Stanford researchers have unearthed clues about the formidable brains of some children with autism, suggesting that the diagnosis may signal a different cognitive style, not disability.

Superior math skills were found in San Francisco Bay Area kids with autism and average intelligence compared with matched children without the developmental disorder.

The two group’s brain scans were different, as well. Images of the children with autism calculating math problems revealed a different pattern of brain activity than those of children without the diagnosis.

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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.

In the future, the team hopes to also study typically developing children who struggle with math.

Autism comes in many forms. It can be a devastating diagnosis with profound deficits. But 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 adept at calendar calculation — identifying which day of the week someone was born, based on the year of birth. Or they may have stunning visual memories, remembering, for instance, how many windows are in a skyscraper seen only once.

The discovery of math talents in such children is particularly relevant in Silicon Valley, where autism diagnoses exceed the national average — although no one knows if there is actually a higher incidence or just better diagnosis. Noted psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen at Cambridge’s Autism Research Centre discovered a correlation between incidence of autism and familial relation to engineers. His 1997 study found that 12.5 percent of fathers and 21.2 percent of grandfathers of children with autism were engineers, compared to 5 percent and 2.5 percent of children without autism.

“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, executive director of the Morgan Autism Center in San Jose, Calif., a school for youths and adults with autism.

Jeff, a 43-year-client at the center, solves multiplication problems for relaxation, Boardman said. “He will … do intricate multiplication — pages and pages of problems,” Boardman said. “He is absolutely gifted.”

“If they are interested in a topic … that interest can be a springboard for a really in-depth understanding of those things, such as in engineering or software design.”

The Stanford researchers didn’t rule out the possibility that math skills in kids with autism 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.

They studied 36 youngsters, age 7 to 12. Half had been diagnosed with autism. All participants had IQs in the normal range.

On standardized math tests, the children with autism significantly outperformed the others. The average test score of the control group was 100; for the group with autism, it was 125.

In interviews after the test, the children with autism described a more analytic approach to problem-solving. While other children counted on their fingers or memorized answers, the children with autism broke the problem down into components — a method called decomposition. For instance, if asked the sum of 7 plus 4, they would add 7 plus 3, then add one.

Then, the children worked on solving math problems while their brain activity was measured in an magnetic resonance imaging scanner. The brain scans of the kids with autism revealed an unusual pattern of activity in a part of a brain just below the ears, called the ventral temporal occipital cortex.

This is an area specialized for processing visual objects, such as faces, leading the team to wonder whether the focus on math in children with autism undercuts their ability to recognize the emotional cues in conversation.

“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.

© 2013 San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)
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