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Teaching Math to Students With Autism

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher. He wrote for IHPVA magazines and raced these vehicles with his father (who builds them).


Distractions, confusing or complex instructions, multiple tasks and abstract problems: these are the things that will prevent students with autism from learning math. Students with autism will have many things working against them in the classroom; however, some of these factors don't have to stop them from learning. When it comes to math, these students can learn, as long as things are kept simple and sequential.

Autism is a condition in which a person with it will have complications with concentrating on multiple tasks, communicating or understanding abstract or figurative speech. Also, many of them are visual learners who do better when pictographs or step-by-step instructions are given to them.

Still, autism affects people in different ways. Depending on which side of the spectrum one's symptoms are, autism can seriously hinder the students' developmental and learning abilities. In more severe cases, the students' development will be seriously delayed to the point that they will need to be taught basic math concepts such as addition and subtraction throughout their high school years and beyond. Others will simply hit a wall or limits when it comes to complex math such as Algebra or geometry.

Depending on which side of the spectrum one's symptoms are, autism can seriously hinder the students' developmental and learning abilities.

Programs that can Help

There are companies that focus on teaching math to student with autism. Touchmath - a product from Innovative Learning Concept Inc. -- is one example. According to its website, Touchmath uses mental manipulative.

Manipulative in math are small geometrical models or numerical symbol used to demonstrate a math concept such as fractions. The company states that its mental manipulative is designed to introduce math in a sequential, scaffold process. Scaffolding is an instructional technique whereby the teacher models the desired learning strategy or task,and then gradually shifts responsibility to the students (, 2009).

Whether this system is effective is hard to say. However, some of the approaches and instructional philosophies purported to be used in Touchmath have been concepts usually practiced when teaching students with autism.

Scaffolding and teaching sequential steps are often cited as good teaching practices. Not only does this help students with autism, it helps those with processing disorders and/or attention deficit disorders.

Originally published at

Originally published at

Teaching procedures and tips

Other teaching practices and procedures that help are:

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  • Using visual aids, such as a pictograph or other graphic organizers
  • Using uncluttered papers.Do not clog it with tons of numbers and words; streamline it, if possible.
  • Fostering the student's strength. Most students with autism have relative strength in concrete thinking, rote memorization, and understanding visual-spatial relationships.
  • Avoiding abstract problems.
  • Not relying on oral communication alone. This may pose problems for students with autism who have language processing problems.
  • Using visual support for oral lessons or vice-versa. Either way a teacher has to have more than one way to communicate the lesson to the student.
  • Providing easy directions or instructions for students.
  • Breaking it down in chunks, if need be.
  • Supporting appropriate behavior.
  • Assisting the student in understanding the organization of the environment in the classroom. This can help the student get better acquainted with a teacher's teaching habits.
  • Establishing an environment that is free of visual stimuli or auditory distraction.Students with autism - like students with processing disorders - can lose their concentration or focus on something other than the lesson.

Teaching math to students with autism requires patience.

Tips Dealing with Students with Autism

It should be noted that some students with autism have panic attacks, especially when they are dealing with complex math problems. They can get overwhelmed by a problem with multiple steps. It's imperative that a math teacher doesn't assign too many problems with multiple steps. However, if a teacher does so, make sure that it's one or two problems; it can be modeled by the teacher; it's done in well ordered steps; and the student can take extra time to complete it.

Teaching math to students with autism requires patience. Also, it works when it is done in a sequence with visual supports and constant modeling and monitoring. Finally, distractions need to be removed or reduced in order for the students to learn.

Math doesn't have to be full of limitations for these students. It is possible for many of them to learn.


Using I-pads to help teach math to autistic students

© 2014 Dean Traylor


Dean Traylor (author) from Southern California/Spokane, Washington (long story) on October 22, 2016:

Thank you. Since I've written that, more students with autism are being mainstreamed in the general education community. This means that a lot of teachers need to know more about the condition...not only that, I wouldn't be surprised that all teachers credentialing programs will require a course on it (in fact, I had to take a course in it despite having a special education credential for the last ten years).

Julia on October 22, 2016:

Thanks for sharing your tips on working with autistic children. I am a student teacher and have a couple of designated children in my classroom, and have been looking for better ways to help them through their math lessons. I really appreciate the use of technology and games to teach math like shown in that video. It is something that has not been explored in my classroom with my sponsor teacher, so I will bring that suggestion in to her. One student I work with in particular gets quite distracted and frustrated when working on problems that have multiple steps to get to the answers. I am going to take these tips for teaching with me and see what I can apply when I am with her next.

Thanks again!

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