butterfly match.jpeg
butterfly match.jpeg

Mad for Matching: Rationale and Troubleshooting

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. Matching is a foundation for language and can be employed as a vehicle to enhance social awareness and executive function. It can also be used as a tool for ‘assessment’. Therefore, it is not for its own sake that it needs to be taught. 


Matching and language


The importance of matching can’t be overstated.  Recognition of relation 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 refer to events, experiences or things. As language learners, we learn to match the appropriate events or things with the matching symbol used to refer to those things. Therefore, in a sense, matching sits under language.

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 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 with just a little nudge, others struggle. If matching abilities are not in place, there is little chance that naming will emerge. 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 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 correspondance 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… and to offer a kind of a target in a target.

  2. If #1 doesn’t fix the problem, the most important thing you can do in order to ensure success 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’.


If none of this helps, you might try 2d-2d matching. In this way can control ‘shifting attention’ a little better.


  1. Hold the item so you are certain a child is looking at it (you don’t give the item to the child). You then prompt child to point to matching item.

  2. Velcro picture (you could also do with 3d item). See that child’s eyes go the item and prompt point to match item in the array.

  3. In cases #1 and #2, the child can also be prompted to take the item once there is confidence that they looked at it and we can point to prompt placement or guide hand over hand.


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 object 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”



Good tool for assessment


Many children struggle to learn colors, letter, number and person identification. When we see this, the first question is whether they recognize these things as being the same kinds of things. 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 (receptive follow-up) such that after matching we ask the child to ‘find’ (color, letter, number etc.)


Matching can be expanded in different ways to develop skills and abilities subservient to language, social and cognitive advancement


We can also use matching to strengthen, attention, memory and social awareness. In one case, selection based imitation (Lund and Schnee 2018) is used to establish social primacy, strengthen scanning, shifting attention and memory. In 'search-match' (Lund et al), strengthening memory is the primary objective. 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 disconfirmation (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 things...maybe Dr. Lovaas was on to something.