exactly how this affects a child’s math abilities is not yet understood, but it does suggest that the abnormal brain patterns associated with autism can lead to certain enhanced skills, like solving math problems.

Hope for Parents and Children

The research into how autistic brains function and how they affect a child’s skills and abilities has often been focused on weaknesses. In other words, many of the abnormalities lead to deficits like the inability to communicate well with others, or the unusual repetitive behaviors characteristic of autistic children. The fact that some of the brain patterns in autistic children could result in positive attributes should give hope to parents with autistic children.

Many parents who have kids with autism naturally worry about their futures. How will they survive and function in a world to which they cannot easily relate? Fitting in may always be a struggle for those with autism, but with enhanced practical abilities, like problem-solving and mathematical aptitude, forging a path in today’s world looks more promising.

The researchers involved in the math study hope to continue their work to better determine how math abilities are enhanced in autistic children. They plan to involve more participants and to look in more depth at individual differences between children and their math and problem solving strategies.

There is still hope.

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