When Autism Does Not Equal Liking Math

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.

9 thoughts on “When Autism Does Not Equal Liking Math

  1. Cristina

    AF has the same issues with math and he’s already learning begining algebra in 5th grade. The math with letters thing, just threw him off. Why didn’t i think of that ? lol – great idea !

  2. jess

    i give you so much credit .. i get hives just thinking about home schooling .. i’d be a simpering mess if i had to figure it all out .. and you handle it so gracefully and with such sensitivity for your boy .. it’s amazing

  3. Em

    Just recently discovered your blog. We have an 18 year old with aspergers. And he does NOT like math. Just tonight he tried to convince me that he should not be in geometry class.

  4. M

    on a regular basis, i wish i had gotten the math skills that you regularly hear about in reference to the spectrum.

    math skills, from what i can tell, are synonymous with marketable skills.

    wherever math is located in the brain, i have a lump of coal. nothing.

    when i took algebra my freshman year in college, i had to talk with the professor every day after class, seek help. had to have a math tutor in my free time. studied as hard as i could, over and over, constantly. tried so hard.

    final grade? a C-. I was thrilled.

    i really wonder how much the math and computer skills are stereotypes. i ask the doctor all the time…what are your other AS clients like? she says most of them test low, low in math.

    on the other hand, i read a lot of the studies that come out and they seem to indicate that a majority of spectrum folks are computery, math-like.

    frustrating when it’s difficult to relate to the likewise.

    just to re-iterate: congratulations on the fifty thousand in a month. tanya is my new verbal hero.

  5. mama mara

    Rocky thinks only “mysterious” letters are okay for algebra: x, y, z are good because they sound like “unknown quantities”. The other letters are too common and happy, he says.

  6. Tanya Savko Post author

    Jess, thank you so much for the compliment. I appreciate it!

    M, you’re definitely right about the stereotypes. I think more needs to be said about that (anybody feel a post coming on?)

    Mama Mara, Rocky’s onto something with thinking that x,y, and z are okay for algebra. Nigel now seems to be more comfortable with them as well. (I love how Rocky describes the other letters as “too common and happy”!)

  7. Paulene Angela

    I have arrived to your site via Faces of Autism, Casdok. My son is Maximilion 15 years.
    Just wanted to share this endless battle with learning maths. I have even gone as far as buying books on maths and dyslexia, trying to widen my perspective of making maths multi-sensory. There are many skills needed to master mathematics, for example interpreting diagrams, reading digits and numbers, understanding relationships, etc. My main battle has been to try to make maths fun, I know my son will store, in his long term memory, information that interests him, that makes a small connection with him in some way. Any tips would very much be appreciated. Many thanks for your wondeful site.
    I’ve saved the link to read this evening.
    Kind Regards,

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