Autistic student having trouble with math

Parents often ask me questions about how they can best support their child with what they’re learning. Many feel they aren’t doing enough, or aren’t doing the right thing, to help their child succeed. I see a lot of these questions more than once, so I’ve decided to collect them and post them here for other parents to read, in case that advice is helpful.

All my advice is based on my own experience from almost 10 years of working with students with learning differences, and on my M.Ed. training at Villanova University.

Hello Jonah,

I heard from [my son] that he asked you about changing his major again and if you thought it was a good idea. Thank you for continuing to have those conversations with him. [My husband] and I are hoping he will settle on something soon.

Should I be concerned about him jumping around like this? He was so sure in his freshman year that he wanted to be a math major since math was his best subject in high school. He keeps telling me now that he never liked math and that he isn’t any good at it, when I know that’s not true. I’m not sure what happened in college but it seems like the math is much harder. Also we switched him to Computer Science because his advisor said it was similar to math and that autistic students often did well in it, but he likes that even less, so I’m not sure where that leaves us. Now he’s thinking about statistics. I would love your thoughts on that privately when you get the chance. Maybe we can set up a call?

Thank you,

Hi R,

Sure thing! I am happy to continue having those conversations with [your son] and to offer my opinion on his choices. I’m also happy to keep an eye on his progress in statistics to see if I think he’d like that as a long-term career choice.

My initial impression is that I think he’d like statistics more than he’d like computer science and math. You mentioned that math was his best subject in high school, but that when he got to college, he started to have a lot more trouble with it. This was my experience, too, so I have a few thoughts about it I’d like to share with you.

Undergraduate mathematics is definitely harder than high school math, but not in the way most people understand it. In fact, I think high school math is fundamentally different from undergrad math in a lot of ways. In high school, “math class” is mostly about learning the methods for calculation of various things. You learn to add, subtract, multiply, and divide increasingly complex things: functions, matrices, entire dimensions, etc. But at the end of the day, they’re still methods that you’re learning, and there’s a clear way you’re supposed to use them, and a right or wrong answer.

In contrast, undergraduate math (at least, the later levels) focuses much more on understanding and exploring the world of mathematics. You start to get into proofs, and analysis, and you’re expected to do a lot more with your math abilities. Instead of just learning methods of calculating, you’re expected to use those methods to prove things and discover things. That’s a fundamentally different task.

I like to think of it as a cooking analogy. In high school, you learn all the recipes and you practice them. You might learn some tough recipes with some tough techniques, but as long as you’re able to follow instructions and learn from mistakes, you’ll get good at making those recipes. Undergraduate math is like being put in charge of a fancy restaurant and being told, “OK, design and prepare tonight’s menu.” You have learned a bunch of recipes, but now you’re suddenly expected to be able to invent your own, understand why they work or don’t, organize them into a cohesive menu, and do everything at once–while under all the pressure that restaurant work entails.

That is, as I said earlier, a fundamentally different task. It’s still using the skills you learned in high school, but you’re expected to do it at a high level for yourself, rather than following instructions.

For students like [your son], who excel at following instructions and precisely applying the techniques they’ve learned, this feels unfair. He’s probably thinking that he’s great at math because he’s learned to cook those “math recipes” really well, and they turn out the same way every time. But it’s frustrating to be thrown into a restaurant and have different things expected of you. His autism is likely a contributing factor here, too, since unless the difference was explicitly explained to him, he might not have realized that the expectations have changed. That can feel even worse.

Statistics might be a happy in-between for him, where he can learn the various tests and statistical measures and gain confidence in his ability to apply them, but also learn to problem-solve and adapt his approach to new situations. I’d love to talk about that at length with you, so let’s find some time next week to talk.

Looking forward to it,


I especially like the cooking analogy for my autistic students, because deciding when to use the “math recipes” they’ve mastered is especially tough for those students. It’s often difficult for autistic students to determine the “correct” way to solve a math problem from context alone (if there even is a “correct” way), which can be really frustrating.

Depending on the student, I usually start by helping my autistic students anticipate and plan for the types of problems they might encounter. It’s not realistic to prepare for every possible math problem, but we can prepare for general types and learn to recognize those questions from key words, how to try various recipes without committing too much and wasting time, and how to deal with frustration. These are foundational skills that will tide them over as they develop their context-adaptable problem-solving skills, which they are perfectly capable of learning, but which take a bit longer to mature in most autistic students.