Autism and Mathematical Talent
utism is a developmental or personality disorder, not an illness, but autism can coexist with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and manic-depression. It shows itself in early childhood and is present throughout life; sometimes it becomes milder in old age. Nowadays it is recognised as a wide spectrum of disorders, with classical autism, where the individual is wrapped up in his or her own private world, at one extreme. It is estimated that in the United Kingdom slightly under one percent of the population, about half a million people, have a disorder on the autism spectrum The corresponding ﬁgure for other countries is not available, although it is unlikely to be very different. Autism is present in all cultures and, as far as we know, has existed for untold generations. Hans Asperger, a Viennese psychiatrist, found that some of his patients had a mild form of autism, with distinctive symptoms that later became known as Asperger’s syndrome. He was not the ﬁrst to describe the syndrome but he may have been the ﬁrst to recognise a connection with mathematical talent. As he observed (see Frith ): ‘‘to our own amazement, we have seen that autistic individuals, as long as they are intellectually intact, can almost always achieve professional success, usually in highly specialized academic professions, often in very high positions, with a preference for abstract content. We found a large number of people whose mathematical ability determines their professions.’’ Later he wrote, ‘‘It seems that for success in science or art a dash of autism is essential. For success the necessary ingredient may be an ability to turn away from the everyday world, from the simple practical, an ability to rethink a subject with originality so as to create in new untrodden ways, with all abilities canalised into the one speciality.’’ He went on to describe autistic intelligence—a kind of intelligence untouched by tradition and culture— unconventional, unorthodox, strangely pure and original. The ability to immerse oneself wholeheartedly in work or
thought is something that is seen time and time again in the Asperger genius. Asperger syndrome is not the only form of autism with this connection. The Irish psychiatrist Michael Fitzgerald, for example, tells me that virtually all the people he diagnoses as autistic have an interest in mathematics. Their greatest wish, he says, is to bring the world under the control of pure reason, to create order and meaning out of the chaos that they experience around them, particularly in the puzzling social domain. Such people are naturally attracted to science, especially to the mathematical sciences, since mathematicians tend to create order where previously chaos seemed to reign. He attributes this attraction to a feeling of security that they ﬁnd in the rational world of mathematics, which compensates for their inability to make sense of the mysterious social world. Much has been written about this, and the general public are now more aware of the presence of mildly autistic people in everyday life. Since I ﬁrst wrote about autism in mathematicians in the Intelligencer  some years ago, more has been learnt about the disorder and more has been published. In this follow-up article I begin by describing research that places the link between autism and mathematical talent on a ﬁrmer footing. Then I describe some of the more recent case studies of Asperger geniuses in mathematics and associated subjects. Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Centre in Cambridge, has tried to put the connection on a more quantitative basis. For this purpose he devised a selfadministered questionnaire for measuring the degree to which an adult with normal intelligence has the traits associated with the autistic spectrum. From the answers to the questions a number is obtained, which he calls the autistic-spectrum quotient, providing an estimate of where a given individual is situated on the continuum from normality to autism. (Anyone who wishes to take the AQ test will easily ﬁnd it by googling Simon Baron-Cohen.) When
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and engineers scored higher than the more human or life-centred sciences of medicine and biology. His latest book.’’ describes the lives of leading Jewish mathematicians and physicists born in the nineteenth century. They are likely to perform poorly at interviews.. Hardy. and mathematical work can have an antidepressant effect. defensiveness. but Nettle  emphasizes that this differs from creativity in the arts.... Andre Weil.ac. For the majority.. where their special abilities are appreciated. His interest in autistic creativity has led him to write ‘‘Asperger’s Syndrome and High Achievement’’ and ‘‘The Mind of the Mathematician’’ (co-authored with psychiatrist Michael Fitzgerald).. and affective disorders. computer scientists... it is difﬁcult to ﬁnd an example of an outstanding woman mathematician who was a clear case. ‘‘Driven to Innovate. Mathematical Institute University of Oxford Oxford OX1 3LB England e-mail: imj@maths. H.ox. physicists. Work is a form of self-expression for the autistic who ﬁnds other forms of expression difﬁcult...the questionnaire was administered to students at Cambridge University. 2010
. for example in information technology. and Norbert Wiener. (Divergent thinking means the ability to create new ideas based on a given topic. G. lack of social sensitivity. and within the sciences. Volume 32... Although the disorder is a handicap in many ways. a Fields Medalist). whereas poetry and art are more associated with divergent thinking. An enormous capacity for curiosity and a compulsion to understand are evident in those who have the syndrome.
Ó 2009 Springer Science+Business Media. autism is associated with outstanding creativity.. much of which applies to mathematical creativity... schizophrenia.. are Paul Erdos. Alan ´ Turing. biologists. it boosts their often low self esteem.... in fact... Most of those who encountered the mathematical physicist Paul Dirac have a story to tell about his eccentricity.. scientists scored higher than nonscientists. Not always. whereas Baron-Cohen  describes one (who was.. physical scientists.. as is a tendency to reject received wisdom and the opinions of experts. whereas there was only one among 414 students in a control group of Cambridge undergraduates reading medicine. Examples of well-known mathematicians who showed more than a trace of Asperger behaviour.... not the full proﬁle... although without the right kind of biographical information we cannot say for sure whether each person had the syndrome or not. In a recent survey.. without necessarily meeting all the diagnostic ¨ criteria. convergent thinking means the ability to ﬁnd a simple principle behind a collection of information. Some other cases are discussed by Fitzgerald and James ).. however.. for William Rowan Hamilton by Walker and Fitzgerald . At school autism is regarded as a learning disability.. Brieﬂy.. This research was taken a step further in . The link with autism may throw fresh light on some aspects of mathematical creativity... a more recent discussion of this may be found in Changeux and Connes . such as manicdepression. They often suffer from depression. A detailed analysis for Srinavasa Ramanujan has been provided by Fitzgerald .... literal-mindedness. life is a struggle. There can be no doubt that gifted individuals with some degree of autism have contributed a great deal to research in mathematics. where among 378 undergraduates reading mathematics at Cambridge there were seven who reported a formally diagnosed autism spectrum condition. and only a minority make a success of it. Nettle ﬁnds that the cognitive style of the mathematicians was associated with convergent thinking and autism. It is much less common among females than among males.
. More than a hundred ´ years ago Henri Poincare addressed a conference of psychologists in Paris on Mathematical Creation (translated by ´ Halsted ).. He has also written a series of books about the lives of famous mathematicians.uk
When combined with high intelligence.. law.. interesting results were obtained. in others it is a great advantage.. Poincare’s disciple Jacques Hadamard wrote a well-known monograph  on The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field. Ioan James reinvented himself as a writer on nontechnical subjects. His recent biography by Farmelo  describes his aloofness. particularly in the arts and sciences. but its recognition may have signiﬁcant practical consequences for education and for choice of occupation. LLC.. the establishment of a link between autism and mathematical talent will come as no surprise. may struggle with other subjects.... Among other distinctions Ioan James is a fellow of the Royal Society and an honorary fellow of two Oxford colleges.. but they may be good at the right kind of work.
Retiring after 25 years as Savilian Professor of Geometry at Oxford....... determination.. or social science. Sheehan and Thurber  have suggested that John Couch Adams had the disorder and that this lay behind both his success in identifying the unknown planet Neptune as the cause of anomalies in the orbit of Uranus and also his failure to persuade the Astronomer Royal to search for it in the orbit he had calculated.. Full statistical details are provided in  and .. comparing the psychology of a small sample of research mathematicians with poets and visual artists.. Children with mild autism.. as it often is.. mathematicians. its positive side should be recognised. Number 1.. who get on well in mathematics. which is mainly about mathematical creativity. the tragic lives of Robert Amman  and William Sidis  show what can go wrong....) In the history of mathematics it is not difﬁcult to ﬁnd people who may have had Asperger syndrome.... and (not yet published) engineers.. In the mathematical world... Much has been written about creativity in general. It is not uncommon for individuals to have only a few features of the syndrome... when they apply for a job. Ronald Fisher.
2007. 2001. Graham. J. Ioan. The Essential Difference: men.  Baron-Cohen. There is often strong resistance from the general public to any suggestion that a famous person might have had Asperger’s. Cambridge. 1995. S. On Mathematics.  Nettle. 4 (2003)..  Fitzgerald. Arlington TX. London.  Baron-Cohen. S.  Fitzgerald. Mathematical Intelligencer 25.obsessions. 2009.. A.
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 Baron-Cohen. Unless one is absolutely sure.  Grandin. Princeton NJ.  Fitzgerald. Notes Rec. but this is generally because of the popular misunderstanding of the nature of the disorder. Cambridge University Press. The systemizing quotient: an investigation of adults with Asperger syndrome or high-functioning autism.  Baron-Cohen. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Antoinette. J. verbal economy. 61 (2007). The Mathematical Intelligencer . Temple. Unstoppable Brilliance. R.  James. 2002. notably Frith . engineers and mathematicians? Autism 2 (1998). since otherwise the diagnosis is liable to be questioned. Dublin. The autism-spectrum quotient (AQ): evidence from Asperger syndrome/high-functioning autism. Hove. Future Horizons. Mathematical talent is linked to autism. to say that someone displayed autistic traits rather than that person was autistic. G.  Fitzgerald. of Autism and Developmental Disorders 32 (2002). Autism in Mathematicians.
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. Liberties Press. et al. 62–65.P.  Frith. and James I. 2003. 2003. Arlington TX. Attempts at diagnoses of individuals no longer alive often result in controversy when experts differ and amateurs also become involved. eds. Diagnosing Jefferson: Evidence of a Condition that Guided his Beliefs. The Mind of the Mathematician. Baltimore MD. Faber and Feabre. of Autism and Developmental Disorders 31 (2001). 175–176. On the one hand. Conversations on Mind. Princeton University Press. Does autism occur more often in families of physicists. New York. S. Princeton University Press. Soc. Johns Hopkins University Press. Science Press. John Couch Adams’s Asperger syndrome and the British non-discovery of Neptune. 2006. 125–131. Oxford. 361–740.  Ledgin.. 5–17.. Tarquin Publications.  James.  Frith. et al. The Prodigy. Philadelphia. Autism: Explaining the Enigma. 1991..  Baron-Cohen. 2004.  Senechal. discuss the problems of historical diagnosis. 36–39. Music and Autism. Is the cognitive style of persons with Asperger’s syndrome also a mathematical style? J..M.  Hadamard. 285–299. London. S. males and females. physical ineptitude. Princeton N. and Connes. 2000. Michael.  Baron-Cohen.. 876–890. A. Some people are critical of linking the syndrome with persons of genius. S. Singular scientists. a physicist. those who are not so gifted may feel depressed that they cannot aspire to mathematical fame. Asperger’s disorder and mathematicians of genius. London.  Walker. The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field..). The Mysterious Mr Ammann. Uta (ed. Autism and Creativity. S. In Bridges London (Reza Sarhangi and John Sharp. People who are otherwise well informed ﬁnd it difﬁcult to believe what some of those with this disorder may be capable of achieving. Human Nature 18 (2007). Daniel. et al. A mathematician.. E. 59–60. and much else. J.  James. Brunner Routledge. Journal of Research in Personality 40 (2006). Some features of his complex personality can be attributed to his strange upbringing but most of it goes with some form of autism. Allen Lane. and Fitzgerald. Dutton. 296–301. Royal Society of Medicine 96 (2003).  Ledgin Norm. M. Ioan.. Asperger’s and Self-Esteem: Insight and Hope through Famous Role Models: Future Horizons. and mathematicians.  Hermelin.  Sheehan. Vintage Books. J. M.  Changeux. The Foundations of Science. Series B (special issue on autism mind and brain) 358 (2003). Behaviour and Personal Associations. Matter and Mathematics.. and normal sex differences. No.. Uta. of Autism and Developmental Disorders. On the other hand. and Thurber. M. even when the case is a strong one.  Wallace. New York. Basil Blackwell. Some of the standard books on the subject.B.J.. Norm. Beate. visual artists. 10–21. 1986. women and the extreme male brain.