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


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:









Homeschooling on the Spectrum, Post #5: Ladybugs and Bees

“1, 2, 3…4, 5, 6…7, 8, 9….10, 11, 12 Ladybugs came, to the ladybug picnic!” I introduced Beth to Ladybugs’ Picnic one day while reliving my 70s TV childhood via classic Sesame Street videos on YouTube. It was love at first viewing for Beth.

Since Beth has trouble slowing down to count while pointing or placing items, I thought an activity based on the Ladybugs’ Picnic video would be a fun way to work on counting. One idea lead to another and eventually we had a whole ladybugs and bees (with some other bugs thrown in) lesson.

Ladybug (and Bee) Math

Ladybugs’ Picnic Activities

I turned the 12 ladybugs in Ladybugs’ Picnic into a hands-on math activity. We made egg carton ladybugs, which was a fun and easy craft project ( and Then we used our bugs for sequencing and counting. If she lost interest during the math activity, I just sang the Ladybugs’ Picnic song and she regained her focus immediately.

Egg Carton Painted Red for 12 Ladybugs

Egg Carton Painted Red for 12 Ladybugs


Self-Stick Foam Spots and Self-Stick Wiggle Eyes (This one had an eye issue)

12 Ladybugs Made From an Egg Carton

12 Ladybugs Made From an Egg Carton

Ladybug Sequencing Activity

Ladybug Sequencing Activity

Ladybug Symmetry and Counting Activities

Google “ladybug math” and prepare to find tons of activities.  I chose the symmetry and leaf counting ideas from I found the black stones for the symmetry activity and painted wooden ladybugs for the counting activity at A.C. Moore craft store (you can check Etsy and Amazon for similar items). Note that putting wooden ladybugs in a bowl as shown in the picture below didn’t work out.  I had to hand Beth individual wooden ladybugs during the counting process (otherwise she just threw a bunch on the leaves and counted fast to a favorite number, which is usually 5 or 10).

Lady Bug Symmetry

Ladybug Symmetry Activity

Wooden Ladybug Counting

Wooden Ladybug Counting Activity

Bee Counting Activity

At this point, I decided to that we should study bees with our ladybugs.  Beth sometimes confuses where they live (hive), what they eat (flowers), and what they make (honey). Also, it is important to vary activities as much as possible, because Beth tends to get stuck on doing things one way.  So, I printed some hives off of Google Image (type in “bee hive printable” in Google Images) and bought some wooden bees at a local A.C. Moore craft store (you can check Etsy and Amazon for similar bees), and we did bee counting.

Bee and Hive Counting

Bee Counting Activity

An Introduction to Bees with Videos and a Collage

I backed up a bit after the bee counting and gave her a bee overview, starting with videos of bees. There are many videos about bees on Youtube. For example, this is a wonderful video showing bees making a hive:

Next I printed off several bee-related images from Google Images and we cut/paste a collage as an overall introduction to bees.


Bee Collage

Side-by-Side Ladybug and Bee Drawings

The Oak Meadow program showed me the value of drawing with Beth. We did simple ladybug and bee drawings together, where I drew on the right-hand side of a spiral sketch book and she drew on the left-hand side. Despite Beth’s attention and fine motor challenges, she was able to pay attention to this task because she is attracted to the movement of my hand as I draw. We first practiced on a roll of paper on our work table, and you can see the practice drawings in our ladybug sequence picture above (  I used no hand-over-hand, just demonstration, simple instructions, and pointing (draw a big circle, draw little circles inside, color in circles, draw a head, draw legs, draw wings like this (I demonstrate, then point on her drawing), draw an oval, etc).  The results are astonishing.  And it makes me think, why do we skip the step of drawing before writing with many special needs kids? Kids normally draw before writing, so in my mind it makes sense to do guided drawing before writing. Therefore, we will be doing mostly drawing, and some beginning letter writing, as we start this Kindergarten year.

Side-by-Side Ladybug Drawing

Side-by-Side Ladybug Drawing

Side-by-Side Bee Drawing

Side-by-Side Bee Drawing

Ladybug and Bee River Rock Painting

Beth is obsessed with walking on river rocks lately. It may be the sound the rocks make as she walks on them and they move against each other. It may also be an emotional connection to a past experience with river rocks, although I am unable to figure out the connection. Whatever the reason, they are a passion of hers and I decided that a popular kids craft, river rock painting, would be a nice addition to our ladybugs and bees lesson.

Walking on River Rocks

Beth Walking on River Rocks

To paint river rocks, I used river rocks form a craft store (I didn’t have ready access to some when I needed them), acrylic paint, and a clear acrylic sealer. Note that the craft store rocks seemed shined and we had problems with pealing after we were done.  Therefore I suggest using natural clean, dry, and rough river rocks, or you will need to do a surface priming on the craft store river rocks.

The trick was to help Beth slow down and create the likeness of the ladybugs and bees, since her tendency is to paint the entire surface. I used a few masking techniques  (with my hand or painter’s tape) and for the spots and wings a trimmed sponge brush and sponge worked best.  We practiced dabbing spots, making stripes, and sponging wings on paper before we dabbed on the rocks, and during the paper practice I taught her the language (dab, go down, one time, make spots, etc.).


Ladybug Rocks (first coat red already dry, ready to paint black head and dots)

Beth Paints Ladybug Heads (my hand is used as a mask for the rest of the rock)

Beth Paints Ladybug Heads (my hand is used as a mask for the rest of the rock)


Sponge Brushes (trim to a nub to use for ladybug spots and eyes)

Bee Rocks (painters tape used to mask when black is painted...let dry and pull off tape before making yellow stripes)

Bee Rocks (painters tape used to mask when black is painted…let dry and pull off tape before making yellow stripes)

Sponging Wings on Bee Rocks

Sponging Wings on Bee Rocks

Final Painted Ladybug and Bee River Rocks

Final Painted Ladybug and Bee River Rocks

Adventures with Ladybug Land

There were plenty of bees on flowers that I could show Beth this summer, but I tried in vain to find ladybugs. My solution was Ladybug Land. I dumped the larvae into their new home when they arrived.  As soon as I walked away, Beth had disassembled Ladybug Land and was washing it out in the sink. Most of them drowned, but I was able to rescue 4 from the bathroom floor and they made it from larvae, to yellow bugs, to mature red ladybugs. She was mildly amused as I let them crawl on her.  We will try it again next Spring, in addition to painting non-peeling river rocks for our garden!


Big Bugs at Morris Arboretum

As luck would have it, our local arboretum was having a giant bug sculpture display throughout their gardens.  One of the bugs was a ladybug, and the other sculptures were a great way to teach Beth about the overall bug category. The bug exhibit made me realize the value of incorporating the temporary exhibits at local gardens and museums into our lessons. She learns best by total immersion in a topic, and by syncing the exhibit content with our lessons it would prepare her for coping and understanding her environment better during the outing.

Ladybug Sculpture, Morris Arboretum

Ladybug Sculpture, Morris Arboretum

Grasshopper Sculpture, Morris Arboretum

Grasshopper Sculpture, Morris Arboretum

Spider Sculpture, Morris Arboretum

Spider Sculpture, Morris Arboretum

Other Ladybug and Bee Activities

Throughout the 1.5 weeks we studied ladybugs and bees (and other bugs), I wove in other books and activities, such as these.

Favorite Books:

Ten Little Ladybugs (

Ladybug, First Discovery (

Ladybug Girl (

The Honey Makers (

Bee and Me (

Itsy Bitsy Spider (

Honey Bee Tree Game:

Honey Bee Tree Game

Honey Bee Tree Game

Bug Magnet Scene and Puzzle: