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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.

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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. 


  • Can only understand their own perspective
  • Struggle to identify options or problem-solve
  • Become distressed when plans change

Variations from their norm are so distressing they often 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. This is particularly true for kids with pathological demand avoidance.
  • 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
  • Insistence on following strict, ritualistic routines
  • Difficulty moving on from strong negative feelings

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 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 developing coping 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 get “stuck” on one thing and cannot switch it off or be redirected. 

How to Reduce Rigidity & Improve Flexible Thinking

You can improve flexible thinking skills with practice, the same way you can get better at playing a musical instrument by practicing. 

As a parent, there are strategies you can implement that will encourage your child to practice thinking flexibly. There are also tools that you can use to help your child be more tolerant to change, and alleviate anxiety.

Combining these strategies and tools helps reduce cognitive rigidity and improves your child’s flexible thinking skills.

Here are some things you can try. 

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 them better. Be clear and detailed so there’s no room for confusion or doubt. However, be sure you’re explaining in a way that your child can understand.

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 for arriving late for class, such as an appointment, and in those circumstances, you should let the teacher know. Then it’s okay to arrive late.

2. Use a Calendar

  • Purchase a calendar with enough room in each block to write what will happen that day. 
  • Go through and write down family members’ birthdays, holidays, days without 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.
  • Check weekly that your calendar is up-to-date and record plans and changes immediately so that the calendar accurately represents upcoming changes in routines for your child.

Using a calendar like this helps kids prepare 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. For example, a substitute teacher, or soccer practice being canceled due to rain.
  • Teach your child to check the change board and calendar daily. Leave the board blank unless there is a change in routine.  

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 play the opposite way. Instead of going up the ladders and down the snakes, climb 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.

The Learning Resources Super Sorting Set includes activity cards encouraging flexible thinking with different sorting rules. 

For example, first, have your child sort the items based on color, then 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”

For this game, give your child hypothetical scenarios and have them “pack their bag” for the occasion.

For example, get them to pack their bag for 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.

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

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

6. Brainstorm Together

The first step to problem-solving is being 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 sandwiches, mac and cheese, pizza, etc. 

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

Here’s my brainstorm for increasing cognitive flexibility:

An example of using brainstorming as a technique for building flexible thinking skills.

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 if changes arise.

Before outings and events, we talk about what to expect, what might happen, what 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 solutions like:

  • Going outside for a break. We agree on a spot outside for breaks where they can go without asking permission first in case they don’t see me.
  • Bringing ear plugs or noise-reducing headphones and wearing them if the music is too loud.
  • Bringing a bottle of water so if they’re hot and thirsty but the canteen line is long they still have a drink readily available. 
  • An understanding that if someone bumps into you or doesn’t respond to you, it likely isn’t because they’re being rude. 

We also talked about things like:

  • How to get someone’s attention if they don’t hear you, such as by gently tapping their arm.
  • Who to go to for help if needed
  • Locations of washrooms

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 like 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 enter “survival mode” if there is a perceived threat, activating their fight-or-flight instinct

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 and validate their feelings.

9. Praise Them for Showing Flexibility

Ensure that you praise your child when you see your child showing flexible behavior!

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

Building your child’s confidence is important; they’ll become more resilient in stressful situations.

Remember, it’s common for autistic individuals to have rigid thinking problems. However, flexible thinking is a skill that we can practice and improve the same way you improve at playing a musical instrument or a sport by practicing.

There are many ways parents can encourage their kids to practice thinking flexibly and strategies they can implement to alleviate some of the anxiety their children may experience while building this important skill.

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