Mathematics Interventions for Students with High Functioning Autism/Asperger's Syndrome

By Donaldson, Jeffrey B.; Zager, Dianne | Teaching Exceptional Children, July/August 2010 | Go to article overview

Mathematics Interventions for Students with High Functioning Autism/Asperger's Syndrome


Donaldson, Jeffrey B., Zager, Dianne, Teaching Exceptional Children


Teachers are often at a loss when considering how to address mathematics difficulties for students with high functioning autism/ Asperger's syndrome (HFA/AS). Students may show remembering operations throughout an equation, organizing information on the page, and comprehending the language in instructions or word problems (Minshew, Goldstein, Taylor & Siegel, 1994). These difficulties are, in fact, very similar to the mathematics impairments demonstrated by students with nonverbal learning disability (NLD), a right hemispheric neurological impairment which greatly affects the ability of students to succeed in mathematics (Rourke & Tsatsanis, 2000). Because NLD is defined neuropsychologically, mathematics interventions are more easily developed, and have proven effective (Rourke & Tsatsanis, 2000).

Nonverbal learning disability (NLD) and autism are diagnostically separate entities. NLD is primarily defined through a neuropsychological profile, whereas identification of autism is accomplished through observational information (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). However, there are clear behavioral and cognitive similarities between NLD and high functioning autism/Asperger's syndrome (HFA/AS; Rourke & Tsatsanis, 2000). Recognition and appreciation of existing similarities among individuals in these two diagnostically distinct groups may prove helpful when developing instructional interventions.

NLD's neuropsychological definition as a right-hemispheric brain dysfunction provides some insight for targeting instruction. Because NLD and HFA share several prominent features (see Figure 1), it appears that in the area of mathematics, students with both disorders would benefit from similar planning and accommodation strategies (Rourke, Fisk, & Strang, 1986). Recommendations that fit the overarching patterns of cognitive deficits and strengths for NLD and HFA/AS are presented in this article. We utilized a literature review to form a theoretical foundation for evidence-based instructional practices that would engage students with both NLD and HFA/AS, including Integrated Behavioral Experiential Teaching (IBET; Zager, 2006).

HFA/AS and NLD

HFA or AS?

In the current literature, there is a discussion of whether HFA and AS are the same disorder. A study by Klin, Volkmar, Sparrow, Cicchetti, & Rourke (1995] examined these groups with regard to neuropsychological characteristics, finding significant similarities and differences. Further study by Macintosh and Dissanayake found minimal qualitative differences between high functioning autism and Asperger's syndrome (Macintosh & Dissanayake, 2004), providing empirical evidence to support a unitary treatment of these disorders. For the purpose of this article, HFA and AS are combined and are referred to as HFA/AS.

Similarities of HFA/AS and NLD

Clinical features of HFA/AS and NLD reveal a similar pattern of behavior and adaptive functioning, particularly in impaired social functioning. Prosody, facial expression, gaze, gestures, and overall body language are sufficiently atypical to differentiate individuals in both groups from their neurotypical peers (Rourke & Tsatsanis, 2000). They tend to have difficulty understanding the social world and have problems utilizing interpersonal and group environments to meet their needs. Rourke and Tsatsanis also noted general interpersonal awkwardness apparent upon interaction.

Deficits of HFA/AS: Communication and Social

Features of HFA/AS include marked deficits in several areas. According to Szatmari, Tuff, Finlayson, and Bartolucci (1990), communication of individuals on the spectrum is often pedantic, involving lengthy and onesided discourse. Appreciation of humor is limited, with overreliance on literal interpretation. Poor comprehension and application of nonverbal aspects of communication including facial expression, gestures, prosody, and a limited ability to understand and use the rules governing social behavior are also apparent. …

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Mathematics Interventions for Students with High Functioning Autism/Asperger's Syndrome
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