Bottoms Up!


What Maria Von Trap and trapezoids can teach us about kids with Asperger’s

In the States, every Christmas Day brings the annual television network airing of The Sound of Music. While the house still smells of egg nog and edelweiss (OK, balsam fir) Julie Andrews sings “Let’s start at the very beginning/A very good place to start…” And that makes sense – whenever learning anything new, you start at the beginning, obviously, and then you move on from there.

The challenge when teaching or raising children with Asperger’s (Asperkids) isn’t whether to start at the beginning, it’s in determining precisely where that beginning might be.

For example, the Von Trap children start their singing lesson by echoing and then naming notes (musical building blocks): “When you know the notes to sing, you can sing most anything”, Maria (Andrews) instructs gaily. And sing they do. They assemble the notes into phrases and the phrases into melodies, then they add lyrics and lo and behold, they have music.

That’s one way to learn – adding up specific examples to create a larger whole, like assembling a mosaic of bits of tile. It’s a bottom-up approach.

Traditional education and authoritarian views of parenting, on the other hand, tend to favour a top-down, “because I said so,” concept-first, details-later form of instruction. It’s how I learned to play the violin, via “the Suzuki Method. We were taught almost immediately to play melodies by ear, with great emphasis on memory. Much later, we were introduced to written notes and sheet music, but even at that point, every piece was reviewed and memorised without relying upon a piece of paper.

These different approaches to music lessons embody the “where’s the beginning” dilemma: is the beginning of learning at the foundation, as in Maria’s “Doe-a-deer” building blocks? Or, as in the Suzuki Method, is the beginning a complete whole, broken down only after we’ve learned to love the tune? The answer, really, has more to do with who is learning and how they need to learn.

Maria's bottom-up approach to learning chimes with many on the spectrum. Teach how they learn

Temple Grandin has noted that most individuals on the spectrum are usually bottom-up learners. And I thoroughly agree. I would have wanted to learn to make music using Maria’s building blocks, just as I began dance with basic positions and steps before pirouettes and leaps.

Most neurotypical folks, however, are top-down learners; forget the notes and sharps and things, you all want to start with melody. Of course, neither way of learning is right or wrong, unless, that is, we mismatch student and style. Then, boredom, frustration, and self-doubt take over the show.

Asperkids depend upon us to teach them in the way they need to learn. I should know. I’m an Aspie, I have three Asperkids and I was a teacher. So this is a topic I understand intimately. Like most people on the spectrum, I absorb information best by engaging with it directly, noting specific, concrete experiences, facts, and examples. Then, I spot trends, notice patterns and develop a perception.

Truth be told, I was powerfully fortunate in school; everything academic came easily to me. Mind you, I was also the consummate Aspie perfectionist, so “excellent” wasn’t good enough for me – only “perfect” (in the most challenging subjects) would do.

This is why, at age thirteen, I completely freaked out. As a high school freshman, I had elected advanced geometry for my math course of the year, a bold placement that had to be staff-approved. I wasn’t being arrogant; I knew I could tackle this challenge, I wanted the transcript that went along with it and I enjoyed pushing myself to learn new things (I still do). However, this class threw me completely.

Suddenly, we were memorising seemingly random theorems about abstract rules which seemed unimportant and disconnected. For example, we read that a trapezoid is isosceles if and only if the base angles are congruent. OK, well, I understood the words, and the little picture in the textbook looked right, so, if they said so….But there was no real learning happening.

Then, suddenly, we were expected to apply these random theorems in real time when solving problems that didn’t look anything like the original instructional illustrations. I was lost and, worst of all, I truly didn’t understand what I didn’t understand. And how do you ask for help when you don’t even know what’s confusing you?

Keep it practical

Skip ahead about twenty years. For one year, I found myself homeschooling my Asperkids, filling in holes where their genius-level IQ’s didn’t match with their confidence or comprehension. By this point, I had already fallen in love with the Montessori method of learning because of its basis in sensorial, first-hand exploration of concrete materials. Children first encounter ideas by seeing, touching, and hearing three-dimensional expressions of sophisticated concepts. After doing so, they independently and organically begin to make high-level connections, analyse ideas and question possible patterns.

One day, I brought out the geometry stick box, which contained flat wooden bars, colour-coded according to their lengths. Each stick also had holes where drawing pins could affix it to a cork tile.

On this particular day, my Asperkid was building trapezoids. I told her she might use any colour (length) bars she liked and to experiment, to make every kind of trapezoid she could. Knowing from previous lessons that two opposite sides of a trapezoid had to be parallel, she began by using a “spacer” bar to keep the distance between tops and bottoms equidistant (no following lines or tracing with rulers, she was building it to be parallel). Then she filled in the sides.

After she decided she was done, I asked my daughter to find any trapezoids where the non-parallel sides were the same colour (length). Easy. Then, I handed her a protractor and made my final request: would she please measure the different interior angles in each trapezoid and jot them down in a notebook?

“Huh,” I heard her mutter a little bit later. “Mom, take a look at this. Every single time, the top angles are congruent and the base angles are congruent too.” She’d made a discovery from trapezoids, not from a textbook.

“What about the others, the ones where the nonparallel sides were different lengths?” I pushed, and she turned back to check.

“Nope!” she decided. “Not in these. The angle pairs don’t match anymore.”

After just a few questions, she was able to determine for herself that trapezoids are only isosceles if the base angles are congruent, and vice versa. Twenty years before, I didn’t understand the same concept because it was taught top-down from a book, and I couldn’t generalise that information. But my Asperkid got concrete, hands-on, bottom-up instruction and discovered the reality of geometry for herself.

Keep it logical

Those of us on the autistic spectrum rely upon specific facts, examples and experiences to logically construct absolutes. We start with fundamentals – grammar, numerical patterns, music notation – and build up to bigger pictures. Asperkids learn that way, so we adults need to teach that way. Because Asperkids aren’t typical, neither are the patterns they observe nor the theories they propose. That’s a good thing. If we lived in a world where everyone arrived at the same conclusions, we would be without creativity, problem-solving, or curiosity.

Our bottom-up learning is also part of the reason for Asperkids’ amazing ability to retain tomes of facts, but it is also why they struggle with general (seemingly obvious) principles. It is why Asperkids need to concentrate on something until they have mastered it, rather than dabble casually at this and that. It is why Asperkids need detailed rules and plans of action rather than general suggestions, timetables, or guidelines.

And, it’s why if particular experiences, facts or examples don’t add up to the exact big picture you want to teach, there will be a locking of horns and a gnashing of teeth. Any Asperkid is going to be frustrated, confused, upset and utterly lost when she feels as though 2+2 suddenly has to equal 5, and she just knows that that’s not true.

Keep it real

Asperkids don’t easily generalise from one subject or experience to another; being told to clean off the counter in the bathroom before washing it down doesn’t mean they will do the same in the kitchen, unless you say so. Our minds simply do not operate as yours do. So, for the sake of your students, clients or kids, you have to operate differently too. Encourage first-hand encounters with the world through any means possible; more experiences means more data to assemble into those concept file folders.

For example, forget lectures, worksheets and tedious textbooks. Teach history through field trips to battlegrounds, by reading scans of handwritten letters, listening to popular music of the day online, experimenting with authentic recipes, playing historically-accurate games, reading real advertisements, newspapers and etiquette guides, and by exploring portraiture and photography. Interact with real things. Then discuss patterns in the resources (behavioural expectations, cultural norms, popular trends), and finally, watch your Asperkid assemble perceptions, mosaics, concepts.

Think of Einstein and e=mc2. Generalising to great degrees of abstraction is entirely doable for people on the spectrum, if they have the right start. Parents and teachers have to present numerous concrete examples of a concept in multiple settings to set imaginations whirring. Given enough concrete examples (how many depends on the individual, the age and the concept), the child will assemble a broader – and possibly brilliant – takeaway understanding.

Remember those music lessons we discussed? Well, now imagine that a symphony is about to get its debut performance on stage. When the musicians first read the new piece, each one learned her part. Then in rehearsal, the conductor probably pointed out where common melodic themes would emerge. Only the conductor, who held the entire orchestra’s score, could see the big picture. Everyone else could see only what was directly in front of her eyes.

As an adult in the life of an Asperkid, you are a lot like that conductor. You will have to point out some themes and connections that Asperkids cannot yet see. First, though, allow them to learn their own melodies. Give them the chance to experience and explore the world directly, to hear the music and to absorb rather than simply memorise. Let them create, develop and invent tunes that aren’t just stuck in their heads, but which begin in their wonderfully precocious hearts.

Further information

Jennifer Cook O’Toole has Asperger’s syndrome and is the mother of three young children with Asperger’s:

Jennifer is the author of Asperkids, The Asperkid’s Book of (Secret) Social Rules, The Asperkid’s Launch Pad and The Asperkid’s Not-Your-Average-Coloring-Book, all available from:

ex-teacher + Jennifer and kids have Asperger's


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