Teaching Investigations to Students with Asperger’s Syndrome

Question: Do you have any suggestions for teaching Investigations to students with Asperger's Syndrome?

Answer: Asperger's Syndrome (AS) is a neurobiological disorder characterized by a variety of symptoms that can range from mild to severe. AS falls within the autistic spectrum because of the effects on social interaction, communication, and inflexibility of thought and actions. Some professionals consider Asperger's Syndrome to be the same as high functioning Autism. Although many students with Asperger's Syndrome can do quite well academically, they may interpret language literally, have difficulty using language in a social context, have motor difficulties, and be obsessive in their actions and interests. (For more information, see www.aane.org.)

Establishing well-defined routines for the math class seems to be an important element for these students. One teacher in our project taught a student with Asperger's Syndrome for two years, looping with the class from grade 4 to grade 5. She took great care to be explicit in her expectations and instructions so that the student along with the rest of the class understood classroom norms and academic standards. While she offered support to help meet his learning needs, she also made it clear that she had the same high but reasonable expectations for him as she had for everyone else. The students in the class also accepted him as a member of the community and were sensitive to his needs. The fact that this teacher stayed with this group of students for two years was incredibly helpful for this student because he knew the routines and her expectations, and of course she knew him well also.

Throughout their time together, this teacher talked openly with this student about his anxieties and together they found ways to reduce his stress. For example, she tried to check in with him soon after the class began working on a problem to make him feel comfortable, and she allowed him to leave the room to take a walk when his anxiety became too high and prevented him from focusing.

The teachers in our group say that finding out what students know and understand is key. Then, you can help students find and master a method that works for them, based on this information. For example, one of our teachers had a student who was frustrated by the traditional multiplication algorithm. If he made a mistake, he did not know how to proceed. The teacher worked hard with him to develop one strategy for multiplying and recording the steps that made sense to him. They started with easy numbers and focused on breaking numbers up by place value. For a while he used repeated addition to find answers to some of the partial products, but he understood what he was doing and was able to consolidate his work into fewer steps as he learned more and practiced his method. For example, his solution for 233 x 5 was:

200 x 5=1000 (He added 200 5 times.)
30 x 5 = 150 (He used 3x5=15 to solve this mentally.)
3 x 5 = 15
1,165

He could explain his procedure to the class, using "repeated addition" to name the first step and explaining how knowing that 3x5=15 helped him solve 30x5.

It is important to note that this teacher was careful, throughout the year, to record students' strategies in a way that made the steps explicit, instead of relying on verbal explanations that can be difficult for students with Asperger's to process.

At first this student was upset because he could not attend to or understand the strategies of other students that were different from his. Once he had a strategy that worked for him, he was able to pay attention to his classmates' strategies without feeling pressured to use them.

Students with Asperger's Syndrome and related disorders can successfully learn mathematics with understanding if the teacher can:

  • Provide a safe and structured environment,
  • Create a mathematics community in which all learners are respected and it is ok to make mistakes and take risks, and
  • Support these students in developing methods for solving problems that build on their strengths and make sense to them.

Judy Storeygard and Cornelia Tierney, Accessible Mathematics Project, TERC
November 2004

The Accessible Math project (NSF HRD--0090070) has been working with classroom and special education teachers to include all their students, especially those with special needs in learning through the Investigations curriculum. This work has informed the answers to the two questions about students with particular kinds of special needs.

This information was reprinted with permission of CESAME, Northeastern Univ., and the Educational Alliance, Brown University.