Can Autism Make People Better at Poker and Blackjack?

Autism is a very complex disorder, and new research brings more understanding all the time. There are instances of splinter skills, such as the ability to perform complex equations quickly or to know exactly how many items there are in a huge display as soon as it is seen, but there are also many people who don’t display any such gifts.

Thanks to Rain Man and several other popular movies, books and television shows, most people who haven’t encountered autism in their own lives, either personally or professionally, believe that all autistics possess highly specialised numerical skills. These aptitudes, in turn, are believed to make them excellent Blackjack and Poker players.

Most experts, however, believe that individuals with autism will not necessarily fair better at these games, whether playing at a land based casino or at an online casino. So what’s really going on?

A Multi-Faceted Complicated Disorder

People working in the field of autism often say “if you’ve met one person with autism … you’ve met one person with autism”. There are all kinds of factors which influence this condition, and no two autistics are the same. Many people live fully functional, ostensibly normal lives. Others require institutionalised living. Some never communicate verbally at all.

The physical aspects of autism are not very well known, but immune deficiencies and gastrointestinal problems mean these individuals are often ill. Parents do anecdotally report that when their autistic children’s health is better, their behaviour improves a lot. In addition, if kids are often sick they’re not learning the social, emotional and mental skills that they should be, at the pace that they should be. This can exacerbate any developmental problems that are already there.

The characteristics of autism that are quite undisputed are a preference for and attention to routines and patterns, obsessive interest in specific subjects, social deficits, repetitive behaviours and language impairments. Some of these would be helpful in trying to win a card game, while others quite obviously would not. Poker relies so much on reading people’s behaviour and tells, for example, and autistic individuals really struggle to do that. In the end, it comes down to how developed the individual’s strengths are, and how well they have learned to deal with their weaknesses.

Everyone’s Brain is Malleable

Fascinating research by Stanislas Dehaene and other neuroscientists suggests that anyone can become almost savant-like at remembering numbers or even performing calculations. The issue is putting enough time and energy into the enterprise so that whatever brain structures need to be grown, are able to do so. With the natural inclination of an autistic to be single-mindedly focused on a very narrow topic, this effort is a lot easier than for “normal” people who are juggling a job, children, a social life and whatever other interests they have going on. For these folks, it’s more difficult. However, the key issue here is that it is not impossible.

The structures responsible for the incredible number of computing skills that are faster than what the average human brain can achieve are not yet well understood, but the area most likely to be responsible is a region of the brain called the action pathway. This is responsible for physical actions and calculations, like moving automatically to catch a ball, that happen so fast we’re not even aware of them. With enough practice, this area begins to perform mathematical calculations so quickly that individuals are not even aware they are doing them. There is at least one study where the findings suggest it is the unique brain patterns of autistic individuals that make them better at mathematical processing than non-autistics.

That’s in line with the action pathway idea, but the theory goes further and says that if non-autistics had dedicated the same time to their math skills as their peers with autism had, their brains might be patterned in a similar way. You could cultivate your own prowess – and perhaps corresponding success at Blackjack and Poker – if you had the single-minded determination and fascination to do so. But then, how enjoyable would the games and the rest of your life be?