Beginning Math Adventures on the Spectrum

I remember a little over 2 years ago when I started homeschooling Beth, I couldn’t wait to jump in and start working on math. She liked numbers. She even liked counting. I loved math. I even had experience in my college days, where I worked as a math tutor for adults who had learning disabilities. How hard could it be?

Boy was I in for a surprise. Teaching Beth math was harder than teaching Beth to read (see my previous post on reading here: due to motor planning and visual scanning challenges and a puzzling prosody issue that sabotaged counting.

Rather than rehash the millions of things that failed, I am going to focus on what I finally figured out after endless hours of trial and error. This is not all-inclusive or it would be a very long post, but shown below are some of the methods and materials I used to help Beth achieve early math goals.

Counting and Number Recognition

I used a pocket chart for beginning counting because the numbers are bigger and easier to point to and are organized neatly in rows and the information is presented near eye level and vertically, which reduces the motor planning and visual scanning demand. After hours and hours of lightly touching her hand so that she would move over to the next number and coordinate counting with pointing and endlessly prompting her to find the beginning of the next row, this is where we are:

I would say the above is an exceptionally good clip. She usually makes the occasional coordination error moving from one number to the next or moving down to the next row, but for the most part she’s got it. So that means she knows her numbers 1-40, right?

Wrong. A few months ago I isolated the numbers using flashcards and realized she had a huge problem. She could not recognize numbers past 10 reliably. She tended to look at part of the number (e.g., would say “2” if she saw “12”) or had trouble visual scanning and reading a number from left to right (e.g., would say “21” if she saw “12”). In addition, we had some expressive language problems (or rigid stuck thinking problems?) with the teens, because she so wanted 11 and 12 to be “one-teen” and “two-teen.” Finally we had the problem if I worked on teens only or 20-29 only, for example, she would get stuck on what we just worked on and make a lot of expressive language errors. It was a mess. So while it looked as if she knew how to read numbers 1-40, she actually memorized the pattern on the pocket chart and was probably just looking at the last digit while she was reading off the numbers.

To address these issues, we used tactile cards (like sand paper cards, but softer texture and I had her trace the numbers and say the names out loud. Also we practiced with flash cards or by reading random numbers from the pocket chart, and I had her drag her finger from left to right, much as we do with reading, to help her visually scan the numbers from left to right. For Beth, it is best to work on many numbers at once (at the very least 1-30) to prevent stuck expressive language and to review often (we do at least a weekly review). We have made a lot of progress, but as you can see from this video she still gets tripped up sometimes:


Counting to a Specified Number

The kid just would not stop counting! I would say, “count to 4” and she would blow by 4 and continue on. I tried everything…holding stop signs, hand signals to stop, putting my finger on her lips, having her say “stop” or “shhhhh” after she reached the last number. Nothing worked…for YEARS. Then one day about a month ago I was so frustrated I started jumping up and down like a mad woman and being obnoxious about the way I counted. And…she stopped on the right number. It was miraculous. But why?

It turns out my kid has a prosody problem…she says all her numbers with the same tone and emphasis usually. Now try doing that yourself right now (no really reader, do this)…count to any number and try to keep your voice exactly the same even on the number you are supposed to stop at. It is hard to stop, isn’t it?  I think it is simply Beth cannot do naturally what most of us can do…inflect her voice on the number where she is supposed to stop counting. Here is a good example where I am holding up cards with numbers on it:

Now we are moving towards counting with counters and stopping. For years I thought she just wanted to fill out ten frames due to some sort of compulsion, but now we are making progress if we work on emphasizing the last number. Here is a video with a magnetic ten frame set  ( and although you cannot see it in the video, there were 10 counters on the table and she stopped counting on her own:


Number Ordering

We tried number ordering exercises with the pocket chart, but even that was too much visual scanning and motor planning for Beth. My friend introduced me to these Lakeshore Learning puzzles for sequencing numbers and letters ( ,, , I was skeptical Beth would be able to do it, but because the motor plan is so easy (all work is 2D, just slide the pieces into place), it was a success. It was nice to know that she can order numbers after all with the right accommodation. In case you are wondering if she is just making the picture…no she isn’t. She doesn’t even look at the picture until the end so it is more like a reward. Referring to a picture while putting pieces of a puzzle together is still very hard for her, even after doing puzzles with her for endless hours.



I am not familiar with the research supporting the need for it, but completing patterns is a common goal on IEPs. I guess it is some indicator of logic ability. Beth failed the patterning portion of the IQ testing for K, because the tester wanted Beth to pattern on a blank piece of paper (she needs at least boxes drawn in for placement), Beth wasn’t interested in the materials, and expressive language issues got in the way.

I have found that she absolutely must have boxes on paper or containers for placement and using very familiar favorite items that she has heard receptively in videos many times is helpful. It is crucial for her to say the items out load and to point to keep her focus and to keep track of where she is. It also helps Beth focus if she is guided to build the initial pattern. It is still hard for her, but it is possible with these accommodations. With more effort, I have been able to get her to pattern non-preferred things like colors and shapes, but getting that expressive language out is a lot harder for her. This Lakeshore Learning Patterning Tray works great ( for patterning manipulatives. I put her patterning tray on her slant board, which helps ease the visual scanning demand and helps with visual attention. In the videos below I used party confetti with her favorite Sesame Street characters and Halloween erasers from the dollar stores (she has a favorite Halloween video with ghost, bat, witch, pumpkin, etc so those words are easy for her). The erasers are great because they are thick and easier to pick up.  These videos show us working through AB patterning, ABC patterning, and missing items within a pattern:


Worksheets (Finally!)

This past summer we moved away from manipulatives and tried the first chapter of Go Math. Go Math is an example of curriculum that has a very nice layout for kids like Beth…not a lot on a page, clear boundaries between sections, and ten frame boxes for counting.  Accommodations would still need to be made if this program was used due to Beth’s language and motor planning/visual scanning challenges. For example, the word problems are too hard for her due to language issues, she would need magnetic counters because she uses a slant board and the counters were sliding everywhere, she would need to circle things rather than fill in or draw squares, she would need to use plain counter blocks instead of snap together blocks, sometimes I have to block off certain sections of the worksheets to help her focus, and I often use a sweeping motion over choices to help her visually scan. Counting with her finger by pointing and then picking up the pencil to write in numbers was a motor planning nightmare. So I prompted her to not put down the pencil and circle items to count them instead. When she writes numbers I try to give her a pass on writing…if it is legible at all I accept it because she tends to get frustrated with handwriting corrections. Here is a clip of a Go Math page:










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