Love of patterns, order may explain mad math skills—and autism link

Enlarge / Algorithms, a complicated work in progress. (credit: Getty Images)

During family dinner, we have a tradition. Everyone has to summarize their day by describing three good events and, if necessary, one bad event. When my turn arrived at a recent dinner, I turned to my two eldest children and told them that my bad event was discovering that their math grades should have been higher.

I explained that I had just read a paper that claimed that people who enjoyed and were good at systemizing were also good at math. According to the paper, this was most strongly seen in people on the autism spectrum. “Hence, spawn-o-mine, I expect things to improve by at least one grade point.”

The paper in questing, entitled “Systemisers are better at maths,” represents the first attempt to try to test an old hypothesis and extend it to the general population. The hypothesis is that our brain uses two modules to try to make sense of the world. One systemizes: it looks for patterns and order and uses them to explain and predict the world. The second system is empathetic: it tries to predict and understand the world by walking in its shoes. One characteristic of autism spectrum disorder is the desire for order and patterns. This is often misinterpreted by saying that people on the spectrum lack empathy. This is simply wrong. 

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