Adventures with Montessori and Autism: Counting

Beth gets distracted while counting and has trouble coordinating counting during hands-on activities or while pointing due to motor planning issues. The simple, distraction-free classic Montessori toys (and some modern off-shoots) were great to build up her skills and fill in gaps. Many of the products are errorless or have easy, obvious placement for the manipulatives. This post highlights products we used to improved her counting (some of these fall under period 4 or higher in the book I am following, 1):

Tumble Down Box

Available From:

Purpose and advantages:

-Errorless counting: placement obvious and exact number of openings in each wood plate (1-10)

-Has a recessed number that child can trace with fingers as a pre-writing activity

-Good for working on coordinating expressive language counting with moving manipulatives (note I wrote previously about a unique problem my child had with emphasis…it is important to teach a child with prosody problems to emphasize

-Some children will love pulling the lever out and watching the pegs disappear, hearing them tumble down (although the noise was too much for Beth, I had to put a piece of foam in the lower portion to dampen the sound)

Tumble Down Box

Tumble Down Box

Spindle Boxes

Available from: Montessori suppliers, eBay, Amazon

Purposes and advantages:

-Although not errorless, the spindle boxes are a great simple beginning counting activity

-Gives a sense of number based on volume, which is rather unique for counting toys; includes a zero box for teaching none

-You just throw the rods into the box and they fall into place easily…reduces distraction caused by manipulating and perfecting placement of counters

-The numbers are very obvious and upright-good for kids who forget what they are counting up to or who have trouble with visual attention

-For kids who like to throw things, it can be motivating because you literally throw them into the wells

-For kids who like sounds, it has a pleasant sound when you throw the rods in the wells (although for a super sound stimmer, it may be distracting…they may not want to stop throwing them in and hyper-focus on the sound instead of the number they are counting to…yes, we struggled with that a bit)


Spindle Box Set-Up

Spindle Box Set-Up

Spindle Box - Completed Acitivity

Spindle Box – Completed Acitivity

Number and Counter Match-Up Puzzle

Available from: Montessori suppliers, Ebay, Amazon

Purposes and advantages:


-To teach kids to match number to number of counters (number sense)

-Distraction free red dots that are big enough to easily motor plan


-Hyper-focus on just matching the squiggled cuts can distract from the counting activity. We definitely had that problem and I had to encourage her to focus on the numbers and counters instead. Worksheets actually worked better for what this toy was trying to accomplish.

-Most K kids are only required to match 1-5 to groups of 1-5 in random format. Beyond 5, 10 frames or similar structured formats are used. I even had trouble matching the 6, 7, 8, 9 because of inconsistent formatting in this toy.

Because of the drawbacks above, I ended up laying out 1-5 and 10 for the counter portion, and encouraged her to guess the match:

Number Match-Up

Number Match-Up Puzzle

Number Match-Up, 1-5 and 10

Number Match-Up, 1-5 and 10

Montessori Cards and Counters

Available from: Montessori suppliers, eBay, Amazon

Purposes and advantages:

-Great beginning counting toy (but I suggest doing the errorless toys mentioned above first)

-Distraction free counters (same on front and back). Beth really has trouble with all the “cute” counters sets out there (apples, penguins, etc), because she obsessively orients them. So this simple counter set really worked to help her focus on the task of counting.

Montessori Wood Cards and Counters (With mats made from scrap material to help Beth know where to place the counters)

Montessori Wood Cards and Counters (With mats made from scrap material to help Beth know where to place the counters)

Montessori Hundred Board

Available from: Montessori suppliers, other versions from Amazon

Purposes and advantages:

-Great for working on expressive language while counting and number recognition. It can also be used to teach skip counting.

-Low distraction, grid helps guide placement


Don’t forget to also work on numbers in isolation.  Just because a child can create this whole board does not mean that he/she can read numbers in isolation. I was given that false sense of security until I realized I also had to work on scanning and reading individual numbers with Beth (discussed in this post  One activity that addresses this issue is to randomly remove some numbers from a completed hundred board and have the child work on scanning and replacing the missing tiles while speaking the numbers.

Montessori Hundred Board: We use little containers of 10 and take lots of breaks. It is a demanding activity!  Teaching her to point to the next square and predict rather than scan the available tiles was the turning point.

Montessori Hundred Board: We use little containers of 10 and take lots of breaks. It is a demanding activity! Teaching her to point to the next square and predict rather than scan the available tiles was the turning point.

Picture/ Number Sequencing Puzzles

Available from: Lakeshore Learning

Purposes and advantages:

-Like 1-10 or 1-20 on Montessori Hundred Board, but you create a picture, which is more engaging for some children (Beth did not seem to care for creating the picture though)




1-20 Monkey Puzzle (I put the 2 next to 12, 3 next to 13, and so on to help with scanning and impulsivity issues)

1-20 Monkey Puzzle (I put the 2 next to 12, 3 next to 13, and so on to help with scanning and impulsivity issues)

Next up for us will be place value. That will be a topic of another post!


(1) This will be a quick and poorly edited series because things are happening fast and I just want to write it all down. My daughter is almost 7 years old and we are starting the Montessori program from the beginning using this book, you tube videos, and common sense alterations. We homeschool and do other standard K activities. Montessori is an attempt to fill in developmental gaps and increase independence. See this fellow blogger’s post on the division of the work into periods as outlined in David Gettman’s book: We are starting with period 1 activities (taken from the book), with adjustments of course:

montessori book

Period Two

  1. Practical- pouring water from a jug, medium difficulty dressing frames, simple braiding, setting table, polishing surfaces, washing hands, washing cloths, scrubbing a table top, sweeping sawdust, brushing clothes, folding clothes, hanging clothes on a hanger, handling a book, scissors exchange, greeting people, kindness to visitors, being silent
  2. Sensorial- advanced cylinder blocks exercises, brown stair, red rods, boxes 2 and 3 of color tablets, geometric cabinet exercises 1-4, binomial cube, blindfold, tactile tablets, stereognostic bags exercises, sorting grains, sound boxes, preliminary presentation of bells, three stage lessons and the names of Sensorial qualities
  3. Language- classified picture exercises 3 and 4, stage 4 of I Spy, exercise 1 of single letter sandpaper letters, metal insets, frequent speech questioning
  4. Math- none
  5. Culture- Land and water exercises, first maps, places classified pictures, preliminary work for classification by leaf.

Period Three

  1. Practical- pouring water from a jug and funnel, difficult dressing (bows and laces), advanced braiding, tying a tie, simple cooking chores, ironing, making beds
  2. Sensorial- Geometric Cabinet exercises, constructive triangles, square of pythagoras, trinomial cube, fabrics, thermic bottles, baric tablets, presentation of bells
  3. Language- double letter sandpaper letters, advanced I spy, exercise 2 with all sandpaper letters
  4. Math- Number rod exercise 1
  5. Culture- all maps, places picture folders, past and present, stories about the past, air, water, magnetism, classifying animals, classification by leaf, parts of animals, parts of plants

Period Four

  1. Practical- responsibility for certain daily care of environment, helping and advising younger ones in a group
  2. Sensorial- Geometric cabinet exercises 9 and 10, thermic tablets, mystery bag, visual work with blindfolds, bell exercises 1-3, tasting cups, smelling boxes
  3. Language- movable alphabet, writing individual letters, writing families of letters, positioning letters on lines, sandpaper Capitals, box 1 and 2 of object boxes, action cards, reading folders exercise 1
  4. Math- number rods exercise 2, sandpaper numbers, number tablets, spindles, numbers and counters, memory play, limited bead material, number cards, function of the decimal system, fractions
  5. Culture- gravity, sound, optics, places artifacts


The Answer to the Category Problem

I have written about categories (also known as classes) long ago. For a fairly comprehensive list of categories, see here: What a pain categories have been for Beth. What a pain they have been for both of us!  Basically, teaching categories usually involves sorting activities, which is hard for Beth. We tried everything, including various apps (see this somewhat outdated post: and these hands-on approaches:





Montessori cards with mats,

Montessori cards with mats,

But after all the effort above, Beth still struggled. The answer finally came from the Montessori book I am using (David-Gettman, Basic Montessori, In it, after the children have explored the cards for a very long time and the categories and items within the categories have been fully discussed, the author suggested the children should sort the cards using overall category cards with general pictures of the categories including text. Specifically, he suggested the items within the category should be slipped underneath the main category card. But slipping things underneath a main card would be a nightmare for Beth. She likes to see the items, and messes with cards until they are lined up just so. But his suggestion changed my thinking. It is a great idea for kids like Beth who hyper focus on the details of each card to put the main category card as the focus. I had to remove the motor planning step of placing the sub cards under the main card, so I simply adapted the strategy by taping the category cards (category cards made from google images) to the tops of boxes:




The category item cards shown above were a combination of cards from the various kits I amassed and print outs from Montessori Print Shop ( During sorting, I have Beth read and speak to keep her focus. For example, Beth will say things like “the zebra lives at the zoo, the cow lives at the farm, the sheep goes with the farm” as she is sorting. There is no chance to hyper focus on the items within a category or mess with them trying to place and arrange them perfectly because she just drops the cards in the boxes and they quickly disappear. Of course this requires great familiarity with the categories to begin with, through natural exposure and reading books. For instance, we read zoo and farm books for 2 weeks before attempting the sorting and we have visited zoos and farms for years. That is the way it should be and, in my opinion, the category sorting should not be a tool to learn the categories. It should only be a tool to learn the subtle differences between known categories, to stop and make choices between categories, to firm up known categories, and/or to practice speech. Unfortunately in the day and age of drilling kids, the important “familiarity step” often gets bypassed and we go straight to sorting. As a parent who tried this approach for years, trust me when I say this is not the way to go. Especially for kids who already have trouble with sorting due to motor planning issues, crossing midline problems, visual scanning problems, and/or hyper focus on parts to exclusion of the whole.