The needs and abilities of autistic learners vary greatly, but those who are working at the Entry Levels of the adult numeracy curriculum tend to experience characteristic difficulties with numeracy learning (these are discussed briefly below). And since autism is so prevalent among this learner group (in my classes it is common for more than half to have an autism spectrum diagnosis), any good numeracy assessment provided for their use must be designed specifically and expertly around these difficulties.
Regrettably, at the time of writing in 2019 the UK's regulating bodies for education and qualification have not yet introduced any specific measures directed at the provision of fair access for autistic learners. My students are therefore forced to attempt qualification via official assessments that are singularly unsuited to them. A prime example are the 'Functional Skills' qualifications that have been promoted for use at this level in recent years. These do not assess basic maths knowledge, other than in the context of written scenario-based problems. A learner attempting a Functional Skills question is required to imagine his or herself in the position of a named character in the scenario. Of course, this kind of social imagination often causes specific difficulty to autistic people, and therefore they are systematically disadvantaged by the nature of the assessment. The ramifications of this disadvantage are twofold: Learners underachieve in assessments; but worse than that, their classroom time is wasted on striving to achieve inappropriate goals, whilst in most cases still urgently in need of the most basic essential numeracy learning.
Functional Skills was conceived as way of adapting learning to real world uses, but for Entry Level learners, and most especially those with autism, this is not best achieved by means of paper-based questioning. Instead, deep learning must be achieved regarding basic numeracy concepts, allowing those concepts to then be practised in real or simulated (but not merely imagined) scenarios. The structure of the Maths ID programme is designed so that deep and genuine learning can be achieved at precisely the appropriate level for each learner, and then put into practice under the supervision of a teacher, who is free to design that practice around the needs and preferences of the learner.
Programme structure is key to achieving genuine and cohesive learning for autistic students. Of the various models of autism, the one that has been of greatest use to me in my numeracy teaching is the Weak Central Coherence theory (Frith,1989). This theory posits that autistic people tend not to build contextualised 'big pictures' because of a preference for details to overall wholes. I realised that I was seeing this in the way my numeracy students engage with their work. Even the most able of my autistic students, who can achieve particular pieces of maths learning very impressively, often do not intuitively build those pieces into a 'joined up' system. I saw that the missing structure had to be supplied externally, by means of a carefully designed learning framework that would 'automatically' fill learning gaps and assist the building of individual skills into an integrated body of knowledge.
I am not aware of an official maths or numeracy qualification at any level which builds in intrinsic structure in this way, and although there is no shortage of otherwise excellent interactive resources for maths study online, their systematic structure is often loose or non-existent. To teach my students properly I needed to build my own system, and now I want to see the standards it represents (of fair access, reasonable adjustment, and precise needs-based differentiation) applied to every qualification published for the use of Entry level learners.
Please join our mailing list to become part of our campaign for better standards in assessment design for learners at Entry Levels, including those with autism, whose prospects of independent living, employment and social inclusion are at present unfairly disadvantaged.
- Ian Lockett, lead developer of Maths ID
Maths ID and autism