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Why Do Some Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder Have Difficulty with Math Word Problem Solving?

Three Cognitive Theories May Help Explain Why

Students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) frequently have difficulty with math word problem solving. Students with ASD are unique; some present with no learning issues and some present with high levels of difficulties. There are three cognitive theories that help explain why these students may present with learning issues in reading and mathematics.

Executive Functioning

Executive functioning can provide a possible explanation for the deficits seen across the autism spectrum. Deficits in executive functioning include poor organizational skills, attention difficulties, motivational issues, and work completion problems. Any of these deficits can pose math word problem solving issues. These executive functioning deficits manifest themselves as:

  • Memory/planning issues, including cognitive processes such as organization.
  • Working memory, and interference control.
  • Set shifting/mental flexibility issues, including cognitive processes such as perseveration, attention, and self-monitoring.
  • Inhibition/response control issues, including cognitive processes such as impulse control.

Students with ASD experience executive functioning deficits. Thus, it would follow that they would have difficulty in math word problem solving. This is evidenced by students having difficulty:

  • Organizing the order of operations in multiple-step word problems.
  • Holding information from one step while manipulating information from another step.
  • Shifting from one piece of information to a second piece of information.
  • Attending to the relevant information within the word problem.
  • Perseverating on unimportant information within the word problem.
  • Controlling the impulse to solve the first identified operation without understanding all of the steps involved.

All of these difficulties, in turn, have a direct effect on math word problem solving for students with autism spectrum disorder.

 Theory of Mind

Theory of mind refers to the ability to understand others’ points of view or perspectives. Lacking theory of mind, students with ASD struggle to understand that others have their own ideas. They might have difficulty perceiving a situation from another person’s perspective. And they are often unable to predict intent based on context. Deficits in theory of mind include difficulty:

  • Understanding others’ thoughts and emotions.
  • Recognizing that other people have different thoughts than their own.
  • Knowing how to take the perspective of another person.

Applying theory of mind to math word problem solving, we can see how it might affect:

  • Inhibiting comprehension.
  • Distracting the student from relevant information.
  • Bringing a social component to the problem that adds to its complexity.

 Central Coherence

Many students with ASD have an overall strength in recalling details. However, they may struggle with the synthesis of details or central coherence. Central coherence is the ability to bring details together into a whole concept or idea. Examples of weak central coherence include difficulties:

  • Integrating details into a concept.
  • Identifying a text’s main idea or concept.
  • Integrating pieces of information into a whole.

These difficulties might translate into difficulties with math word problem solving when the student must manipulate multiple steps to complete a problem.

This blog post is excerpted from Solve It! Teaching Mathematical Word Problem Solving to Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder by Dr. Peggy Schaefer Whitby. The book adapts the Solve It! approach to accommodate students with deficits in these areas. Learn more about Solve It! at http://www.exinn.net/solve-it-2/