Study sheds new light on autism and math

Not all kids with autism are gifted in math—and understanding why is vital to helping them thrive later in life, says educational psychologist.


While it’s true that a higher rate of people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are gifted in math than people without the disorder, an educational psychology expert at the University of Alberta found they are just as likely to face equally serious challenges with math.

“How is that possible?” wondered Heather Brown, a professor in the University of Alberta’s Department of Educational Psychology who led the research. “How does autism lead to both?”

Brown’s ongoing research is attempting to identify predictors of math giftedness and math disabilities in children with ASD whose autism isn’t accompanied by an intellectual disability.

But, she added, the fact that there are so many children with ASD at both ends of the achievement spectrum also presents possibilities for discovering how students with some of the challenges associated with ASD—deficits in the organizational and planning skills that comprise executive functioning, for example—still do well in academic endeavours that draw on those skills.

“The question is bigger than how we best support students with ASD to succeed in math,” Brown said. “The question is, are they doing math in a fundamentally different way?”

Figuring out how students with ASD learn, and developing diverse ways to support that learning to match the diversity of the students themselves, is crucial in helping them adapt and thrive in later life, Brown said.

“There’s lots of programming to help kids with ASD learn to co-operate or be more social, but there’s very little to help them improve academically,” she explained.

Brown added there is a real crisis right now for children and youth with ASD who have intellectual functioning in the typical range, because once these students graduate high school, there is virtually no programming available to them.

“So there are all these young adults with ASD who are lost. They are completely alone and usually living with their parents and, perhaps unsurprisingly, there tends to be high rates of mental illness among this group,” she said.

“But if these adults with ASD could find some meaning and purpose for their life, if they can find a way to connect with society, it just changes the whole game. And I think that helping kids with ASD succeed academically, so they can go on to post-secondary education and gain skill and expertise in disciplines that matter to them, will ultimately help these individuals find a place where they matter—a place where they belong.”

Brown’s research is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.