Rigid Thinking in Autism: 8 Ways to Teach Flexibility to Autistic Children

Rigid or inflexible thinking and behavior are one of the core characteristics of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This can manifest in an autistic child having an unbending opinion on certain topics or a child wanting to stick to the same routine, even when switching things up could be more pleasant or efficient.  

Some examples of this are when an autistic individual wants irrefutable proof before being willing to change their opinion or consider shifting their thought pattern. This inability to ask for more viewpoints or consider others’ experiences relevant to a topic can affect shared social communication.

This rigidity can also be seen in a child wanting to take the same route to a certain place every time or asking to have the same type of food for lunch every day, which can result in nutritional deficits.

Some of these examples sum up my grandson’s rigidity to a tee! When very young and still minimally verbal, a sudden change of plans while already in the car and en route to a familiar place would trigger an immediate meltdown. As soon as I’d take a left instead of a right turn to where he thought we were going, he’d know something was different—and his reaction was instant.

For as long as I can remember, he also wanted the same food in his lunch box. When young, it was a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, and today, in his teens, he is still quite set on having a ham-and-cheese sandwich for lunch every day. In years past, even suggesting I pack something different for him was met with resistance, and depending on the day, could result in a full-blown breakdown.

When this happens, it is important to remember that these responses are not because the child is misbehaving. What may seem to us like overreactions, stem from an autistic child being overwhelmed with emotional dysregulation. Their rigid minds struggle to understand, and they do not know how to adapt to a sudden change as quickly or easily as neurotypical children might, even when those changes are explained to them.

This ability of individuals with autism to keenly focus on certain activities, topics, or routines is not necessarily always a bad thing. Their rigidity can benefit them in some aspects of daily functioning and can lead to positive outcomes. The fact that they can be stuck on tiny details, and can focus or fixate on certain activities, topics, or routines can help them become experts in their field of interest. Temple Grandin is a great example of a person with autism who became a highly valued expert in animal science because of her deeply focused knowledge of the topic.

Still, while sticking to a routine and being hyper-focused can help autistic individuals to be successful, becoming too entrenched in certain thought patterns can become a hindrance and result in difficulty adapting to changing situations. Helping them to step outside of their rigid boundaries when young will better prepare them for the unpredictable, reduce the stress and anxiety they experience when there is a change in routine, and ultimately help them to enjoy life more.

Here are 8 ways I’ve used to teach flexibility to my grandson and other children on the autism spectrum with good results:

  1. Model Flexible Thinking and Patience

Parents and teachers are in a perfect position to model flexibility and patience as they adapt to changing needs and schedules and unexpected and sometimes frustrating events and demands. While most adults tend to handle sudden interruptions in routine silently or share their frustration with a partner or spouse only, to help a child with autism learn flexibility it is important to verbalize and demonstrate such experiences. The more often they see parents and teachers patiently adapt to change, and the more it is talked about, the less intimidating it will become to the child to try to manage their own unexpected encounters.

You can use a phrase like, “It’s always good to have a Plan B”, or you can play a “What if…?” game to plan for first reactions in case of a sudden change. “What if it rains today and recess gets canceled?”

Try to meet any sudden changes in tasks or plans with creativity and a positive attitude because a negative reaction may cause the child to conclude that the change was bad, which can result in an even greater dislike of flexibility.

  • Frontload As Much As Possible

Frontloading, or preparing a child or student for changes ahead of time, can head off negative reactions and meltdowns at the pass.  

When frontloading, explain what’s going to change and what you expect of them. For example, “We’re going to recess in half an hour. In 15 minutes, we need to put toys away and jackets on, okay?” Then give a five-minute warning before it is time to get ready to ease into the transition and remind the child of what’s expected. Autistic children often have limited attention spans, so using few words and a brief heads-up is often enough. Written or visual aids are also a great way to reinforce frontloading for transitions or changes.

Always take the child’s personality into account when deciding when to start frontloading. Some children like to be warned hours ahead of time, but for others, this could cause anxiety.

  • Mix Things Up a Bit

To help an autistic child to become more flexible in daily routines, gently introduce one small change at a time that will get them used to different ways of doing things.

For example, if the child always wants to drink their milk out of the same cup, once a day offer juice in a different cup.  Or “explore” three different routes to get to school or a familiar place during the weekend, then during the week, offer a choice of which way to travel to the same destination, mixing it up as much as possible.

There are many other simple things you can do to practice flexibility throughout the day. If you have “assigned” seats at the dining table or in the classroom, you can switch seats around, or you could have a day when you eat dinner for breakfast and breakfast for dinner. Small changes like this can be fun and go a long way in building flexibility.

  • Play Games

Another fun way to practice flexibility is by playing games that provide a chance to change the rules. For example, while playing Snakes and Ladders™ with younger children, occasionally say that you are changing the rules. The objective is to show a child that transitions and changes can be fun rather than anxiety-provoking. For older children, you can change the rules while playing UNO™, card games, or other games they like to play.

  • Ask Others About Their Opinions or Experiences

For those who struggle with rigid thinking, during a conversation on any topic, encourage them to ask at least one other person to share their opinion or experience. Encourage them to say, “This is what I think, but what do you think?” or “What is your experience with this? What do you like or dislike about it?”  Even the acknowledgment that looking for others’ input is valuable may in itself be a step forward for an autistic child.

Always offer praise for the positive while offering advice. When a child fixates on fine details, remind them that their point of view is a very important aspect of what is happening, but that it’s important to look at other aspects too.

  • Praise Based on Effort

Provide praise based on effort instead of praise based on the level of results. Whenever your child or student puts in a little extra effort or works beyond the point of frustration, praise and acknowledge the amount of effort they applied. “You worked very hard when trying to solve that math problem!”  We often tend to focus on productivity or the result rather than the amount of energy a child devotes to a task. By building pride in the extra effort, rigidity is likely to lessen.

  • Practice, Practice, Practice

Like any skill, learning to be more flexible becomes easier with practice. Experiment to find the right activities and strategies that work for your child or student and then practice with them as much as possible. Be sure to practice in small steps, and never force the child to continue an activity when you notice they lose interest, become bored, get frustrated, or are distracted. The goal is to provide brief practice without overloading the child with extensive demands. You will be pleasantly surprised by how many meltdowns you can avoid by practicing flexibility for even a few minutes here and there during the day.

  • Positively Reinforce and Reward Flexibility

 Praise is powerful. Commend your child or adolescent each time you notice they are being flexible. Be sure to be specific by naming it, pointing it out, and reinforcing it. You may even want to start a reward system. For example, your child could earn pennies, nickels, or quarters in a jar for flexibility. Once the jar is full the child could choose a family outing to their favorite restaurant for a celebratory meal, or another favorite activity. Specifically praising and celebrating the ways your child is becoming more flexible is critical so that they start relating to flexibility as something fun rather than frightening.

Rigid thinking is a common characteristic in children with autism. While the ability to keenly focus on details, activities, topics, and tasks can be an asset in developing expertise and being successful in their field of interest, inflexibility can also be a hindrance to learning how to adapt to unexpected changes and situations. Starting early to practice flexibility will help prepare autistic children and students for the unpredictable, reduce stress and anxiety, and ultimately help them to enjoy life more.

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