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My Student with Autism Spectrum Disorder is Good at Math. Why Does He Have Difficulty Solving Math Word Problems?

Reading problems can make solving math word problems difficult for students with autism spectrum disorder. High-functioning students with autism spectrum disorder tend to be relatively strong in decoding and basic reading skills. However, they may have difficulty with reading comprehension. And that can affect their math word problem solving skills.

Because reading comprehension makes solving math word problems harder, we have to make reducing reading comprehension difficulty a priority.

The Solve It! approach provides support for students with autism spectrum disorder who struggle with reading comprehension.

Solve It! Puts Reading Comprehension First

The Solve It! approach addresses reading problems that can make solving math word problems difficult for students with autism spectrum disorder. For example, the Solve It! approach addresses reading comprehension right from the start. In the first step, students learn a strategy to read the problem for understanding.

For students with autism spectrum disorder who have reading comprehension difficulties, teachers also can use available reading support strategies to ensure student access. For that reason, the Solve It! version (adapted for students with autism spectrum disorder), embeds several reading comprehension strategies. These strategies help students think about what they are reading. Thus, the strategies address reading problems that can make solving math word problems difficult for them. Examples of these strategies include:

  • Use graphic organizers.
  • Think aloud.
  • Refer back to earlier elements of the text in order to understand or bring meaning to what is being read.
  • Underline the important information.
  • Cross out the unimportant information.

Help Reduce Reading Problems that Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder May Experience When Solving Math Word Problems

Cognitive Theories Help Explain Reading and Math Issues

Cognitive factors contribute to the comprehension deficits for students with autism spectrum disorder. Thus, it is helpful for teachers to understand selected cognitive theories of autism that may help explain learning issues in reading and math. Particularly important are the cognitive theories of Executive Functioning, Theory of Mind, and Central Coherence.

The Theory of Executive Functioning

Executive Functioning refers to the process of organizing, planning, and monitoring progress when presented with a situation, such as a math word problem. Executive functioning deficits may be 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.
  • Experiencing trouble attending to the relevant information within the word problem.
  • Being distracted by unimportant information within the word problem.
  • Having difficulty controlling the impulse to solve the first identified operation without understanding all of the steps involved.

Theory of Mind

The Theory of Mind refers to the ability to understand other’s point of view or perspective. Theory of mind affects mathematical word problem solving by:

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

Central Coherence

The theory of Central Coherence is the ability to bring details together into a whole concept or idea. Examples of central coherence difficulties include:

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

Reading Comprehension and Autism

Solve It! author, Dr. Peggy Schaefer Whitby and her colleagues published a 2015 article, Reading Comprehension and Autism in the Primary General Education Classroom (available on the Reading Rockets Website at https://www.readingrockets.org/article/reading-comprehension-and-autism-primary-general-education-classroom). In the article they describe instructional strategies that support teaching comprehension based on these cognitive theories. Although the article describes instruction in the primary grades, the strategies may be adapted for older students.

For More Information

Autism Spectrum Disorder and math word problem solvingSolve It! is an evidence-based approach for teaching students how to solve math word problems. Learn more about the Solve It! version that is adapted for students with autism spectrum disorder at https://www.exinn.net/solve-it-2/