Advice needed: Child with autism obsessed with letters and numbers

December 13, 2016

My son is 4 year old and is very much obsessed with numbers and letters. I’m not sure how much he understands, but he likes books so much that it’s very difficult to shift his attention. What can I do about this?

Today’s “Got Questions?” answer is by psychologist Terry Katz, who works in the department of developmental pediatrics at Children’s Hospital Colorado and the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

Editor’s note: The following information is not meant to diagnose or treat and should not take the place of personal consultation, as appropriate, with a qualified healthcare professional and/or behavioral therapist.

Thank you for your question. Many children with autism develop focused interests. Strong interest in letters and numbers is particularly common.

It’s important to understand that your son’s pursuits may be a source of happiness and pride for him. It may also help him cope with stress and difficult situations. So I encourage you to respect his need to spend time with letters and numbers while also helping him engage other activities.

Tapping interests to develop new skills

The good news is that – while intense interests can present challenges – they also provide great opportunities for learning important skills.

For instance, your child may need to develop his language abilities. You can use his interest in letters to expand his vocabulary. Try writing the names of things in your house on sticky notes or other tags that you attach to the objects. For example, “chair,” “table” and “book.”

You can also print descriptor words such as “big” and “little” and words describing positions such as “in,” “on” and “under.” You can place these labels on objects, and read them to your son. If your son grasps their meaning, you can also ask him to place the labels where they belong.

Similarly, you can encourage him to place number labels on groups of objects such as two, three or four marbles, trucks or candies. In these ways, you’re helping your son grasp the meaning behind the numbers and letters.

You can also use this labeling game to encourage social interaction with you and/or another playmate. For example, write different action words on cards. Your son can then could pick a card from the pile and read the word (“jump,” “wiggle,” “sing,” etc.). Then, everyone acts out the word together.

Prompting transitions with visual supports

You can even build on your son’s interest in letters and numbers to help him make the transition from this favorite activity to other tasks. Consider making a visual schedule that combines pictures with words and/or numbers to illustrate the day’s activities. (See the example at right from

Visual schedules are particularly helpful for teaching routines and signaling when it’s time to change activities. This includes showing your child when it’s okay to indulge in his special interest and when it’s time to do other things.

Another way to use visual supports to set limits is with “first/then” cards. The idea is to motivate your child to complete a less appealing task before he can enjoy a favorite activity. (See the example below from the Autism Speaks Visual Supports Tool Kit.

In your case, you might use a drawing or photo of playing outside in the “First” box and a picture of a book – or a photo of your son reading a book – in the “Then” box.

Often, it’s helpful to combine the first/then card with a clock or timer to signal the end of each activity. Then you can use another first/then card such as “First take a bath. Then draw letters and numbers.”

The Autism Speaks Visual Supports Tool Kit provides more samples and helpful information about this technique. You can download it free of charge using the link below.

Learn more about visual supports and download the
Autism Speaks ATN visual supports tool kit.

More ways to channel his passion

Here are some more great ways to channel a special interest in letters and numbers in positive ways:

  • If your son is working on toileting skills, try decorating the bathroom with letters and numbers so he enjoys being in the room while using the toilet.
  • Does your son need encouragement to be physically active? Have him count how many times he jumps on a mini trampoline or the number of houses he passes as you take a walk in your neighborhood. If he prefers written numbers to spoken ones, make a set of numbered cards that he can flash.
  • You can even use numbers to help your son identify and communicate his emotions – a common challenge for kids who have autism. I’ve seen some nice programs that use the numbers 1 through 5 to help children identify how they’re feeling and learn coping strategies. One of my favorites is Kari Dun Buron’s “Incredible 5-point Scale,” shown at right and available at
  • Many wonderful children’s books teach social skills in engaging ways. Your local librarian can help you find books about learning how to share, learning how to take turns and learning how to greet others, to name just a few. You and your son can read and discuss these books together.
  • Many parents and therapists have found particular great success creating personalized teaching stories to explain social situations to kids who have autism. Autism Speaks recently partnered with the University of Washington READI Lab to provide a series of teaching story templates that you can download and personalize with your own pictures and photos.

One of several personalized teaching story templates available on the Autism Speaks website. 

In closing, I want to emphasize once more that children’s special interests often represent great areas of strength. They make children happy and can lead to a great sense of confidence and self-esteem. Helping children learn to balance their focused interests with other activities can be difficult at times, but it’s definitely worth the effort.

Thanks again for your question. Please let us know how you and your son are doing by emailing us again at

Also see these archived advice post from Dr. Katz:

Help! My kid won't use a public restroom

Readers: Got more questions for our experts? Send them to

Need personal help?
The members of the Autism Speaks Autism Response Team are trained to connect people with autism, their families and caregivers to information, tools and resources.

Call us! (888) 288-4762│En Español (888) 772-9050
Email us at

We're Here to Help Chat with Us
Autism Response Team Chat
There are no available agents at the moment.

You can also reach the Autism Response Team by phone or email: 888-288-4762, en Espanol 888-772-7050, or