How can I help my autistic child learn more flexible thinking?

Emma is a nine-year-old ballet dancer, coloring book enthusiast, and chocolate lover. She loves the Chronicles of Narnia, the smell of fresh-baked sugar cookies, and following recipes on her favorite food websites.

Emma, who was diagnosed with autism at six years old, has turned into quite a cook, and never – ever – likes deviating from the recipes as she reads them.

Her mother, Jayce, who’s an avid cook herself, says she’s been doing her best to teach Emma to embrace her creativity and not to be afraid to experiment.

“I respect that she respects rules,” Jayce says with a smile, “and I recognize that she’s not being difficult. It’s actually amusing to my husband and me sometimes when our friends tell us that their kids just refuse to follow the rules. Well, our little girl refuses to break the rules, so…”

Inflexible thinking, or rigid behavior, are part of autism; many kids with autism spectrum disorder are triggered when rules and regulations are broken. In some mild cases, it doesn’t pose a serious problem, but in more severe situations, kids with rigid thinking can’t see other people’s perspectives or imagine different options. They may have meltdowns or feel in emotional or even physical pain when things don’t go as they’d expected. Everything feels absolute – any kind of change can be frightening or frustrating.

Rigid thinking can lead to unwanted behavior, like anger or anxiety. The child with rigid thinking may want to control any or all situations they find themselves in, resist other people’s authority if these authority figures are the ones who are asking for the change, and may not be able to move on from their strong, negative emotions. They may stim, or they may insist that the rules – as they know them – are followed without alteration.

While many people think of this as a sign of difficulty, it’s not. Children with autism who practice rigid behavior or seem to have inflexible thinking are doing so because they feel safest this way. Changes in rules, routines, structure or expectation causes stress.

But as a parent, we can imagine what you’re thinking. You know what life is like and things don’t always go as planned. So you want to help your child become more flexible, so that they’re prepared for when things don’t go as they thought or hoped they would.

In order to help them with this flexibility, there are a few strategies that can help.

Tell the story. When we explain what’s happening, it definitely can help ease your child’s mind. The reason they’re rigid to begin with is that this the norm for them; this is what they understand, which is why this is how they feel safe. By explaining to your child what’s going on, by explicitly dictating the situation at hand, you’re reducing your child’s confusion and fear.

Make a “change board.” While we can’t always predict what’s going to change, we can acknowledge when it does. Put up a magnetic calendar in the kitchen or the play area, and anything that’s happened on the current day that required change gets a magnetic or a check mark. Together, check the change board and show your child what changed that day, and how the day has turned out despite the change.

Play the game – and do it differently. During the day, every day, try doing tiny little things just a little bit differently – enough for your child to notice, but not so big that the changes are jarring and scary. Even better, ask your child to choose to do something a little differently. For example, if they always use the blue mug for their morning milk, ask them what color cup they’d like today. This gives them a sense of control.

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