Learning to categorize items is a basic task for young children. Close your eyes for a moment and picture a typical pre-school classroom: children are sorting little plastic bears, red bears in one tub, blue in another, and green in a third; another group of children arranges pictures into different piles of animals, vehicles, and foods; and still a third group is reading a book about animals that live in the sea vs. animals that can fly! We instinctively know it is important to sort things into categories… but do we know why?
One important reason to put things into mental categories is to improve memory. In memory research, there is an important strategy known as clustering. If we need to remember a long list of items to purchase at the grocery store (and for some unknown reason we don’t just write them down!), we may have a very tough time remembering the list: chicken,bagels, milk, eggs, cheese, bread, bacon, broccoli, carrots, hot dogs, peas,yogurt, crackers, cereal, corn, and butter. But it would be quite a bit easier if we realized that our list contained 4 proteins (chicken, eggs, bacon and hot dogs), 4 grains (bagels, bread, crackers and cereal), 4 dairy products (milk, cheese, yogurt, and butter), and 4 vegetables (broccoli, carrots, peas, and corn).
How does the importance of categorization apply to teaching children with autism? As your child adds vocabulary words to their language repertoire, knowing which category a word belongs to may actually improve their retention of the words! For some ideas on how to teach categories, take a look at the downloadable activities guide for our U-Play Mat and our Language Builder Picture Cards!
You can start working with our Language Builder Cards by downloading 20 FREE cards here: