Children who have autism spectrum disorders tend to be very visual learners. The verbal explanations of math concepts such as number sense and counting are difficult for children with ASD, according to Autism and the Art of Communication. Visual aids help children with ASD make meaningful connections to what they are learning. Though your child may be able to learn to count by rote because he is good at imitation and repetition, using and understanding numbers in real world situations may be more difficult unless he has a way to understand them visually.
Around the House
You don't need to spend a lot of money on math manipulatives to help your child learn to count. Many visual aids can be made from objects you find around your house. Use a large egg carton or any other tray with small compartments and label each row with a numeral. Start with small numbers and place them in consecutive order so that your child can see the progression of the numbers in order. Gather several small objects, such as beads, coins or colored pom-poms. Ask him to read the numeral and then place the correct number of items in each row. For example, if the row is labeled with the numeral 3, he should place one object in each of three compartments. This will give him a visual representation of each numeral and help him practice one-to-one correspondence as he counts.
Incorporate His Interests
Children with ASD often have strong interests in particular topics. Use this to your advantage when finding visual aids to use with your child. If he is very interested in trains, find train stickers he can count out onto a sheet of paper next to each numeral. Use numeral cards that also have the corresponding number of dots and use them in a variety of ways, depending on your child's interests. If cars are his passion, have him hand you the correct number of cars as you hold up a card labeled with a numeral. Show him a numeral card and let him push the light switch up and down the correct number of times, if pushing buttons is what grabs his attention. Using objects that he is interested in will help your child stay focused and be more attentive to the learning task.
Make It Multi-Sensory
Besides being visual learners, many children with ASD have sensory needs or difficulties, so lessons may also need to be hands-on, according to the University of Gerona. Let your child clap the correct number of times as you represent the number with your fingers. Draw a large number line on the ground with sidewalk chalk and ask him to jump from one numeral to the next as he counts. Use objects that have an interesting texture such as squishy balls or rough rocks to count. Be sure to maintain the visual aspect of the counting practice, even as you add in other sensory experiences. For example, let him ring a bell to count out to a given number, but show him a numeral card labeled with the corresponding number of dots and point to one each time the bell rings.
Find Real World Applications
Math is often an abstract concept, so children need to see how it can be useful to them in their everyday lives and understand why it is important to learn. Learning to count in real-world settings can help children with ASD make the connection between their learning and how to use it. Autistic children may not automatically infer how this can be used in real life, according to the University of Girona. For example, using a number line is a visual way to represent counting, but you need to show your child how following a list of instructions labeled with numbers is just like counting on a number line. At the grocery store, tell him that you need five apples and let him count them as he places them in the bag. Show him the price tag on a toy he wants to buy and let him count out the correct number of dollar bills or coins. These are ways of showing him how recognizing numerals and counting out objects are useful in his life.