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Tips to lessen rigid thinking by children with autism

By: Centria Healthcare / 23 Jan 2020
Tips to lessen rigid thinking by children with autism

While keeping an open mind and being flexible in your thinking is a lesson all children need to learn to adapt to their ever-changing environment, for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), cognitive and behavioral rigidity is a symptom that can be difficult to relieve without help.

In many day-to-day functions that involve social interactions, for example, being flexible to adapt to less-preferred activities or random occurrences that change routines can result in the child with ASD expressing resistance, avoidance, distraction, negotiation, or a full-blown meltdown.

These are not the result of a misbehaved child, rather, they are reactions that come from a child with ASD being overwhelmed with emotional dysregulation causing an "overreaction" to try to provoke a delay or avoidance of the transition to something different altogether. Their rigidity struggles to understand, let alone, know how to adapt to change quickly or easily.

While not everyone with ASD has the symptom of cognitive and behavioral rigidity, those who do can both benefit and struggle with such inflexible thinking.

Inflexibility can also drive persistence, perseverance for good

The inability of individuals with autism to have flexible thinking can also serve the same people as a benefit in some aspects of daily functioning. The fact that they can be stuck on the minute details versus seeing the big picture can be both troublesome and terrific. Take, for example, being able to focus or fixate on certain activities, topics, or routines (like precise, detail-oriented computer programming) to become a true expert in the information technology field.

Like the "squeaky wheel" that gets greased, the person who sticks with something that is important and does not get easily discouraged, gets the job done.

Learning to accommodate or lessen inflexible thinking

It is also important to help those with autism manage their inner inflexibilities to reduce their stress. Reasonable accommodations can be made in most settings to help a child with autism learn to tolerate change, but the child needs to learn how to manage situations that call for flexibility.

Help your child learn to advocate for his or her accommodations by:

  • Making a list of helpful considerations such as the time needed to adapt to changes in routines
  • Helping with writing a script for requesting accommodations; and
  • Role-playing scenarios if accommodations may or may not be granted.

It is also important to praise the positive while offering advice on how to manage the need for change

  • When a child fixates on minutia, remind the child that his/her point "is a very important detail of what is happening, but let's look at what else is going on here."
  • "I love that you are so interested in that detail, but let's give it another minute of your attention and then move on to something else."

Model flexible thinking, patience

Leading by example is an overarching goal of parenthood. This comes into play often as parents have to adapt to everyone in the family's changing needs and schedules as well as unexpected or frustrating events, demands, etc.

While parents tend to manage these occurrences in silence or with their partners only, it is important to verbalize and exemplify such occurrences with your child with autism. These serve as perfect examples of putting rules into practice. The more often this is shown and/or discussed, the less intimidating it will appear for your child to attempt to manage his/her own unexpected encounters.

It can help to use phrases that can be adopted by your child such as:

  • "Always have a Plan B"
  • Play the "What if…" game to plan for first reactions if such a scenario occurs

Always try to maintain an approach to these tasks with fun and creativity because if they are seen as negative, the child will likely take them as criticism and apply self-fault. The end result of such a negative feeling could be even more dislike of flexibility.

To learn more about how Centria Autism can help you and your family navigate a diagnosis and insurance verification, or treatment of Applied Behavior Analysis Therapy, please contact our team of specialists at (855) 423-4629.

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