If there is one thing I’ve learnt over these last few years, it’s that the myth that all students with autism find maths easy definitely isn’t true.
Whilst I have met some students who are brilliant with numbers, just like with neurotypical students I’ve taught others who really struggle. And the reality is that even those who are fantastic with the numbers themselves can often struggle to understand what exactly the question is asking.
So here are my top tips to break down some of the boundaries that young people with autism find when tackling maths in school:
Be explicit about what the question is asking
Some students can really struggle to differentiate between the symbols asking them to perform different operations. This can cause a high degree of anxiety and a reluctance to even begin the task. Simply writing at the top of their work ‘These questions are asking you to add the numbers together’ can make a huge difference to their willingness to give something a try.
When it comes to longer – more word based questions – rewriting them more clearly or summarising them succinctly can also be helpful. Whilst in an exam situation this ‘translation’ will sadly not always be available to them, having it in the early days to build their confidence is crucial in ensuring the student does not become disheartened with their lack of success.
Present the solution visually
Where possible use diagrams and visuals to teach the concepts you are working on. Visual demonstrations or diagrams will help students to differentiate one operation from another.
All explanations should be accompanied with clear visual steps to follow, all processes. Activities like sorting a series of cards into the right operations or creating classroom displays that really demonstrate what you are trying to teach really can make such a big difference.
Break down the sequence
Sequencing is an area that many students on the Spectrum struggle with. Breaking down the task into small manageable chunks will enable it to feel more manageable.
For older students one helpful approach for operations likely to be used frequently, is writing the sequence in easy to understand steps. Once this is done laminate them and add to a key ring. Students can then take it out whenever they need it, allowing them to work independently and confidently whilst having the discreet support they need in order to be successful.
For younger students check lists or post it notes containing the steps of the operation being carried out are helpful visuals which can make a real difference.
Explain the importance
When you are asking someone to do something that’s hard for them, knowing why it’s important really does matter. Relating every skill you want a student to learn to their present or future will vastly increase perserverence and willingness to engage. Explain why learning time is important, or the multitude of ways we use addition each day. Talk about measuring your windows to fit new curtains or weighing to make a cake. Showing student the real life implications of mathematical skills really can make a huge difference to engagement.
Make it practical
Taking it one step further and teach maths in this way will further enhance learning – especially for those who find learning the most difficult. Build Lego models and work out the angles within them, give your students watches and teach time in real life scenarios, go to the shops and find packages in different 3D shapes.
The key is to make maths about more than just sitting inside a classroom. Make it understandable, fathomable, real.
If you do want to learn more you might find our autism section a useful place to start. It’s full of different strategies to try out.
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