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The Power of Matching

apples and oranges.jpg

The centrality and utility of matching

Conventional matching is a primary program and often one of the first to be introduced in early intensive behavioral intervention. The purpose of matching is to foster identification of similarity or connectedness. 'Matching' is relating two or more things to one another, by sorting or pointing. Matching requires that children observe an object or picture and scan an array or the larger environment to identify a corresponding item. BUT...It is not for only its own sake that it needs to be taught. It is a foundation for language and sits under our reasoning abilities. It can be employed as a vehicle to enhance social awareness and executive function. Matching can also be used as a tool for ‘assessment’. 


Matching and language


The importance of matching can’t be overstated. Recognition of relations between distinct objects is the fundamental feature of categorization upon which all thinking, reasoning, and language development rests. I once heard Ivar Lovaas say, “Everything is matching to sample”. This is hyperbolic, but the idea stayed with me. But, this statement is not far off. We use words to express refer to events, experiences or things. Therefore, matching sits under the constituents of language...the normative symbols used in language with which we do things (make promises, refute, compliment, negotiate, condemn, explain, ask, etc.)

Matching as a precursor to naming


Learning the name of something is to learn it is a kind of thing for which a symbol is used to refer to that set of things, e.g., things we call “x” (dogs, cars, trees, etc). Learning to name things assumes that basic ‘recognitional’ abilities are operating. While some children with ASD acquire basic matching and naming abilities with just a little nudge, others struggle. If matching abilities are not in place, there is little chance that naming will emerge easily. In other words, if children don’t recognize things (visually) as the same kinds of things, it will be very difficult for them to learn how to use a symbol to refer to those things. For children who struggle with learning the names of things, matching can serve as a springboard to naming.

In order to match, there are several underlying tool skills at play.

  • Flexible shift of attention

  • Scanning

  • Working memory

Troubleshooting: When children can’t match


We find that if children have difficulty matching, it is usually because they are not looking at the item they are holding (given) or at the objects on the table, or both. In other words, they do not compare; they do not shift attention between the object in their possession and the array of objects on the table in order to assess if there is correspondence between items.


There are number of strategies that can be employed that can help get matching ability in place:


  1. One of the easiest fixes is to place the items in the array (those on the table) on items such as paper plates. This serves to bring the target items into the foreground… to offer a kind of a target in a target.

  2. Mount a picture or object to a nearby wall or whiteboard.  Point to item. If child tracks to the item, prompt (point or manually guide) child to find corresponding item in the array in front of them. 

  3. With items mounted to a wall, hand the child an item which corresponds to one on the wall and guide them to the wall in order to make the match. If the child has to reach a bit, often their head will come up to see what is in front of them.

  4. If #1, #2 or #3 don't fix the problem, the most important thing you can do is to orient yourself, while instructing, so that you can see where a child’s eyes go. Remember, children are not matching because they are not making the comparisons, (shifting attention from item in hand to items in array) so we need to assist in this process.


This is very difficult to do… Prompting will make more sense when you see whether children are looking at the items involved. If we see where they are looking, we can prompt placement of the item when and only when the child is looking at the matching item and we should prevent release until the child’s eyes go to the matching item.

  1. Doing so may look like this: While monitoring what a child is looking at, an item is placed in a child’s hand, we guide the child to hold the item in their hand ‘over’ each item that is in the array until arriving at the matching item, … when we see that they are looking at the match, we then hold for a second, hoping a comparison is made at which time the child is guided to place it with the matched item.

  2. You can also try spacing the items in the array farther apart… this sometimes encourages ‘scanning’.

These are just a few ideas. The important thing here is ‘to see that you see’ if a comparison is being made (if attention shifts) and if not, to consider ways to ensure that it does.


Also, keep in mind:

  • Strengthening attention to the objects often requires ample practice (repetition), and use of a highly discrete routine (see DTI). Instruction should be modified over time as children begin to shift attention flexibly to compare objects.

  • Increase the field size gradually (the number of objects on the table). This strengthens the child’s scanning or searching ability and persistence. Eventually, the objects on the table should be presented in varied arrangements (linear, horizontally, random/disorganized) and in other locations in order to develop search routines and executive function.

  • Once the child can match identical objects, make the objects increasingly more dissimilar (non-identical). This kind of basic-level categorization or ‘stimulus generalization’ requires considerable multiple exemplar teaching where the objects vary across many different kinds of details.

  • Once the child is able to match objects that are quite dissimilar, introduce identical picture matching. Follow the same procedure as object matching. Introduce non-identical pictures as he makes progress. Once he can match dissimilar pictures, start “Matching Object to Pictures”


Matching as an assessment tool 


Many children struggle to learn to identify colors, letters, numbers and persons. When we see this, the first question should be whether they 'recognize' these things as being the same kinds of things, i.e., can they match them. We can use matching to test this… if they can’t match yellow with yellow, the letter F with the other Fs, then learning the names for these things will be less likely. So we 'back up' to matching… once matching occurs, we can introduce a ‘match>identify’ exercise (match-receptive follow-up) such that after matching we ask the child to ‘find’ (color, letter, number etc.)

Matching can be employed to advance social, linguistic and cognitive development


We can also use matching to strengthen attention, memory and social awareness. In Selection-based imitation (Lund and Schnee, 2018, Schnee, 2023) matching is used as a vehicle to establish social primacy, strengthen scanning, joint and shifting attention and memory. In 'Search-match' (Lund et al), matching is used to strengthen visual memory. In 'Sequential matching', matching is used as a vehicle used to target linguistic abilities such as using 'yes and no', and requesting. These exercises also enhance executive function (searching) and social abilities (social pragmatics).


It is important to recognize that matching sits under, and is used to acquire concepts/abilities such as same, different, confirmation (use of ‘yes’), or dis-confirmation (use of ‘no’) etc. So, if matching is not established early during intervention, you may need to return to it in order to advance other abilities. When you begin to look around, you begin to see matching sitting under so many seems that Dr. Lovaas was on to something.

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