By Katharine Beals
Recent reports put the number of children with autism spectrum disorders at one in 100. Also in the news, following the latest national and state test results, is math education. What has escaped the media's attention is that these two topics are connected.
Their connection begins in the classrooms into which an ever higher proportion of children with autism spectrum disorders are being mainstreamed. More and more of these regular K-12 classrooms are using new "reform math" programs such as Everyday Math, Investigations, and Connected Mathematics. In the Philadelphia area in particular, it's hard to find a public, private, or charter school that doesn't use reform math.
The prevalence of this curriculum is coinciding with widespread special needs. Students on the autism spectrum, however much they vary, share several basic traits. They don't perform well in unsupervised groups of peers. Many have trouble putting words together, and nearly all struggle with verbal comprehension to some extent.
To make progress socially, linguistically, and academically, these children require structure; direct instruction; an incremental, step-by-step curriculum; and specific, well-defined tasks. Indeed, these are the ingredients of the most promising and commonly used autism therapies.
Reform math gives them the exact opposite. Instead of direct, structured instruction by teachers (for example, on how to add large numbers), it offers child-centered learning through incidental discovery (for example, of ad hoc ways to add particular numbers). Instead of a curriculum organized incrementally around math concepts (such as borrowing from the tens place), it favors a sequence of themes ("Sticker problems," "How many pockets?").
Students spend large chunks of class time working in unsupervised groups. Assignments are open-ended and language-intensive: "Create a riddle about your favorite number"; "Write a letter to a second grader convincing them that 1/3 is less than 1/2." Even correct answers earn only partial credit if they lack verbal explanations.
Ironically, children with autism, especially those with high-functioning autism or Asperger's syndrome, have the potential to do well in math - often extremely well. Indeed, a number of accomplished mathematicians, including one recipient of the Fields Medal (the mathematics equivalent of the Nobel Prize) have Asperger's syndrome. Among engineers and computer scientists, rates of autistic spectrum disorders are even higher.
Under reform math, the next generation of autistic math, computer, and engineering buffs is languishing. They lose points for failing to cooperate in groups, explain their answers, and comprehend language-intensive problems, often getting lower grades than their peers. Worse, reform math holds them back mathematically - often way back. By the time they reach fifth grade, mathematicians have estimated, students of reform math can be up to two years behind their non-reform peers.
All this drastically diminishes the opportunities for students with autism spectrum disorders to develop their natural talents; gain recognition not just for their weaknesses, but also for their strengths; and ultimately pursue what were once their most promising careers.
We've gotten quite good at recognizing autism in young children. We're also quite good at recognizing how important it is to embrace the learning needs of all students. The crucial and overdue next step is undoing the stranglehold that programs like Everyday Math, Investigations, and Connected Math have on our schools - and on the futures of so many of our most vulnerable yet promising students.