Background: Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by social and communication deficits. While such deficits have been the focus of most research, recent evidence suggests that individuals with ASD may exhibit cognitive strengths in domains such as mathematics.
Methods: Cognitive assessments and functional brain imaging were used to investigate mathematical abilities in 18 children with ASD and 18 age-, gender-, and IQ-matched typically developing (TD) children. Multivariate classification and regression analyses were used to investigate whether brain activity patterns during numerical problem solving were significantly different between the groups and predictive of individual mathematical abilities.
Results: Children with ASD showed better numerical problem solving abilities and relied on sophisticated decomposition strategies for single-digit addition problems more frequently than TD peers. Although children with ASD engaged similar brain areas as TD children, they showed different multivariate activation patterns related to arithmetic problem complexity in ventral temporal-occipital cortex, posterior parietal cortex, and medial temporal lobe. Furthermore, multivariate activation patterns in ventral temporal-occipital cortical areas typically associated with face processing predicted individual numerical problem solving abilities in children with ASD but not in TD children.
Conclusions: Our study suggests that superior mathematical information processing in children with ASD is characterized by a unique pattern of brain organization and that cortical regions typically involved in perceptual expertise may be utilized in novel ways in ASD. Our findings of enhanced cognitive and neural resources for mathematics have critical implications for educational, professional, and social outcomes for individuals with this lifelong disorder.
Keywords: Autism; brain organization; cognitive strengths; mathematical abilities; multivariate pattern analysis; support vector machine.
Copyright © 2014 Society of Biological Psychiatry. Published by Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.