teaching math to students with autism

Teaching Math to Students With Autism

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Whether you are a homeschooling parent or a teacher at a school, if you have at least one student with autism, it’s possible that you’re struggling to fully meet their needs.

In fact, one survey conducted by the charity Ambitious About Autism indicates that as many as 60% of teachers in England felt they lacked appropriate preparation to teach children with autism. Similarly, in the US, schools are also said to be underprepared for teaching students with autism.

The challenges of this endeavor vary depending on the subject that is being taught, with mathematics often being perceived as one of the most daunting ones. The two biggest issues for educators stem from lack of training or lack of resources.

To help you out, in the following article, we’ll discuss several such resources and strategies for teaching math to students with autism.

What Is Autism?

Autism or autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a lifelong developmental disorder that usually appears in childhood. The term refers to several conditions, including Asperger’s syndrome, autistic disorder, childhood disintegrative disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder (or atypical autism).

Individuals with autism may:

  • have difficulties in communication and interaction with other people
  • face difficulties in understanding how other people feel or think
  • have difficulties in focus or attention
  • be overwhelmed by loud noises or bright lights
  • engage in repetitive behavior
  • experience anxiety about unfamiliar events or situations

These symptoms can make the process of learning math more complicated for autistic students. For instance, repetitive behaviors imply developing fixated interests, which can be a double edged-sword when it comes to math. The child may fixate on math constantly and become extremely good at it. But if they don’t find math interesting at all, it could be really tricky to get them to focus on learning it.

Parents or carers usually notice repetitive behavior and other signs of autism in their child by age 2 or 3, but in some cases, children won’t show signs until toddlerhood. In fact, some children don’t get diagnosed until adulthood even. Early diagnosis and treatment are vital for improving the quality of life for individuals with autism.

Strategies for Teaching Math to Students With Autism

Students with autism spectrum disorder are oftentimes thought of as “math whizzes” and superior at math compared to their peers. But in reality, if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism, as a famous doctor once said.

In other words, all autistic students are unique, and while some of them excel at math, for others, math is a real struggle.

So what can you do, as a teacher or parent, to support your student in learning math? Read on to learn about some useful strategies when it comes to math for autistic students.

Establish a Routine

Children with autism frequently struggle to make sense of movements, sounds, and actions. The world may seem very confusing, which can induce stress and anxiety in them. In fact, it is well-known that the prevalence of anxiety is often much greater in youth with autism in comparison to the general population.

This is precisely why individuals with autism find routines especially comforting – they bring order into an otherwise chaotic world. As an educator, you may find that you can also use establishing routines to your advantage while teaching math to students with autism.

For instance, if you’re homeschooling your child, you may want to consider establishing a routine of teaching math at a specific time during the day. You may decide that this is in the afternoon, right after watching their favorite cartoon, for example. Or, you may decide to drink hot cocoa during every lesson. Whatever the routine is, adding an element of predictability will help the child feel safer and less anxious.

If you’re a teacher at a school, establishing routines is even easier, as there is naturally a structure in classes. You may also find it helpful if you write a timetable with all activities during the day and place it on the wall so that the student feels even more secure about what follows. Make sure to include both words and images to make it more visual.

Pay Attention to Changes

A study by Szarko, Brown, and Watkins in 2013 examined the effects of examiner familiarity on children with autism. The research involved 26 autistic children and tried to investigate the difference in their standardized test performance in two different scenarios. In one scenario, it was familiar teachers conducting the mentioned tests, whereas the other one included examiners that the children didn’t know.

The researchers demonstrated that autistic students’ scores are likely to be higher when the students are examined by a familiar face. There are several explanations for these results and one of them ties into our previous discussion on the importance of routines. As discussed above, autistic children find great comfort in routines and a stranger’s face would represent a deviation from an already established routine.

This is why you need to be extra attentive to any changes that may occur to routines. Changes are of course inevitable, but you need to have a plan on how to transition to them. So how can you go about it?

Introduce Changes Slowly

If possible, make sure to avoid abrupt changes. Not only can sudden changes result in the child underperforming during a math test, but they can also make the child anxious or lead to angry outbursts. For example, if there’s a new teacher administering the tests, make sure the child is familiarized as much as possible with them. This can be in the form of games or any other fun activity a few days before the test.

Provide Warning With Visual Representation

Sometimes, it may be difficult for a substitute teacher to come in in advance to get to know the child. In such cases, it makes sense to use visual support in order to give the autistic child a warning that change is about to occur.

For instance, the regular math teacher may consider placing a picture of the substitute teacher on the board, together with verbal notes as a reminder that a new teacher is coming.

Provide Reassurance for Remaining Routines

Every time you introduce a change, make sure to also remind the child of the things that will stay the same. For example, you may remind the child that although a substitute teacher will come, the classroom will stay the same, their favorite bean bag chair will still be there, and the new teacher will still keep on using tablets for teaching geometric shapes.

Use Real-Life Experiences

A study conducted by University College London suggests that it’s not until age 9 or 10 that children begin to grasp abstract notions. This means that students are likely to struggle with math concepts such as multiplication, division, fractions, etc. However, for children who are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, the challenges of conceptual thinking are even greater, and often persist throughout life.

Because of the difficulties that students with autism experience with conceptual reasoning, it is advisable to try to connect abstract notions to real-life experiences that would help students understand the practical application of a given concept.

For instance, if you’re a parent homeschooling your child, you can take them to the store and allow them to practice multiplication with real-life arrays. If you see any rows and columns of cookies, eggs, or other items that you intend to purchase, ask your child to calculate how many you will purchase in total. They can also practice addition by calculating the total price.

One caveat though: the Indiana Resource Centre for Autism warns about making assumptions in terms of the child’s skills in different settings. While a child with autism may excel at algebra in class, they might struggle to count change at a store. Make sure you are understanding in situations like these.

Use Visual Aids

Visual aids come in handy when it comes to understanding abstract math concepts on a more concrete level for students of all abilities, and especially for students with learning disabilities. What’s more, they can often be used for creating fun math games for autistic students. Visual aids include, but are not limited to:

  • Pictures
  • Flashcards
  • Diagrams
  • Graphs
  • Manipulatives (ex: color cubes, abacus, etc.)

A particularly appealing type of visual aid is the abacus. This tool is often used in schools to help teach the numerical system and arithmetic operations such as addition, subtraction, counting, etc. Also known as a counting frame, the abacus typically consists of several rows of beads that can be moved back and forth, representing digits. The traditional abacus consists of 10 rows with 10 beads, although there are different variations nowadays.

Consider Assistive Technology

Many children with autism experience difficulty developing language and communicating. Some may develop very poor speaking skills or none at all. Oftentimes, they may engage in what is known as echolalia, that is, continuous repetition of words they have heard.

Adding assistive technology to the classroom can go a long way for children with poor or no verbal skills. This can be something as simple as setting up a computer which the child can use for expressing themselves more easily. This also means they are able to have access to an abundance of images online which they can use as visual help.

There are, of course, a number of apps that can provide great relief to nonverbal children, such as LetMeTalk. This app allows autistic children to choose images and create sentences. It contains over 9000 images and it’s free of charge. Another great app for nonverbal children is TouchChat HD, allowing for the use of a voice synthesizer and recorded messages.

In addition to poor verbal skills, some autistic children struggle with fine motor skills, such as manipulating objects or writing. Writing on a keyboard, touchscreen, or using a speech-to-text app for writing can be of help in situations like these. So, if you have a student that struggles with handwriting, instead of asking them to draw a rhombus on a sheet of paper, you could simply ask them to do it on a tablet.

Be Aware of Sensory Sensitivity

Many children with autism are either overly sensitive to sensory stimuli, such as noise, touch, and smell or don’t really notice them. Sensory overload can elicit intense negative or positive reactions, which can result in a sensory meltdown. This may come in the form of:

  • running away
  • crying
  • hitting
  • whining
  • screaming
  • bitting
  • hiding
  • shutting down (not speaking/moving) etc.

Since every child with autism is different, there can’t be a one-size-fits-all approach here and you’d have to monitor the individual reactions of the child and get to know their triggers. You may also want to consider obtaining input from their parents. This way, you can adapt the classroom appropriately.

For instance, if the child gets distracted while solving math equations because there is too much noise outside, you could consider getting them noise-canceling headphones.

Sometimes an autistic child will find particular textures or colors unpleasant. It’s especially important to monitor this during hands-on activities in math classes. As an example, if you want to use balls with an unusual fabric to teach counting, check with the child if the fabric is okay with them in advance, and adjust your activity accordingly.

Of course, you can never know all of the meltdown triggers, so it’s good to also prepare a “calm down” area. This can be an area where the child can compose themself. For instance, it can be the corner of the classroom where there’s a bean bag chair and a few calming items that the student likes.

Use Simple and Direct Language

Autistic children may find it hard to understand vague or more complicated language. They may also struggle to interpret facial expressions or gestures, or what is expected of them during a lesson.

This is why you should use simple and direct language when teaching math to students with autism. For example, instead of saying “Jenny, can you solve the rest of the equations?”, consider saying “Jenny, first solve the fourth and then the fifth equation”.

So, keep your sentences short and concise. Also, make sure not to overload the student. Break down the instructions into several steps and give them only one or two instructions at a time. And don’t forget to include these guidelines in your math worksheets for students with autism, not just during verbal interactions.

It’s good to also avoid sarcasm, as students with autism tend to interpret things literally. So if an autistic child happens to spill water on some of the worksheets you brought, if you say “Oh great!”, the student might think that you really think this was great and may be inclined to repeat this. Idioms and metaphors should be avoided as well.

Finally, avoid open-ended questions. Instead of saying “What would you like to do now?”, you’d get a much better response if you ask the following: “Would you prefer to practice addition or subtraction now?”

Give Fewer Choices

It has long been known that decision-making is not particularly enjoyable for people with autism, with autobiographical accounts describing this process as being “locked up and overloaded with pictures coming in all at once”. In cases where a decision is needed, many autistic individuals may experience anxiety and exhaustion, which can result in them feeling like they’ve been overwhelmed with too much information. This can render them unable to make a decision and, consequently, lead to ‘mental freezing’.

This doesn’t imply that autistic individuals can’t make good decisions. In fact, they can make as good or even better decisions compared to individuals without autism. However, it does imply that situations where there is a wide range of options to consider might feel overwhelming for an individual on the autism spectrum. Even going to the supermarket and having to choose a shampoo can be a struggle.

Therefore, when teaching math to students with autism, it is advisable not to give the child math exercises with too many choices to choose from, but to limit them to perhaps 2 or 4 choices. For example, let’s say you’re teaching your student about shapes. You’re doing an exercise where the student is supposed to identify which flashcards contain a triangle, give them only two flashcards, one with a triangle on it and another one with a rectangle.

Integrate Their Interests

As already mentioned, autistic students might find it more difficult than others to focus on activities that don’t interest them. Oftentimes, they develop highly-focused interests, ranging from trains and maps to unicorns. Once identified, children with autism can enthusiastically engage in these activities for hours on end.

In older models of teaching math to students with autism, educators would typically try to “fix” the autistic student and discourage them from pursuing their interest during classes so as to focus on the “real” lesson. At best, a child that loves arranging trains would be rewarded with 10 minutes of arranging trains after remaining attentive during a lesson or solving a few math equations.

However, nowadays, the approach is changing. For example, Kristie Patten, associate professor of occupational therapy, proposes that instead of removing these special interests from the classroom, educators should try to integrate them in lessons, including math lessons.

What would such a lesson look like? Let us take an example of an autistic child with a special interest in historical buildings. The teacher might plan a lesson with toy historical buildings as manipulatives, where the concept of calculating perimeter and area are introduced. The child can then practice calculating the perimeter and area of the toy buildings.

Provide Positive Feedback

Providing positive feedback to your student when they have solved a math problem can be particularly beneficial. And not just any positive feedback – feel free to lavish praise on the child’s progress. Not only does this motivate the child to keep on working, but it will also help them make associations between math and positive feelings.

Just remember to use straightforward and direct language in your praises, for, as mentioned above, autistic students can’t always make sense of facial expressions or non-verbal cues.

Choose a Curriculum for Teaching Math to Students With Autism

Selecting an appropriate curriculum for teaching math to students with autism can be taxing. In order to facilitate this task, you may want to consider the questions below before choosing the curriculum:

  • What is the preferred learning style of your student? Do they like incorporating technology in their learning or perhaps a nature-based setting is more to their liking?
  • What are the strong points of your student in math? What are their weaker points?

How does the math curriculum address these particular math strengths and weaknesses? Remember that each child with autism is unique and you’ll have to set up an individualized approach that takes their uniqueness into account.

  • How much time is needed to prepare for each lesson? This is especially relevant if you’re a parent doing homeschooling, as the required prep time for some math curricula can be more demanding than you can handle.
  • Again, if you’re a parent homeschooling your child, you will also want to ask yourself what is your budget? With a plethora of math curricula out there, prices vary greatly. Be extra careful for any additional payments that may be required throughout the lessons, such as manipulatives or add-ons.
  • Is a scripted or unscripted curriculum better suited to your needs? Scripted curricula are those that provide detailed instructions on what the parent has to say. You may feel more comfortable with this teaching style, especially if you’re not too confident in your own math skills; however, the unscripted curricula leave more space for creativity in your teaching.


As there is no cure for autism, it is vital that educators are equipped with the appropriate resources that can help them in their work. This, in turn, will help students with autism reach their full potential and lead more fulfilling lives.

By incorporating the above strategies into your work, you might be able to discover that teaching math to students with autism isn’t so scary, after all. On the contrary, it can prove to be a highly rewarding experience.

Visit our blog for more resources on teaching math to children of all ages.

Make sure to also check out our math activities and resources at MathTeacherCoach.com.

From bell work to assignments, guided notes, interactive notebook, lesson plans, online activities, slideshow and exit quiz, MathTeacherCoach provides you with everything that you need for a successful math class.