Thursday, January 24, 2013

Why is Categorization Important?

I did the math.  I have 80% of my clients working on categorization at some level.  Why?

One of the ways people organize their world is through categorization. Typically, young children seem to absorb the concept of categorization effortlessly through play, talking with others and participating in everyday experiences. Children and youth with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) often have difficulty learning to use categorization strategies effectively and therefore may require systematic instruction to develop and use them effectively.

Effective categorization skills enable us to perform tasks efficiently. Daily life without categorization could lead to a situation such as the following. In order to make dinner, you need to get the meat from the freezer in the garage, a frying pan off the coffee table in the living room, potatoes from the bottom dresser drawer in the bedroom, forks from the box on the top shelf in the bathroom, knives from the TV cabinet, and then you need to cook the food on the stove in the basement before bringing it up to serve it on the table in the dining room. This sounds absurd but this situation could occur if categorization were not used to organize things according to how they are used.

Beyond using categories, we must use the correct categories. Imagine going to the dining room section of a furniture store to buy milk, or going to buy a bike or a horse at the car dealership. After all, they are both things to ride on. 

Why Is Categorization So Important?
The ability to group things according to a common characteristic and then name that characteristic is a basic concept that helps children form a basis for structuring and organizing their world. When you systematically teach categorization skills, you are not just teaching a single skill but a system for learning, problem solving and organizing.  You are also teaching the foundation for processing, remembering and integrating new information. Many of us marvel at and even envy people who are always able to put their finger on an object or piece of information when needed because they know where to find it. This would not be possible without having developed complex organization strategies that include categorization.  I like to explain it as a filing system.  As a child learns new words, he needs a place to put them, knowing how they relate to other words.  Think of how you retrieve a word that is eluding you momentarily -- "It's like ___", "It's a (category)", "Not a __, but ___".  You might even recall connecting details such as where you saw this thing, who you were with, etc.

How Do Children Learn to Categorize?
Matt is going for a walk in the neighborhood with his dad. He points to a cocker spaniel running after a frisbee and says, "Kitty." His dad corrects him saying, "No, that’s a dog." Matt says, "Dog." Further along on the walk Matt sees an Irish Setter. He immediately points to it and says, "Dog." His dad responds, "Yes. That’s a big red dog." Matt is beginning to learn the category of "dogs."
Through a variety of experiences that include seeing and hearing others talk about dogs of different breeds, as well as being corrected when he uses a different word for a dog, Matt is learning what does and does not fit under the category of "dog." Although this seems very simple, consider all the skills Matt needs to have in order to reach this understanding.  Matt needs to learn the common features of dogs, such as: fur, four legs, two ears, tail, two eyes, long nose, teeth, and tongue. But that is not enough, as obviously many other animals have those same features (cats, cow, horses, raccoons, etc.). Therefore, Matt must also learn what a dog is not. And then he must learn that there are many variations (color, size, shape, length of fur, size and shape of ears, differences in the sounds they make). Eventually, he will also learn there may be exceptions to the rules (no tail, pug nose).
Simultaneously, Matt will learn about many other categories of familiar things around him. He will learn that dogs, birds and fish all belong to a category called animals. He will learn that foods are something to eat, while cars, busses and bicycles are things people ride. Flowers, trees and grass are called plants, and plants and animals are living things. Rocks, water and rugs, on the other hand, are not living things.  Matt will learn that things can be grouped or categorized in many different ways. For instance, items can be grouped by what they look like, what they are made of or how they are used. For Matt, the ability to grasp the concepts involved in understanding increasingly complex categorization skills develops so easily and naturally that his parents and others around him are unaware that they are teaching him an essential skill for organizing his world. 
Why Is Categorization So Difficult for Children and Youth with ASD?
Categorization can be very confusing to people with ASD. To many, it can be a totally foreign, perplexing concept. Why is that?

Different Ways of Thinking
As a woman with very high-functioning autism, Temple Grandin says that she thinks "in pictures" whereas most typical people think in words. Words help people categorize. In Thinking in Pictures and Other Reports from my Life with Autism, Temple Grandin describes the way she thinks of dogs.
... my concept of dogs is ... linked to every dog I’ve ever known. It’s as if I have a card catalog of dogs I have seen, complete with pictures, which continually grows as I add more examples to my video library. If I think about Great Danes, the first memory that pops into my head is Dansk, the Great Dane owned by the headmaster at my high school. The next Great Dane I visualize is Helga, who was Dansk’s replacement. The next is my aunt’s dog in Arizona, and my final image comes from an advertisement for Fitwell seat covers that featured that kind of dog. My memories usually appear in my imagination in strict chronological order, and the images I visualize are always specific. There is no generic, generalized Great Dane. (Grandin, 1995)
Could you imagine how challenging it would be for most of us to have to go through a visual list in your mind when someone simply mentions the word "dog?"

Teaching Categorizations skills
General hierarchy:
  • Match identical objects and pictures
  • Sort a group of objects or pictures into two identical sets 
  • Sort a group of objects by one feature
  • Choose an item to match a given category description or name
  • Sort into 2 and 3 categories
  • Name categories
  • What doesn't belong and why
  • What goes together and why
  • Name multiple items of a given category
  • Express similarities and differences

Need some ideas, feel free to comment or contact me :)

 some information adapted from Academic Interventions

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