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Sunday 3 December 2017

The Math Structured Ceiling For Autistic Kids

Mr M and I chatted over the phone and he was very concerned about his son, E. He wanted to know my thoughts about his son. That was how it all began. When I received scans of his son’s SA2 Math paper, the name of the school and the unique ways the answers and corrections were written made me feel that I was not discussing about a common student. This one was different. Sensing the father’s deepening interest and dedication to his son, I needed to meet his son to know for sure whether my gut feel was accurate.

E and I met before my talk. Within 30 minutes, I knew what the problem was. E was autistic.  It brought me back to almost 2 decades ago when Mr and Mrs Y entrusted JY to me. However, the couple did not tell me that their child was autistic. They had told me about some of his problems but never once did they say he was autistic. I knew then and now why the Ys and Ms do not tell tutors about their child’s autism. They do not want the thick limiting ceiling to be there at all. Perhaps in my positivity, I could help their child break through the structured academic ceiling.

The parents M and Y diligently taught their kids as much as they could about Math. Their kids could attain a Pass score (a C grade) but nothing more than that. They cannot seem to cross an invisible academic ceiling. Is there really an academic ceiling for autistic kids? Yes, there most certainly is.

But is this ceiling imaginary or real? Let me explain this clearly. So far, the 2 kids I have interacted with, and a few others I have observed, have no problems doing Math sums that are computational. This means the sums are repetitive and follow clear structures. When the sums, especially word problems sum deviate from the clear structures, these students become lost and are unable to solve the problems. This is the invisible glass ceiling autistic kids face when doing Math. Can autistic kids do Math problem sums that are unstructured in nature? Well, read on.

Mr M was persistent. He wanted to know how to break this ceiling. He had approached an educational psychologist who had carried out a series of tests on E. Then she recommended a specialist teacher to coach his autistic son. After about 24 lessons in 3 months, Mr M highlighted to the specialist that his son had failed his termly test. The specialist was surprisingly shocked and she surrendered, according to Mr M. Hopeful parents like Mr M become lost too in finding a solution. But is there a solution?

Mr M consulted me and I told him I am not a specialist in special needs, but I believe in the power of the human spirit. There have been cases where I myself had thought that a child I tutored could not improve (but I never showed this and tried to fight this thought) but the child passed the exam – I told him and reminded myself that we do not know the limits of the human heart and mind. Very weak students can pass and even excel. But we must first believe in them. They are kids. If we do not believe in them, how will they develop a positive self-concept?

After a week of tutoring E in a group, Mr M asked me  about his son’s progress. I told him that E required one-to-one  tuition. Group tuition would not help him. I explained that he had pushed his son to the limits of successfully solving structured problem sums. What was needed now is a breakthrough? To attend my Breakthrough Math classes would not really help. This is because I am not teaching students with special needs in my Breakthrough Math classes. I am teaching students with low self-esteem and negative self beliefs. E does not suffer from low self-esteem. His challenge is finding a structure in the less structured world of Math. I told what I thought is the solution, and if your child is like his and has reached the boundaries of structured Math, then you may want to think about this next phase. However, before I explain the next phase, let me enlighten you on the kids' journey.

There are 2 phases in mastering PSLE Math for the autistic child, and this is only my perspective (although I am sure my perspective is accurate and correct).

In Phase 1, the child needs to experience and excel the basics of structured Math. I believe this is what tuition centres which specialise in teaching autistic kids PSLE Math do – they focus on only structured Math through whatever means until the kids master the basics and attain at least a C grade. Mr M has sent E to a couple of centres but there is no improvement. He has even tried a specialist teacher recommended by an educational psychologist, and again no improvement.  To me, as I have explained to him, what is now needed is something new, perhaps.

The Next Phase: In Phase 2, Math problem sums get tough and the thinking involved to solve these sums is no longer simple. So, in Phase 2, the autistic child enters a world of less structured Math sums and I believe he needs to use a new strategy to get the right answer. But without a clear structure, how can he find the solution? I think a new procedure of thinking need to be introduced to E. How? What are the steps in this thinking procedure? I do not know yet. However, I believe it is a series of steps which guides the autistic child to look at the unstructured Math problem in a new way. What are the steps? I do not know yet. Do write to me if you have new insights or questions. May your journey in helping your child be a fruitful and blessed one.