There’s a saying in the autism community that you’re probably familiar with. “If you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met one child with autism.” This loosely translates to “When an autistic teen doesn’t like math, he really doesn’t like math.” And neither do I, making it an arduous task to teach it to him. After trying to teach him long division and triple-digit multiplication late last year, I finally said, “Oh, look! A calculator!” and the two of us were much happier. That is until this year, when we got to algebra.
I tried to explain to my son as he gently banged his head on the kitchen table that if he wanted to attend the local public high school at some point (which he has indicated that he does), he would need to learn algebra. A simple equation like 2c + 1 = 7 would send him into a tirade: This is an outrage! Letters do not belong in math!
After explaining to him that the letters are called variables and they symbolize numbers that we need to figure out by solving the equation, an idea came to me. As we sat on the couch together with the dreaded math book in front of us, I suggested to Nigel that we substitute a question mark for the variables. In other words, 2c + 1 = 7 would become 2? + 1 = 7. I could actually feel Nigel calming down as soon as I rewrote the equations. And it worked. He listened to my instructions and he could solve the equations.
The drawback to this, of course, would be when we got to two variables within the same equation: 2x + y = 7. I started to think that we could use other symbols besides question marks, like an asterisk. Then I thought, okay, maybe the question mark is just a crutch, just something that will help him to understand the concept of variables so that he can learn how to solve the equations, and after a while he won’t need to substitute ? for c or x.
Following our local public school calendar, which gave all of last week off for conferences and Thanksgiving, we homeschoolers also took last week off. Today we got out the math book, Nigel groaned, and I turned to a new chapter, one that started working with two variables in the equations. We started working one together, and I wrote it out just as it was in the book: y = 2x + 8. Nigel did not ask about the question mark. He did not yell about letters not belonging in math. The question mark had been just a crutch, one that he quickly could do without. But he still reminds me every day that he doesn’t like math at all. “Just humor me,” I tell him, and then I explain what that means.
On a side note, I just discovered this article, Reaching an Autistic Teen, that I loved and wanted to share. It’s about a special school in Decatur, Georgia for autistic teenage boys. Be sure to check out the last page – there’s a bit about one of the boys wanting to build a “magic cabinet,” and it reminded me so much of something Nigel would want to do. I absolutely loved it.