Autism: Teaching a simple exercise

Today I’m going to take a simple exercise I used with Ian, and look at it in detail.

The tree.

Anyone can draw a simple tree.  You start with two lines like this –


And then add two more –


And then do twigs, and add a few leaves –


Voila! A recognisable tree.

Then you turn your tree into a simple question-and-answer task.  For example ‘How many leaves are on the tree?’ and leave a line for a response.

It seems so simple and straightforward, doesn’t it?  We glance at the tree, our eyes rove over the leaves, and we know the answer.

Enter the autistic child, for whom nothing is simple or straightforward, and we have to look at our question again.

What does it pre-suppose?

‘How many?’

Immediately, we are faced with the notion of counting.

Does the child understand the term ‘how many?’, and can he count?  – and then give a clear answer for the total?

Can he point clearly to each leaf?

And once he has started counting, does he know how to stop?

Let’s look at the next word – ‘leaves’.  Suddenly we are faced with plurals, which is an exercise in itself.

‘Leaves’ belongs in that group of more complex plurals, way beyond ‘cup / cups’ or ‘book / books’.  It’s even beyond ‘house / houses’ and ‘horse / horses’.  We’re almost at the end of the line: child / children; leaf / leaves – heading towards the worst of them all:  tooth / teeth; mouse / mice; goose / geese, etc.


Does the child know what a ‘leaf’ is?  Could he pick one up off the ground and show it to you? And could he show you which tree it came from? — Oh sorry, that’s a different exercise!

If the child understands what ‘leaves’ are, he can count them.  Good.

Let’s look at ‘on’ next.   Here we get to the murky area of prepositions: On, under, over, in, etc.

This can be presented as a task in itself – ‘Put the toy in the box’ or ‘Put the toy under the box’ or ‘Put the toy behind the box’.  There’s hours of fun, right there. But until the preposition is understood, the exercise can go no further than counting the leaves – not where they are.

And lastly, of course, we get to ‘the tree’.

Does the child know a tree? Will he point one out to you? Touch it, if you ask him? Recognise that there are different types, some big, some small? And most importantly, I suppose, does he understand your drawn representation as a tree?

Only if you are sure that ALL of these aspects are fixed in the autistic child’s mind can you present a task like this one. You cannot pre-suppose anything, and you cannot take it for granted that they ‘just know’. If you want to teach, and make real, meaningful progress, you have to teach everything, step by step.

Then – and only then – you can take the simple tree task, and start playing around with it.  First you could increase the number of leaves (making it harder to count them all);  then you could draw a few leaves on the ground, so –


using the leaves ‘on’ the tree as a decoy, and asking ‘How many leaves are under the tree?’ to catch any autistic requirement for sameness or patterning.

Then you can draw other things, like birds (‘in the tree’), or flowers (‘under the tree’), moving away from the idea of counting ‘leaves’ at all.


And so it goes.

Small increments, leading to wonderful moments of achievement.  And you don’t have to be a qualified teacher to do this, either. You just need patience, and determination to make a difference.

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