Autism and Math: How to Teach the Basics

Autism and math: I'm here to dispel the myth that those two concepts can't go together. And I'm here to assure that you that yes, many of our children can learn the basics. All you need is patience, time and effective strategies.

While you can provide the time and patience, I'm here to help you with the effective strategies.

If you are struggling to teach your child basic math skills, you aren't alone. Many parents just like you are searching for answers to how they can help their children learn this vital skill.

The outdated myth that children with autism can't learn has been disproven by many parents, including myself.

My own son has moderate to severe autism, and he has done very well with learning the basics of math.

Our kids are smarter than we think. Let's give them a chance to prove it!

As I mentioned earlier, I'm here to help. In this article, I outline a few tips on how to help make your math lessons a success.


Concrete to Abstract

When teaching the basics, you’ll want to start with concrete examples to help her understand abstract concepts.  What do I mean by that? 

Starting with the concrete involves giving children examples that they can touch, see or feel.  For example, if you’re teaching your child to count, you might start by counting objects.  Or if you are teaching addition, you could show her how to add three blocks to the two blocks she already has.

Then you can show her the addition equation, 2 + 3 = 5. The block example shows her that those numbers stand for a certain quantity of items.  Two items plus three items adds up to five items. This will help her understand exactly what that equation means.

You can find more detailed information on how I have taught equations using an abacus here

100-bead abacusAn abacus is great for showing children concrete examples of numbers, counting, addition, subtraction, and even multiplication and division.

Helping Your Child Apply Lessons to Other Situations

When teaching math or any other subject, it's important to use different kinds of examples to help her generalize these concepts. 

What do I mean by generalizing concepts? 

Children with autism will often have trouble applying what they have learned to other situations. For example, if they have learned with only blocks, they might think that addition equations apply only to blocks.

You want her to see that 2 + 3 = 5 applies to adding anything, not just blocks. 

So it's important to occasionally switch to counting or adding other items. You could use food items, such as pieces of fruit. Other possibilities include beads, toys, or an abacus, like the one pictured above.

Use Examples from Everyday Life

cityscape shapesA picture like this can be used to help children recognize shapes.

Everywhere you look, everywhere you go, you can always find something related to math.

Children can start to learn math early on if we talk to them about what we see around us.  Can you see a triangle on that building?  A rectangle?  Is there a circle in this room?

If you have five teddy bears and you share two of them with your brother, how many will you have left?

How many of each type of coin will I need to buy a candy bar?

Count how many beans are left on your plate.  When you eat two beans, how many are left?

Point out that the refrigerator is shaped like a rectangle.  Show him the oval-shaped dinner table.  And the square-shaped end table. 

When he builds a block tower, talk about which blocks are triangles, rectangles, squares, or parallelograms.

And every once in a while, you could pull out the flash cards or worksheet he’s been learning from.  Help him to connect the symbols on the page or flash cards with the objects he sees in front of him.

math quote

Keep Worksheets Free From Clutter

Kids with autism will often be overwhelmed when they see a ton of math problems on a worksheet or page. 

Try to keep it to just a few problems per page.  Experiment to see what works for your child.

My son does fine if I limit it to 12 equations per page.  If I want him to do more than that, I just add a second page.

Autism and Math: Our Children Can Learn Successfully

Our kids with autism can learn math if we are patient and persistent.

And don’t forget to give your child lots of encouragement as well.  Make sure you praise her for all her hard work and effort.

If you follow the guidelines we’ve discussed, your child can learn math with greater ease and success.

I am planning in the next few months to publish a book on how to teach children with autism basic math skills. We'll start with numbers and counting and move on to addition.

If you would like to stay informed about when the book will be available for purchase, or about tips and updates to this site, scroll to the top of this page and sign up for our newsletter.

Related Articles

1. How to Use an Abacus to Teach Basic Math

2. Using Math Flash Cards to Teach Basic Math

3. Teaching Your Child Single Digit Addition Equations

4. How to Teach Subtraction Equations

Like This Page?

New! Comments

Have your say about what you just read! Leave me a comment in the box below.
Enjoy this page? Please share it...

Would you prefer to share this page with others by linking to it?

  1. Click on the HTML link code below.
  2. Copy and paste it, adding a note of your own, into your blog, a Web page, forums, a blog comment, your Facebook account, or anywhere that someone would find this page valuable.