Teaching Math to Students with Autism

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  • 0:04 Children With Autism
  • 0:44 Characteristics of Autism
  • 2:23 Math Instruction and Autism
  • 4:36 Positive Reinforcement
  • 5:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Abigail Cook
As autism in the classroom has increased, most teachers have been exposed to this disorder and its unique challenges. This lesson looks at how autism affects the ability to understand math, and goes over effective teaching strategies that may help.

Children With Autism

Jackson is an elementary school student who has been diagnosed with autism. He loves dinosaurs and has memorized over 100 different names and facts that he likes to share with anyone who will listen. He's higher functioning in that he can have conversations, spend some of the school day in regular education, and improve academically through appropriate instruction. However, he struggles to understand abstract concepts, which makes math problems especially hard for him.

For the purpose of this lesson, Jackson's age and grade level are purposely not identified. This will allow us to explore a variety of teaching strategies that may be applied to any math level and skill.

Characteristics of Autism

Autism is a developmental disorder that causes difficulties with communication, forming relationships, and understanding language and abstract concepts. It's often referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), because it includes a wide range of symptoms and degrees of severity. Students with ASD are unique in their needs and abilities. The crucial thing to remember from a clinical perspective is that one solution doesn't fit all. For this reason, it's important to consider the students in your class and their individualized education plans before planning lessons and intervention strategies.

While every student is different, there are a few common symptoms that many students with ASD share. We will look specifically at the symptoms that may need to be considered when planning math instruction.

Let's first take a look at some of the common symptoms of autism. Jackson, like many students with ASD, has specific interests that can be used to help motivate him. He also exhibits the following characteristics:

  • Difficulty controlling emotions
  • Trouble understanding language
  • Need for order, consistency, and routine
  • Intense obsessions with specific items or topics

Many students with autism also share some unique abilities. Some of Jackson's strengths include:

  • Good memory of rote facts
  • Ability to understand rules and patterns
  • Strong visual skills
  • Intense focus on a preferred activity

As Jackson's teachers gain a better understanding of his challenges and abilities, they can formulate a plan for teaching math in a way that will help him succeed.

Math Instruction and Autism

Jackson's teachers have come up with a list of tips and ideas for helping Jackson during math time.

1. Use Visuals and Manipulatives

Because Jackson struggles with receptive language, or understanding what is being said, his teachers use visuals and manipulatives during math time as much as possible. When teaching numbers and their values, teachers use not only the number symbol but also a visual of how many that number represents. A flashcard showing the number 7 and seven stars is more meaningful to Jackson than just saying ''seven.''

Jackson has a better understanding of fractions when he sees the fraction in numbers and a picture. Representing one-half by showing 1/2 with half of a pizza makes more sense than trying to describe what half of something means. When learning to count with one-to-one correspondence, Jackson prefers to place items on a graph or chart to keep track of what number he's on. Teachers draw a table with ten boxes and ask Jackson to count out ten candies, which he can do easily when he understands to put one candy in each box.

2. Incorporate Student Interests

Many students with autism have special interests or obsessions that can be used to help motivate them. Jackson happens to love dinosaurs. Let's look at ways his teachers incorporate dinosaurs into his math work. During word problem practice, Jackson's teachers will include a few problems that have to do with dinosaurs. Jackson adds and subtracts triceratops, counts pterodactyls, and learns patterns by alternating red and blue brontosauruses.

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