Monday, October 26, 2015

Why I Use Math to Connect with My Son

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"What's 39/100 + 61/100 equal?" I ask six year old J.

In a matter of seconds, a grin stretches from ear to ear as he bounces up and down, his arms wiggling like he's doing some herky-jerky version of the chicken dance, before gleefully answering with, "100/100 or 1 whole!"

He's back, I think to myself.

Thank you for coming back to me.

Why I use math to connect with my son who has autism from And Next Comes L

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To the bystanders in public who see me asking my son these types of math questions I must appear insane, which I likely am, so don't rule that out. But, while they may be temporarily dazzled by my son's brilliance, it is quickly replaced by judgment, assuming I must spend hours upon hours drilling my son with math flashcards. But that's simply not the case.

See, my son has hypernumeracy, which is a fancy term for saying he's ridiculously good with numbers.

While most two year olds are starting to assert their independence in everyday tasks, J, instead, was teaching himself how to tell time and skip count by obscure numbers. Somewhere between ages three and five he mastered multiplication, adding and subtracting fractions, percents, and a whole bunch of other math concepts. This past summer, for instance, at age five, he taught himself (and me!) Roman numerals. It was never my idea to help him learn what three million in Roman numerals is, but he learned it. And he drew them. And he lived and breathed them. Every loose part, toy, or crayon suddenly turned into Roman numerals.

Now that he is six, I'm not sure what kind of math he will be learning next, but it excites me. Not sure when I will be dusting off the good old calculus textbook, but I'm hoping it won't be for a few more years. Hopefully.

So yes, it appears like I am asking my son inappropriate math questions for his age, when his typical peers have just mastered things like counting to 100 or place value. He's just well beyond that and has been for years.

But there's another reason why you will find me asking him these kinds of math questions.

He has autism.

As a result, he withdraws into his autism bubble frequently, where he quietly scribbles endless sequences of letters and numbers onto his Magna-Doodle, while simultaneously chewing on the string that attaches the pen to the Magna-Doodle. Or he escapes with chalk. I'm not saying there is anything wrong with letting him seek the comfort of his own little world as I think we all benefit from seeking solace in our own ways, but there are times when I need him to be alert and focused on his surroundings.

In order to pull him out of his autism bubble, I need to connect with him through his love language of sorts. That love language being the concreteness of letters and numbers. He just thinks in numbers. They give J comfort because they never change.

Letters, symbols and signs are my closest allies because they never change. They just stay as they are, fixed in my memory. And whenever we're lonely or happy, in the same way that you might half hum a song to yourself, we summon up our letters. When I'm writing them out, I can forget everything else. I'm not alone when I'm with letters. Letters and symbols are much easier for us to grasp than spoken words, and we can be with them whenever we want. - Naokie Higashida, The Reason I Jump, p. 49

So when you see me asking what appears to be inappropriate math questions for his age to my six year old, you are actually seeing me, a tired mom, trying desperately to connect and engage her son with the world around him. You see a loving mom embracing her son's love of numbers and math. You see a mom who deeply cares about her son and embraces his quirks.  You see a mom speaking her son's love language.

But most importantly, I hope that you see that gleeful little boy who is accepted for who he is, autism quirks and all.