Distinctive Role of Symbolic Number Sense in Mediating the Mathematical Abilities of Children with Autism

J Autism Dev Disord. 2016 Apr;46(4):1268-81. doi: 10.1007/s10803-015-2666-4.


Despite reports of mathematical talent in autism spectrum disorders (ASD), little is known about basic number processing abilities in affected children. We investigated number sense, the ability to rapidly assess quantity information, in 36 children with ASD and 61 typically developing controls. Numerical acuity was assessed using symbolic (Arabic numerals) as well as non-symbolic (dot array) formats. We found significant impairments in non-symbolic acuity in children with ASD, but symbolic acuity was intact. Symbolic acuity mediated the relationship between non-symbolic acuity and mathematical abilities only in children with ASD, indicating a distinctive role for symbolic number sense in the acquisition of mathematical proficiency in this group. Our findings suggest that symbolic systems may help children with ASD organize imprecise information.

Keywords: Autism spectrum disorders; Math ability; Number sense.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder / psychology*
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Child
  • Cognition*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mathematics*