Maths ID and autism

Maths ID has been developed by teachers working with young adults at Entry Levels, many of whom have an autism spectrum condition (ASC). The programme has been designed specifically to enhance the learning of these students, by providing them with a finely structured framework for learning.

The Weak Central Coherence theory of autism (Frith,1989), is especially instructive as to why such a framework is necessary. It posits that autistic people tend not to form contextualised 'big pictures' because they are inclined to recognise specific details at the expense of reduced holistic coherence. A working numeracy (which most adults are fortunate enough to have developed to some degree) is a good example of a 'big picture', and we commonly observe weak central coherence in the way our numeracy students engage with their work. At Entry Levels, even the more mathematically skilled of students with ASC need intensive support in order to build items of learning into an integrated system.

The desired structure has to be supplied externally by the careful calibration of learning objectives. The Individuated Delivery model (ID) works in part by building that calibration into the learning programme itself, making the process as straightforward as possible for teachers and students alike. As a learner progresses through the programme, items of learning follow one another in a logical sequence, and the connections between them are made explicit.

Programme design is a critical factor in the attainment of lasting learning for all Entry Level students. But regrettably, the official programmes available to these learners are often unsuited to them. A prime example are the Functional Skills qualifications that have been used as standard at this level in recent years. These test basic mathematical knowledge in the context of imaginary scenario-based problems, assessing learning via written tests. The kind of social imagination required to comprehend such scenarios can be especially difficult for autistic people (being one of the 'Triad of Impairments'), and this leaves them at an unfair disadvantage.

The thinking behind Functional Skills is that learners need to develop their practical application of numeracy, rather than just accumulating abstract knowledge. This ethos would be fine if working towards such assessments did anything to help develop those practical skills. But in fact it only teaches the skills needed to pass a test on paper. The task of applying those skills to realistic contexts remains entirely ahead of the learner once the Functional Skills assessment has been taken, and autistic learners will be at particular risk of failing to make that contextual next-step.

Our approach is that a deep learning of basic numeracy concepts needs to be secured via an intrinsically structured programme like Maths ID, and that time should also be set aside for those concepts to be practised in real or simulated (but not merely imaginary) scenarios. Maths ID is designed so that genuine attainment can be achieved at a level precisely appropriate for each learner, and then put into practice under the supervision of an expert teacher who should be free to design that practice around the needs of the learner.

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