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Speaking Through Numbers (ASD Tool)

JanFeb Autism Digest MagaazineMy article, “Speaking Through Numbers,” appeared in Autism Digest Magazine in Jan/Feb 2012. Although it is no longer available digitally, I wanted to share via my blog for anyone who may have an interest. – A.P. Morris

“Information processing” is often a challenge for individuals diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). The communication-related deficit can stem from a variety of sources: inadequate or faulty brain ‘wiring’, auditory challenges (ie the child can’t distinguish the teacher’s voice over all the other noise in the classroom), sensory regulation issues, cognitive impairments, or motor challenges. The information many kids ‘take in’ is garbled in the first place; with other kids, the information is processed, but it’s formulating a response that is difficult or even impossible. No matter what the reason, the impact is apparent in all aspects of their lives: academic, social, language, play and daily living skills.

While working as a therapeutic support staff person (TSS) with an elementary-aged child with Asperger’s Syndrome, I stumbled upon an effective communication tool that may be of benefit to other children with ASD. At the time of our breakthrough, “John” as I’ll call him, was a nine-year-old boy full of life. He was amazingly intelligent and especially talented at remembering anything involving numbers. John could easily recall the number of pieces in large Lego creations he’d built (and he had constructed many!), the number of pages in the corresponding directions, the hours and minutes it took to complete each project. John delighted in using numbers; they were highly motivating and extremely interesting for him.

A major difficulty he faced, as do many children with this diagnosis, was maintaining self-control when involved in gross motor activities. Despite our best efforts to help him calm himself in these situations, through verbal or gestural prompting, foreshadowing, social stories, and a reward system, nothing brought any significant improvements in his behaviors. John described himself as being “revved up” during activities such as hockey, rock climbing, kick-ball, and volleyball, and unable to process our directives or control his responses. He’d either become so disruptive that the other children were unable to continue the activity or he would unknowingly cause physical harm to them because he couldn’t gauge personal space.

The self-disappointment John felt after such an incident was evident and heart wrenching to watch. Following one such episode at a summer camp we were attending, I sat with him on the curb, waiting for his mom to pick us up. I thought about his extreme intelligence, his natural ability with numbers and longed for a way to bridge the information gap.

Then a light bulb went off! I took out a notebook, wrote down the letters of the alphabet and numbered them 1 to 26. This was as much a ‘cheat sheet’ for me as it was a visual tool for him! I explained the chart to John and then began quizzing him randomly by asking him which letter corresponded to a number, for instance “10.” Within seconds he answered “J.” I tried it in the reverse, starting with the letter and just as quickly he gave me the correct number. I was ecstatic! We had discovered the building blocks to our bridge!

On the ride home I thought of simple commands we could convert to a numeric code. The first one was 19 = STOP (19 = “S”). I showed him the code in written form one time, and had him verbally repeat it twice. Next was 6,4 = FOLLOW DIRECTIONS. (6 = “F”, 4 = “D”). He seemed indifferent to it; however, it looked at it and repeated it to me.

The following morning on the way to camp I said “19” and John quickly responded with “STOP.” He then himself offered “6,4 is follow directions.” I explained to him that we would have our own ‘secret code’ to see if it was easier for him to hear and process numbers when he was revved up or getting out of control. We used them and it worked! I was so excited! When given a word directive in the same circumstances, John sometimes appeared to have heard it, but for the most part he did not respond, nor was he able to modify his behavior. When we used the number code his eyes looked up to the left, he repeated the number and then stated the verbal command. The best part was that he then followed through with the appropriate action corresponding to the directive! It was as though the numbers ‘registered’ in his brain long enough that he could follow through with processing the associated word command.

We added approximately 15 more ‘command codes’ over the next few weeks. I was amazed at John’s receptiveness. He even joined in by creating his own numerical responses. The results were extraordinary! He responded at least 85% of the time to the numeric directives versus about 45% to verbal word commands.

As his behavior ‘mishaps’ decreased, his confidence in handling himself in social situations soared, as did his excitement and interest in using the coded communication. An added benefit was a huge increase in social interaction with his peers and they with him.

It began one day at camp when I needed to prompt him to slow down while climbing the rock wall. I used our code, 19,4 (Slow Down) but because I was not close enough to John to say it inconspicuously, the other children heard me and noticed that he responded appropriately. Of course, this aroused their curiosity.

One child asked us why we were talking numbers. I explained to them that John was awesome with numbers and we sometimes used them to communicate. They wanted to know more. I shared with them the basis of our secret code and to showcase John’s exceptional abilities I quizzed some of the kids and watched as they struggled with it. John jumped in and would answer for them if they were unable. He became a hit! The kids were making comments such as “Wow! You’re so smart! I wish I were you! You’re so cool!” This brought a huge smile to John’s face. It also spawned unprompted social interaction from the other children wanting to get to know him better. They began to make an effort to include John. He no longer received the ‘what’s his problem?’ looks.

One of my initial concerns was how to differentiate between words that began with the same letter of the alphabet. For example, we used “S” or “19” in numerous directives including: 19 = STOP; 19,4 = SLOW DOWN; 2,1,7,19 = BE A GOOD SPORT, etc. I thought it might be confusing to John, but again, to my amazement this was not a difficulty at all. John easily remembered the words based on the sequence of numbers in the directive. Not once was he confused!

Unfortunately, our time together ended shortly thereafter and I’m unable to provide more long-term results that would have included a full fading of the numeric code to solely verbal word commands. But in light of expertise and high degree of interest in numbers that many children with ASD possess, and the ease in teaching and using this method, hopefully other teachers or parents and children will benefit from trying it out.

We are just beginning to understand how differently John and other children like him on the autism spectrum process information. When we can teach in ways that are meaningful to these children, we build bridges to academic and social success, self-esteem and self-empowerment.  Speaking in numbers is just one example of using the very capable abilities of children with ASD and turning them into the key to success for all involved.


Special acknowledgement: I’d like to thank Nina Wall, my supervising psychologist at the time, for her belief in me. Without her, I wouldn’t have been introduced to all the exceptional children diagnosed with PDD that I was blessed to meet and learn from. You are truly talented and I’m so grateful for having the opportunity to have worked with you.


You can learn more about A.P. Morris at