Reading, Mathematics, and the Connection to Autism

Reading, Mathematics, and the Connection to Autism

One meme that circulates around the internet says, "you were given the manual for a Honda/Ford, but ended up with a Ferrari," in reference to the life a parent leads when rearing a child diagnosed with autism. The fact is that an autistic child is no different than a neurotypical in its basic needs and desires, including for parental love and acceptance. At times, with all the hardships and obstacles that one may face when living with autism, those on the spectrum may be exceptional in their abilities, whether or not they are considered savants.

The Autistic Mind
Autism is not a disease. It is not something that can be cured. It is a "disorder" which affects the way one thinks and thus behaves in society. Some effects are adverse and antisocial, while others seem to be an evolutionary trait that has many believing that high functioning autistic traits are examples of the next generation of humanity. Autistic minds don't seem to stop working however, with activity present 42% more than in the neurotypical populations, even at rest. Research is split on the causes of autism, but both genetic and environmental factors are blamed. In terms of genetics, twin studies have shown that in over 95% of identical twins, both are likely to be on the spectrum.

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Math and Reading Achievement Profiles in Autistic Individuals
The hardest subjects children at any age struggle with most are language and mathematics. The average child may be stronger in one or the other, but very rarely in both. Howard Gardner's theory outlining the nine intelligences also points out that each individual has his or her own intellectual print in which a unique combination of the nine is utilized. Autistic children are no different. The study published in the January 21 issue of the Autism Journal examined the reading and math achievement profiles and their changes over time looking at a sample of children between the ages 6-9 with an autism spectrum disorder. What they found was that there are four distinct achievement profiles:

  • Higher-achieving (39%)
  • Hyperlexia (9%)
  • Hypercalculia (20%)
  • Lower-achieving (32%)

Children with hypercalculia and lower-achieving profiles were more likely to be from low socioeconomic families and had lower functional cognitive skills than the higher-achieving profile. This is interesting but makes sense. If one has taught in schools before, such a trend is not uncommon. Another point should catch one's attention though. All four profiles seemed to decline in passage comprehension over time. Furthermore, slower improvement was seen within the higher-achieving populations on letter–word identification, whereas the hyperlexia group displayed this slow trait within its conversation abilities and the hypercalculia group did not grasp calculations and had slower functional cognitive skill advances relative to the lower-achieving group. This is not the result one expects, nor is it something a teacher often considers. On the contrary, higher-achievers are seen to be those who grasp the information quickest of all and show the most improvement over time, a theory which holds no water in this case. Environmental factors have much to do with the psychology behind this, but research has not yet provided us with the correct interpretation as to why this would be the case.

Teaching Autistic Children who have a Hard Time Learning
Parents and teachers often find that the autistic children they work with have a hard time comprehending and remembering the information relayed. This has nothing to do with an inability to grasp concepts and everything to do with how the lessons are presented. The old school way of teaching was with the instructor in front of the class, explaining verbally how to do something and then expecting a child to use those instructions to complete the task. As described in a previous article citing a study published in Psychological Medicine, the mind of an autistic child often does not allow for trial and error learning the way a neurotypical may, instead flourishing when completing a task that has been modelled and closely observed by the child. Hyperimitation could technically become an obstacle that's hard to overcome in terms of automation, but practice most definitely makes perfect for an autistic child and he or she could perform any task with equal ease as a neurotypical, so long as the observation aspect is present in teaching.

My advice to parents and teachers out there: It takes time to learn how to correctly handle a Ferrari and the same goes for an autistic child; don't give up and keep trying new tactics to teach the children who work and live with what is necessary that they learn.