How to Reduce Rigid Behavior and Encourage Flexible Thinking
Individuals with autism regularly struggle with rigid behavior. The opposite of rigid behavior is flexible behavior. Therefore, this post is about strategies to encourage more flexible thinking.
People who are “flexible” are able to see different perspectives, consider different options, and able to easily adjust their plan when things don’t go as expected.
People who are “rigid” see things as absolute. R
Rigidity is a hallmark personality trait of individuals with autism.
This type of thinking 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.
This results in anxiety, misreading situations, out of place behavior, the need to control all situations to match their expectation, and even extreme anger when things don’t go their way.
Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links.
Impact of Rigid Behavior and Thinking
The anxiety that’s caused by this type of rigid, inflexible thinking can cause many behavior challenges in
Rigid thinking leads to challenging behaviors such as:
- Actively resists any form of change
- Attempts to control all situations
- Resistance to follow the lead of others – viewed as strongly oppositional behavior
- Repetitive self-stimulation
- Insistence on following strict, ritualistic routines
- Difficulty moving on from strong negative feelings
For many children with autism this level of rigid behavior actually makes them feel safe. Any uncertainty causes major stress.
You may notice this behavior rigidity in your child’s play sequences. They may expect playing to unfold in a certain manner, and become annoyed or withdrawn if the play sequence is altered by peers or adults.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 can be very difficult to change because they serve as a defense mechanism to prevent anxiety and stress. This often stems from not understanding how the world works and not understanding the perspectives of other people.
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 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
Strategies for Managing Rigid Behavior and Thinking
There are strategies that can encourage more flexible thinking, and also tools that you can use to help your child be more tolerant to change. These can help improve rigid behaviors.
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 a 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.
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.
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
This is useful for situations like school cancellations, visitors coming over, grocery shopping trips, etc.
Encourage Flexible Thinking With Games
Try some of the following game ideas to promote more flexible thinking.
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, lay out a set of blocks that are different colors and sizes. First have your child group the blocks together based on color, then have them regroup the blocks based on size.
I recommend the Learning Resources Super Sorting Set which includes activity cards that encourage flexible thinking with different sorting rules.
“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.
Try Doing Everyday Tasks Differently
If your child prefers to do everyday things in the same order and same way, try encouraging small changes to help your child adapt to different options.
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.
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 brain storms 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 brain storm “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: