For the many challenges imposed by autism spectrum disorder (ASD), those same brain differences can also make some tasks a little easier.
New research by an Italian psychologist provides evidence linking systematic thinking with mathematical ability, helping explain why individuals who have autism also tend to have a head for numbers.
Broadly speaking, our brains tend to have two different approaches to finding solutions to a dilemma – we identify impersonal relationships between categories and predict an outcome, or we use a variety of social functions to weigh in on a conclusion.
Systematic versus empathic tendencies each has their pros and cons, and we rarely apply them in isolation from the other. We often mix and match processes as we go through our day, reasoning and empathising to get by.
But individuals also have their preferences, both as a result of learned responses and thanks to distinct neurological pathways. Which implies some of us are better at solving certain kinds of problems than others.
The puzzle-solving aspects of mathematics typically demand more of that systematic kind of thinking. Or so you'd imagine.
It might come as a surprise, but while it's easy to take for granted that people who have knack for systems also have an aptitude for mathematics, science just hasn't backed it up.
University of Padova psychologist Paola Bressan noticed there was an absence of evidence on the topic, with the few studies that looked for a connection coming up empty-handed.
"This link appears to have been directly tested twice, with disappointing results in both cases," she writes in her report.
Still curious – and a little skeptical of the current null position – Bressan recruited just over 200 university students and surveyed them individually on their self-reported maths skills, ability to systemise, and ability to solve problems using arithmetic.
The results matched what we might have expected. Students who did mathematical subjects – such as engineering and physics – tended to apply systematic thinking over empathic. For psychology students, this was reversed.
Similar to some previous studies, Bressan found women presented lower mathematics scores than men.
Men also tended to systemise more. But after taking that systemisation into account, the difference in maths scores were no longer significant, implying we have a good reason to link systemisation with mathematical ability.
Even if these results aren't counterintuitive, it's still evidence supporting a contested hypothesis.
That said, the population being tested was limited to university students from similar backgrounds, so there's every chance it's more complicated than it first seems.
Applying the findings to autism is a leap, but not an unreasonable one. Past research has supported anecdotes that suggest having ASD increases the odds that you'll do better at mathematics.
There are also theories that argue people with autistic characteristics have a defining tendency to hyper-systemise, making it more likely they'll become resistant to change and focus intently on certain behavioural patterns.
This isn't to necessarily say having ASD makes it more challenging to empathise, or even apply social thinking skills, though social behaviours and communication are often a challenge for individuals on the disorder's spectrum.
Interestingly, while many diagnosed with ASD have above average arithmetic skills and number sense, they often struggle with mathematics when it's framed in a real-world setting, such as a word problem.
Breaking down the applications of mathematics in terms of empathic and systematic thinking could lead to strategies for teachers to help students, not just for students with autism but for all of us.
"From a practical point of view, these findings endorse the notion that we may be able to help children learn – and perhaps even like – mathematics if we encourage, through games and specific activities, the development of their pleasure to systemise," explains Bressan.
It's a goal well worth pursuing.
This research was published in Scientific Reports.