Teaching Autistic Children

I occasionally get emails from people asking “do you have any tips on how to teach math to my autistic son/daughter?” These queries leave me torn – I can’t help but want to help, but I have no experience with autism.

Once, I emailed my state autism association for advice. The reply contained a whole bunch of useful tips. The most important point was this – every autistic child is different, so it’s hard to give specific rules.

  • For a less able child, it helps for things to be as concrete as possible: 2+3 is harder than 2 marbles + 3 marbles, for example – especially if the kid loves playing with marbles!
  • Autistic kids often have trouble generalizing – knowing that 2 and 3 marbles is 5 marbles doesn’t mean they’ll know the same sum for sandwiches, for example.
  • Autistic kids tend to learn better when the use their eyes – for example, math rules can be written down instead of spoken. Examples can be shown instead of explained.

Some friends of mine visited me once with their autistic child in tow – I’ll call him John. John was about the age of my son, but severely autistic. In school, he was seated in front of a box, he would take a problem to be solved from the right, and put the solution out at the left. The box allowed John to zoom in on a tiny micro-world of just himself, the box, and the problems to be solved. No distracting teachers, classmates, windows, or pictures on the classroom wall.

You might be wondering how on earth they managed to travel with such a child. Their solution was to carefully plan every day of their itinerary beforehand, and make up a book (with photographs) showing where they’d be staying each night, what they’d be doing each day, how long each plane flight would be, and so forth. Their book worked – John had no trouble with the disruption to his schedule that an overseas trip normally brings.

John hardly spoke a word to me during dinner – I guess my photo wasn’t in the book. By the end of the meal, I was able to get a smile out of him by humming a few catchy tunes, but he cried the one time I hummed a song in a minor key. I’ll know better next time!

If you have tips, ideas or just a story to tell about teaching kids with autism, please do email me or leave a comment below.  I’d love to hear what you have to say.