Mathematics skills are crucial to postsecondary success. Autistic secondary students need instruction that explicitly prepares them to apply the skills they learn in school to real-world settings. Simply knowing what to do without knowing when or why is insufficient. With generalization and independence as the ultimate goal, students need instruction that addresses the skills necessary to master daily life tasks, like calculating the tip on a restaurant receipt, for example.
In 2018, OAR provided funding for a two-year research study, “Generalization of Technology-based Mathematics and Social Skills Instruction for Secondary Students with Autism,” that evaluated a technology-based mathematical and social problem-solving intervention that teaches how, when, and why to apply both the mathematics and social skills necessary for independence. Jenny Root, Ph.D., BCBA, an assistant professor of special education in the School of Teacher Education at Florida State University, was the principal investigator.
The research team recruited eight autistic high school students to participate in two separate studies. In both studies, the students were taught to solve percent-of-change word problems in which they checked the correctness of their receipt, calculated a suitable tip, and used socially appropriate interactions to sign and leave their receipt. The targeted social skills included how to check a receipt for accuracy, what to do if a receipt is inaccurate, and knowing the proper percentage to tip depending on the situation.
Dr. Root and her team used modified schema-based instruction (MSBI) as their teaching method and employed augmented reality to provide video-based instruction and visual supports on an iPad and/or iPhone. MSBI has been effective in building the ability of elementary and middle school students with autism to solve math problems, but had not yet been evaluated for high school students. MSBI focuses on building conceptual understanding of math problems by highlighting important mathematical features and teaching students to use graphic organizers, or schemas, to organize the information needed to solve the problem and generalize the mathematical concepts used across contexts.
At each session, participants selected a community location, such as a hair salon or restaurant, from a grid of 15 locations. All problems for the day centered on the theme of their choice. An augmented reality app, HP Reveal, showed the students a short video about how mathematics can be used at that community location. For example, if the student selected “Taco Restaurant,” the video would have been about going to the restaurant, ordering food, checking the receipt, and leaving a tip.
Students then solved two word problems each day about their selected theme. Students used a graphic organizer and electronic checklist to calculate an appropriate tip for various receipts. They learned to not only check their receipt for accuracy, but also to ask for a new receipt when needed. Finally, students signed the receipt and returned the signed receipt to the cashier. Students also watched a video model of how to solve the problem correctly, and then had the opportunity to change their responses if they wanted to do so.
During generalization sessions, students ordered items at actual restaurants instead of solving written word problems. They had access to a calculator during generalization sessions as well as the graphic organizer, but not the checklist.
In the first study, all four students improved in their ability to check their receipt, request a new receipt politely, calculate an appropriate tip, calculate the final amount, and sign/leave their receipt. Three of the four students generalized these skills to the school’s snack shop and maintained their performance two weeks after their final intervention session.
In the second study, three of the four students improved in their ability to check their receipt, request a new receipt politely, calculate an appropriate tip, calculate the final amount, and sign/leave their receipt.
Students also generalized some skills when making a purchase at a local mall food court. For example, several students were not able to identify a receipt prior to the study, but by the end they knew what a receipt looked like and what it was for. Two students also identified incorrect receipts from the food court after intervention.
The most relevant finding of this study for autistic individuals is the value of technology for learning and independence. As Dr. Root noted in her research summary, technology allows autistic people to self-manage their learning and, by extension, their lives via apps available on phones. They can also use supports until they do not need them any more. Mobile devices such as phones and iPads can decrease stigmatization and normalize supports that many adults use, like the calculator and to-do list. Dr. Root noted that none of the participants needed more than an initial training on how to navigate between multiple apps on the iPads they used.
For parents, the relevant finding of the study is the knowledge that autistic individuals can learn to solve problems in real-world settings that include social skills. The participants in this study not only learned to figure out a math problem in terms of how much to tip, they also interacted with restaurant employees in order to resolve errors.
For educators and clinicians, the relevant finding is that established evidence-based practices can be combined and tailored to build mathematical and social problem-solving skills simultaneously. Teaching relevant skills at the same time within a meaningful context allows them to address multiple priorities, such as social skills, independence, and math all at once.
While the study was small, it did illustrate how math and social skills can be taught simultaneously, providing both academic and practical education that can help build a foundation for independence.