the next couple of days we will be discussing the last in the series on
“cognitive issues”. This topic has to do with “rigid/inflexible”
thinking that often leads to so much stress for the child. I am sure you
will recognize some of these challenges.
People who are flexible
are able to see different perspectives, consider different options, and
can easily shift gears when things don’t go as expected. Generally
speaking people who are flexible are by the far the happiest people.
They can go with the flow, and bend with the wind. They don't get easily
anxious, and have minimal difficulty seeing different options or trying
different ways. They don’t seem to be disturbed by simple snags,
irritating people, or
experiencing failures along the way.
To live successfully in our world, you must be flexible!
order to be flexible we need to understand that everything is relative
based on the demands of the given situation and the options available to
us. We all have known people who hold by rigid beliefs, even in the
face of strong evidence against those ideas. We are all different in the
degree of flexible thinking. Most people on the spectrum have
difficulty with flexible thinking. Rigid, inflexible thinking is at the
heart of much of their anxiety. Listed below are some of the qualities
of rigid/inflexible thinking.
• Autism thinking is very concrete, literal, and absolute.
• Rules, regulations, and expectations are black and white, right or wrong, with little room for interpretation.
• Thinking can be rigid and inflexible, with little tolerance for variability.
• Variability creates
insecurity and anxiety.
• Child may hold onto rigid beliefs and expectations, and meltdown if things are not going as expected.
• Child feels safer with concrete, predictable rules and laws that remain constant.
your thinking is very "literal" and tied to the facts, thinking tends
to be very "black and white", "either or" and "right or wrong", with
little room for gray area. This type of thinking leads to the person
applying rigid rules to situations that require variability and
flexibility. Rarely do rules and regulations (especially social rules)
apply rigidly, without variation across situations and settings.
Unfortunately when you cannot read the fluctuations between situations,
then you cannot adjust your thinking, and must hold tight to your rules
and expectations. Our world is way too relative for most people on the
spectrum. What applies in one situation, doesn't necessarily apply to
the next situation. This results in
anxiety, misreading situations, out of place behavior, the need to
control all situations to match their expectation, and extreme anger
when things don't go their way. Things have to be the same and stay the
same, each time, or the world falls apart.
Black and White Thinking
• Things are either right or wrong, good or bad, with little in between.
• Cannot see gray area.
• Needs one right answer.
• Difficulty with multiple alternatives.
• Difficulty with evaluating “good enough”.
• Inflexible, hard to change mind.
and white thinking consists of two extremes on a continuum of
variability. When you cannot read the gray area, you need to have one
right answer. For them, multiple options that need to be appraised and
evaluated can cause extreme anxiety. They prefer one right way of doing
something. That way, once they learn it, it is constant. However, most
of the world does not operate that
Many of these children are strong perfectionists, who
meltdown if they are not perfect at something the first time. They are
unable to evaluate when a response is "good enough!" and must get it
perfect. Hence they are rarely satisfied, and may spend countless hours
trying to get it right. They have a very difficult time changing their
mind, even if what they are doing is not working. They may freak if you
try to interrupt them, or offer them a different way.
Related Behavior Challenges
you can imagine, this rigid, inflexible thinking can lead to a host of
behavior challenges. The anxiety that rigid thinking generates can be
expressed in the following behavior challenges.
• Rigidly seeks predictable, static routine/activities.
• Actively resists change.
• Must control all activity & interactions.
• Seeks rigid routine and self controlled activities to avoid
• Strong resistance to follow the lead of others.
• Compulsive, repetitive, ritualistic, self absorbed, oppositional, self stimulation and tantrums.
course this rigid/inflexible thinking results in a lot of the acting
out behavior that we see in our children. When the world doesn't go
exactly the way they view it, they can meltdown very quickly. Now, the
biggest problems occur when a rigid/inflexible child meets a
rigid/inflexible adult! All "hell" breaks out. The more rigid the child,
the more flexible the adult has to be. Since the adult supposedly has
better self control and is "wiser", they should become more flexible to
hold off major confrontation.
For many of you your children must
control all activity and interaction to feel safe. Uncertainty creates
strong anxiety, and they resist following your lead. To keep sanity in
the household, you usually have to give in and follow the child's lead.
rigid/inflexible thinking can control a whole household, holding
everyone in it captive.
In addition to
sensory issues, rigid/inflexible thinking is at the heart of much of the
anxiety experienced by those on the spectrum. It creates major stress,
both for the child and for the people around him. The world has to be
his way, or it crumbles. This inflexible thinking can be very difficult
to change. The adherence to rigid beliefs, rules, and rituals helps
reduce the chaos and confusion. It also serves as a defense mechanism to
reduce uncertainty and anxiety. To help teach greater flexibility we
must start where the child is at, help them feel safe, and then
gradually stretch their comfort zone. The following posts will
suggestions ways to promote flexible thinking, reducing both anxiety and