Bottom Up Thinking
by Temple Grandin, PhD
Autism Asperger’s Digest | September/October 2010
Individuals on the autism spectrum learn to form concepts by putting many specific examples of a particular concept into a “file folder” in their brain labeled with that concept. Contrary to how non-autistic people think it is “bottom up” instead of “top down” thinking. A non-autistic person forms a concept first, then adds in the details. I created a concept by building it from many specific examples. It is specific to general thinking.
Bottom up learning can be used to teach both very concrete and more abstract concepts ranging from basic safety rules to reading comprehension. In this article I will give examples starting from the most concrete concepts and finishing with more abstract ones. All concepts, regardless of the level of abstraction, must be taught with many specific examples for each concept.
To teach a basic safety rule, such as not running across the street, it must be taught in more than one place. This is required to make the safety rule generalize to new places. It must be taught at the street at home, at streets near the school, at the next-door neighbor’s house, at streets around grandmother’s house, or AuntGeorgia’s house, and when the child visits a new strange place. The number of different specific examples required will vary from child to child. When I was little, I was taught turn taking with a board game called Parcheesi. If my turn taking lessons had been limited to this game they would not have generalized to other situations, such as taking turns with my sister to use a sled or a toy. During all of these activities, I was told I had to take turns. Turn taking in conversation was also taught at the dining room table. If I talked too long, mother told me I had to give someone else a turn to talk.
Using many specific examples should also be used for teaching number concepts. To achieve generalization, a child should be taught counting, adding, and subtraction with many different kinds of objects. Use cups, candies, toy dinosaurs, pens, and other things to teach the abstract idea that arithmetic applies to many things in the real world. For example 5 – 2 = 3 can be taught with five candies. If I eat 2 of them, I have 3 left. To learn concepts such as less and more or fractions, use many different things. Try using cups of water filled to different levels, cutting up an apple, and cutting up cardboard circles. If you only used cardboard circles, the child may think that the concept of fractions only applies to cardboard circles. To teach bigger verses smaller, use different sized objects such as bottles, candies, shirts, blocks, toy cars, and other things.
More Abstract Concepts
To move up a degree in the abstractness of concepts, I will give some examples for teaching concepts such as “up” and “down.” Again, you must use many specific examples to teach these concepts.
We go “up” the stairs
We walk “up” a hill
We slide “down the slide.”
Put the plate “down” on the table.
To fully comprehend the concept, the child needs to participate in the activity while the parent or teacher says a short sentence containing the word “up” or “down.” Be sure to vocally emphasize the concept word. If the child is having difficulty with verbal language, combine the word with a picture card that says “up” or “down.”
Recently I was asked, “How did you comprehend the concept of rude behavior or good table manners?” Concepts that relate to judgments or social expectations are much more abstract for a child, yet they can still be taught in the same way. When I did something that was bad table manners, such as waving my fork in the air, mother explained to me – very simply and without a lot of verbal chatter – that it was bad table manners. “Temple, waving your fork in the air is bad table manners.” She used many naturally occurring teachable moments, helping me connect my action to the concept “bad table manners.” She did this matter of factly and kept the message simple and consistent. Learning many specific examples also worked when she taught me the concept of rudeness. When I did something that was rude, such as belching or cutting in line, mother told me I was being rude. Gradually a “rude” concept formed in my brain from the many specific examples.
Many children on the spectrum can decode and read, but they have problems with comprehension. To start, focus on the very concrete facts, such as characters’ names, cities they visited or activities they did, such as playing golf. This is generally easier for the child to comprehend. Then move on to more abstract concepts in a passage of literature. For example, if they read, “Jim ate eggs and bacon” they may have difficulty answering the multiple-choice question: “Did Jim eat breakfast, lunch or dinner?” Teach the child to break apart the question and scan his or her brain files for information that may help with comprehension. For instance, I would search through the picture files in my brains of meals. Eggs and bacon is the best match for breakfast compared to lunch and dinner pictures.
These more abstract concepts and associations don’t develop quickly. The child will need to add more and more information into his brain computer before he can be successful with abstractions. This data comes from experiences, and is why parents and teachers need to give the child lots and lots of opportunities for repetitive practice on a concept or lesson. I would start to learn this sort of concept only after a teacher had explained many different stories to me.
Temple Grandin is an internationally respected specialist in designing livestock handling systems. She is the most noted high-functioning person with autism in the world today.