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Mad about Matching: Rationale and Troubleshooting

Updated: May 6, 2022

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 it sits under much of our reasoning abilities. For teaching purposes, it 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 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 that it is a kind of thing for which a symbol is used to refer to a set of things, e.g., "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 items on the table, or both. In other words, they do not compare; they do not shift attention between the item in their possession and the array of items 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… 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 is to orient yourself 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, you 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 the child to point to matching item.

  2. Velcro picture to board or present picture of item on computer screen (for children inclined to use computers). See that child’s eyes go the item and prompt the child to point to the matching 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 in order 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 items 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 items.

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

  • Once the child can match identical items, make the items 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 details.

  • Once the child is able to match nonidentical objects 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: Good tool for assessment

Many children struggle to learn colors, letters, number and person identification. When we see this, the first question we need to ask 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. Then once matching is in place, 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 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), 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' (Lund et al), matching is used as a vehicle used to target linguistic abilities such as using 'yes and no', and requesting. The same exercise targets also 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 things...maybe Dr. Lovaas was on to something.


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