Stanford Study Suggests the Autistic Brain is Different, Not Deficient

If you’ve seen Rain Man, you know that some people have unique abilities for visualization and mathematics. A new study conducted at the Stanford University School of Medicine and Lucile Packard Psychiatry suggests that maybe the autistic brain is not necessarily a lesser brain, just different.

36 children aged 7 to 12, half with autism and half without, were the participants in the study. All participants took standardized math tests, where the group of children with autism scored significantly higher all-around. After the test, the researchers asked each child to explain their answers, and while the typically developing children simply used memorization or their fingers, the autistic children all used analytic approaches to the problems and a method called decomposition, where the problems were broken down into components. The second part of the study scanned the children’s brains using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) while doing the math problems. The MRI’s showed a different pattern of activity in the ventral temporal occipital cortex under the ears. This part of the brain is responsible for processing visuals, which may account for why people with autism struggle with emotional recognition.

While cultural stigmas exist around the world regarding autism, this study could potentially shift people’s attitudes toward the developmental delay. Lead author of the study, Teresa Luculano, explains that this study,

“Makes us better aware of the unique talents that these people have, which could help them have better academic and professional lives…We think it could be reassuring for parents.”[i]

Brad Boardman, executive director of the Morgan Autism Center in San Jose, was also pleased with the results, explaining,

“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.”

Boardman has numerous people at his center with exceptional skills, like a 43 year-old client who does math problems for “relaxation.” This study is important for the field of autism, and the team hopes their next study will examine typically developing children who struggle with math.



[i] “Mercury News” Autistic kids with math abilities show different brain patterns. 16 Aug 2013. Web. <http://www.mercurynews.com/science/ci_23871355/autistic-kids-math-abilities-show-different-brain-patterns>

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