Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Models for Autism: the math skills tradeoff

In an earlier post I discussed models for autism, ending with the Quirky Personality (or Extreme Maleness) model:
Popularized by Simon Baron-Cohen (The Essential Difference), this model holds that autism is caused by excess exposure to testosterone in the womb, and/or by "assortative mating" in which highly unsocial, analytical people are more likely to find one other in today's interconnected world, to intermarry, and to produce even more extremely unsocial, analytical offspring (concentrated in areas like Silicon Valley).

This model best explains those children whose primary deficits are social, and who excel in things like engineering and computer programming: the Temple Grandins of the world. 
One interesting thing about this model is that it suggests a tradeoff between deficits and strengths: Emphathizers tend not to be Systematizers, and vice versa. Some evidence for such a tradeoff between social and analytical skills comes from a study that recently showed up in my gmail account, entitled "Mathematically Gifted Adolescents Have Deficiencies in Social Valuation and Mentalization:"
Many mathematically gifted adolescents are characterized as being indolent, underachieving and unsuccessful despite their high cognitive ability. This is often due to difficulties with social and emotional development. However, research on social and emotional interactions in gifted adolescents has been limited. The purpose of this study was to observe differences in complex social strategic behaviors between gifted and average adolescents of the same age using the repeated Ultimatum Game. Twenty-two gifted adolescents and 24 average adolescents participated in the Ultimatum Game. Two adolescents participate in the game, one as a proposer and the other as a responder. Because of its simplicity, the Ultimatum Game is an apt tool for investigating complex human emotional and cognitive decision-making in an empirical setting. We observed strategic but socially impaired offers from gifted proposers and lower acceptance rates from gifted responders, resulting in lower total earnings in the Ultimatum Game. Thus, our results indicate that mathematically gifted adolescents have deficiencies in social valuation and mentalization.
While this may not come as any great surprise to those familiar with the math world, the notion of a tradeoff between math skills and social skills raises the possibility of a more general tradeoff between autistic traits and intellectual skills. Even this, however, may already be part of our collective unconscious, underlying, for instance, the common notion that being a genius entails being highly eccentric.

Less obvious is why so many mathematically gifted students are characterized as "indolent, underachieving and unsuccessful despite their high cognitive ability." The article blames their "poor social valuation and mentalization" skills. While it's easy to imagine how this impedes "success" (at least as popularly defined), it's less obvious how it leads to indolence and underachievement... 

Except, of course, if you consider what's happening to K12 math.


Happy Elf Mom said...

Not sure. I know that Emperor is gifted in maths and NOT gifted in social skills. I keep him home to educate him because I'm pretty sure they're not going to teach my third grader algebra. :)

But when he goes to school someday, I'm afraid they will eat him alive. He just has no clue how to carry on a conversation and doesn't understand why people don't like him. I'm very sad for him in that aspect of his life.

kcab said...

What is "mentalization"?

In the article, that characterization is attributed to Miraca Gross. One thing I've taken away from reading her work has been that academic acceleration appears necessary for the well-being of a profoundly gifted child. That seems generally in agreement with your sentiments about K12 math.

Katharine Beals said...

Wikipedia has a nice description of mentalizing, complete with its connection to autism:


Glad to hear that Miraca Gross advocates acceleration!

Deirdre Mundy said...

Hey Katherine-- just wanted to say I'm not ignoring you--blogger just keeps eating all my comments on your site!

Deirdre Mundy said...

Hmmm... maybe I need to just be shorter--

Anyway, the big problem I see is that schools have taken over 'socialization' as well as education. It used to be that kids were 'socialized' by family, the neighborhood, the church, the after school job.

Now school is responsible, and so everything has to become about academics AND socialization.

Teachers don't see the problem because ES teachers seem to be drawn from the segment of society who pick up social skills easily and naturally. So they see "more success!" because kids who would have struggle with academics are now excelling (because they're also graded on social skills.)

Deirdre Mundy said...

On the other hand, for the kids who struggle with social skills (Autism spectrum, ADHD, just plain quirky), passing as 'normal' takes a PHENOMENAL amount of effort. And even if they work really hard, they STILL come off as defective, just less defective than previously. (Speaking from personal experience here! ;) )

So, if they're forced to focus on appearing 'normal,' they STILL fail on social skills, but they also have no effort to spare to actually concentrate on the material!

Deirdre Mundy said...

I see this all the time with my ADHD daughter (runs in our family!! ;) )

If I make her sit still and display 'typical attentive student' body language, that's ALL she can do (until she melts down from exhaustion and stress and worry and failure.)

If I let her be....odd... she can master the material quickly, enjoys academics, and draws connections, thinks, and wonders.

Then we save the HARD stuff (personal space, ettiquitte, not crying, standing mostly still) for other times of day and other activities (CCD, art class, tai kwo do, speech therapy, church, playdates, grocery stores.)

But Math is math. Reading is reading. History is history.

Deirdre Mundy said...

But the schools insist on joining social skills with EVERYTHING, and then can't understand why the kids who stink at "social' get depressed and give up.

Even though a kid who dislikes MATH gets all sorts of sympathy and encouragement.

But, of course, social skills are easy and fun!....if you're normal and extroverted......like the ES teachers.....

Katharine Beals said...

Deirdre and Happy Elf Mom, Amen!!!

Anonymous said...

I''m not remotely on the autistic spectrum, but I am someone who likes to choose when to be "social" and when not to. A classroom where I was expected to learn through interaction with other students, even if they were focused and on-task at all times, even if we were all at the same level, even if this were not an inefficient way to learn (usually), that classroom would have been a nightmare for me. I actually enjoyed being a baby boomer who never experienced a K-8 classroom with fewer than 35 kids in it; with those numbers, you do whole-class instruction and the students ask the teacher questions if they don't understand. Teachers facilitate whole-class discussions. The interactions I saw going on between the children working in groups in my own childres's classrooms was not a model for good learning, and was painful to one of my (also not austistic) son, irritating to one daughter, and a matter of indefference to the other.

Niels Henrik Abel said...

Even though a kid who dislikes MATH gets all sorts of sympathy and encouragement.

But, of course, social skills are easy and fun!....if you're normal and extroverted......like the ES teachers.....

So true, so true!! Not being adept at math or science is considered acceptable (at least tacitly so), but those who are introverted and prefer to study or play alone (or with a buddy or two, as opposed to a larger group) are marked as defective and needing treatment to cure them of their "anti-social" (if anything, "asocial" is more accurate) behavior.

I was always turned off by that narrow-minded, petty view towards "loners." When will people realize that there is a difference between "being alone" and "being lonely"?