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9 Ways to Improve Cognitive Flexibility And Reduce Rigid Behavior

What’s inside this article: Strategies that help children with autism to think more flexibly and ways to help reduce the impact of rigid thinking on day to day life such as coping strategies and coping tools.

Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links.

Rigid behavior and thinking are part of autism’s diagnostic criteria. At times, this interferes with kids’ lives, making them get “stuck” or triggering meltdowns when things don’t go as expected.

However, there are many strategies that help reduce rigid behavior and encourage flexible thinking, or reduce its impact on day to day life.

Rigidity vs. Flexibility

People who are “flexible” are able to:

  • see different perspectives
  • consider different options
  • easily adjust their plans when things don’t go as expected

In contrast, people who are “rigid” see things as absolute. Rules, regulations, expectations, and plans are expected to be followed completely and accurately. Variations from the normal are extremely distressing and may lead to meltdowns. 

Rigidity is a hallmark personality trait of individuals with autism. 

This type of thinking often leads to the person applying rigid rules to situations that require variability and flexibility.

However, rules and regulations (especially social rules) rarely apply rigidly, without variation across situations and settings.

Rigid thinking leads to:

  • Anxiety
  • Misreading situations
  • Out of place behavior
  • The need to control all situations to match their expectations
  • Anger or meltdowns when things don’t go as planned

Impact of Cognitive Rigidity

The anxiety that’s caused by this type of rigid, inflexible thinking can cause many behavior challenges in autistic children. When the world doesn’t go exactly the way our children expect it, they can meltdown.

Rigid thinking leads to challenging behaviors such as:

  • Actively resists any form of change
  • Attempts to control all situations
  • Resistance to following the lead of others – viewed as strongly oppositional behavior or pathological demand avoidance
  • Repetitive self-stimulation (stemming – such as hand flapping, picking, pacing, throat clearing, etc)
  • Insistence on following strict, ritualistic routines
  • Difficulty moving on from strong negative feelings

Related: How to Provide Structure so Your Child Thrives

As a parent who may not always understand this behavior, it’s important to remember that for many autistic children, this level of rigidity actually makes them feel safe.

Any uncertainty causes major stress.

They are not doing this intentionally to be oppositional. But, I know it can feel that way when you’re living it.

You may notice this behavior rigidity in your child’s play sequences. They may expect pretend play to unfold in a certain manner, and become annoyed or withdrawn if the play sequence is altered by peers or adults.

You may also notice this at home with your child’s eating, or dressing routines. Or they may insist on the placements of certain objects – either having things in a very specific place or lining up objects.

These behaviors are difficult to change because they serve as a defense mechanism to prevent anxiety and stress.

Your goal as a parent should not be to force change. However, it will benefit your child to learn flexible thinking strategies and healthy ways to manage their anxiety.

What is Cognitive Flexibility?

Cognitive flexibility is the awareness of the fact that every problem or situation has a number of solutions or appropriate responses.

Any time we problem-solve or try to analyze and understand the opinions and perspectives of others we are using cognitive flexibility.

Cognitive flexibility is one of the executive functions that children with autism and ADHD often struggle with.

Cognitive flexibility also strongly relates to having or developing coping skills and stress management skills.

It’s also the brain’s ability to switch from thinking about one thing to thinking about something else quickly. This is why kids can some times get “stuck” on one thing and aren’t able to switch it off or be redirected. 

How to Reduce Rigidity & Improve Flexible Thinking

How to Reduce Rigidity and Improve Flexible Thinking - Autistic Children - Rigid behavior and thinking are part of autism's diagnostic criteria. At times, this interferes with kids' lives, making them get "stuck" or triggering meltdowns when things don't go as expected. #Autism #ADHD #ToddlerDevelopment #ChildDevelopment

There are strategies that encourage more flexible thinking, and also tools that you can use to help your child be more tolerant to change.

This helps reduce cognitive rigidity and improves flexible thinking skills.

1. Explain What is Happening

First of all, it’s important to be aware that rigid behaviors are often a result of your child not understanding the world around them – especially social norms, and other peoples’ intentions and perspectives.

Explicitly explain situations, expectations, or other people’s actions to help your child understand. Be clear and detailed, so there’s no room for confusion or doubt. 

For example, Your child notices that the teacher gave their classmate detention for coming late one day. However, on another day a different student comes to class late and the teacher doesn’t mind (because she was already informed that the student had an appointment that morning).

Your child may not understand why, or even become very upset, that there were two different outcomes for students breaking the same “rule”.

You would need to explicitly explain to your child that sometimes there are reasonable excuses to arrive late for class, such as an appointment, and in those circumstances, you should let the teacher know and then it’s okay to arrive late.

2. Use a Calendar

Purchase a calendar that has enough room in each block to write what will be happening that day. Go through and write down family members’ birthdays, holidays, days when there is no school, appointments, etc. 

Teach your child to check the calendar every morning to see if anything different is happening. If they ask you questions about when events are coming up, refer them to the calendar to check.

This helps prepare them for change, while the calendar shows very concretely when events are happening. This type of concrete information is often helpful in alleviating the anxiety that surrounds unexpected events. 

3. Create a Change Board

Some situations and changes cannot be predicted and recorded on a calendar. For these circumstances, you can use a “change board”. 

Purchase a magnetic whiteboard to hang on the fridge. Record anything happening that day that is outside of your child’s regular routine.

Teach your child to check the change board every day along with the calendar.  Leave the board blank unless there is a change in routine.  

This is useful for situations like school cancellations, visitors coming over, grocery shopping trips, etc. 

4. Encourage Flexible Thinking With Games

Try some of the following game ideas to promote cognitive flexibility.

> What is this?

Take a “regular” object and see how many different things you and your child can pretend it is. You may have seen this on the show “Whose Line is It Anyway”

For example, a funnel – You can pretend it is a party hat, a trumpet, a unicorn horn, an ice cream cone, etc. 

> Make up new rules for games

Because children with rigid thinking have trouble seeing that there’s more than one way to do things you can help them become more comfortable with that concept by changing the rules to a game.

For example, set up a game of snakes and ladders, but instead of going up the ladders and down the snakes, play the opposite way. Climbing up the snakes and down the ladders. 

> Matching games with different matching rules

Use matching and sorting games to help your child understand that things can categorically fit into more than one group. This can help them with using different perspectives to look at similar situations.

For example, the Learning Resources Super Sorting Set includes activity cards that encourage flexible thinking with different sorting rules. 

For example, first have your child sort the items based on color, then have them regroup them and sort them by shape.

Matching games with different matching rules can help improve cognitive flexibility by helping children practice changing their train of thought based on the circumstances.

> “Pack my bag”

Give hypothetical scenarios and have your child  “pack their bag” for the occasion.

For example, get them to pack their bag to go to the beach – they would need a towel, sunscreen, a hat, and a bathing suit. 

Then get them to pack their bag to go skiing. The bag should look very different – now they need a snowsuit, mittens, hat, boots, etc.  

5. Try Doing Everyday Tasks Differently

If your child prefers to do everyday things in the same order and the same way, try encouraging small changes to help your child adapt to different options. 

You can have your child “pick” a way to change their everyday tasks. Try making it into a game or challenge. This will help your child feel they still have some control.

If necessary you can use reinforcements to encourage your child to try out these new changes. Introduce changes slowly and let your child have choices – this will help them feel more in control and help with anxiety.

For example, if every night before bed your child brushes their teeth and then puts on their pajamas, ask them to put on their pajamas first and then brush their teeth.

If you’re heading to the store and they are old enough, ask them to help decide on a different route to take to the grocery store.

6. Brainstorm Together

I was once told that in order to problem-solve, you must be able to think of at least two possible solutions to your problem. If your child has rigid thinking that task can be difficult. 

Work on making brainstorms together to help your child think about different options and improve problem-solving skills. Start with easy situations and build up to more challenging problems, or even real problems your child’s currently facing.

For example, you can brainstorm “What can we have for lunch?” and have your child come up with different possible lunch foods such as soup, grilled cheese sandwich, mac and cheese, rice, etc. 

Then as a more challenging situation, “What can you do if someone is bothering you” and help your child brainstorm solutions such as, walk away, ask them to please stop, or tell a grown-up.

Here’s my brainstorm for increasing cognitive flexibility:

How can I reduce rigid behavior - How to improve cognitive flexibility

7. Frontloading

Frontloading is a way of preparing your child ahead of time for what to expect, and also for possible scenarios and what they can do.

Before outings and events, we talk about what to expect, what things might happen, what things might be hard for the kids, and what they can do while they’re there if they’re struggling.

It’s not perfect because you can’t cover every possible scenario and outcome. But you can prepare your child for likely situations.

For example, before a school dance, we talked about things like:

  • It will be crowded and loud
  • They may play a song you don’t like
  • Someone could bump into you
  • There might be a long line up for the canteen
  • You may try to talk to someone and they won’t be able to hear you over the music
  • You may not be able to see me immediately but I will be there the whole time
  • It may be hot in the gym

Then we talked about what we can do in those different situations. We cover things like going outside for a break. We agree on a “spot” outside for breaks where he can go without asking permission first in case he can’t see me.

We also talked about how to get someone’s attention if they don’t hear you, who to go to for help if needed, locations of water fountains and washrooms, etc.

Frontloading helps kids prepare for multiple possibilities instead of potentially getting stuck on one, expected outcome.

8. Reassure Their Safety

It might seem hard to understand, but for children with autism, when things change unexpectedly it can make them question everything.

They may feel as though they have no control over their world and begin to question their safety.

During meltdowns and times of stress, the instinctual regions of the brain take over that exist to keep us safe. Kids can go into “survival mode”. There is a perceived threat.

Reassure your child that they are safe, that you are here, and that you will help them through it. Comfort them through any distress that happens with unexpected changes.

9. Praise Them for Showing Flexibility

Make sure that anytime you do see your child showing flexible behavior, you praise them!

Point out what they did, and acknowledge how challenging that probably was for them, and let them know you’re proud of them.

It’s important to build your child’s confidence and they’ll become more resilient in stressful situations.


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