People who are flexible are able to see different perspectives, consider different options, and can easily shift gears when things don’t go as expected. Generally speaking people who are flexible are by the far the happiest people. They can go with the flow, and bend with the wind. They don’t get easily anxious, and have minimal difficulty seeing different options or trying different ways. They don’t seem to be disturbed by simple snags, irritating people, or experiencing failures along the way.
To live successfully in our world, you must be flexible!
In order to be flexible we need to understand that everything is relative based on the demands of the given situation and the options available to us. We all have known people who hold by rigid beliefs, even in the face of strong evidence against those ideas. We are all different in the degree of flexible thinking. Most people on the spectrum have difficulty with flexible thinking. Rigid, inflexible thinking is at the heart of much of their anxiety. Listed below are some of the qualities of rigid/inflexible thinking.
- Autism thinking is very concrete, literal, and absolute.
- Rules, regulations, and expectations are black and white, right or wrong, with little room for interpretation.
- Thinking can be rigid and inflexible, with little tolerance for variability.
- Variability creates insecurity and anxiety.
- Child may hold onto rigid beliefs and expectations, and meltdown if things are not going as expected.
- Child feels safer with concrete, predictable rules and laws that remain constant.
When your thinking is very “literal” and tied to the facts, thinking tends to be very “black and white”, “either or” and “right or wrong”, with little room for grey area. This type of thinking leads to the person applying rigid rules to situations that require variability and flexibility. Rarely do rules and regulations (especially social rules) apply rigidly, without variation across situations and settings. Unfortunately, when you cannot read the fluctuations between situations, then you cannot adjust your thinking, and must hold tight to your rules and expectations. Our world is way too relative for most people on the spectrum. What applies in one situation, doesn’t necessarily apply to the next situation. This results in anxiety, misreading situations, out of place behaviour, the need to control all situations to match their expectation, and extreme anger when things don’t go their way. Things must be the same and stay the same, each time, or the world falls apart.
Black and White Thinking
- Things are either right or wrong, good or bad, with little in between.
- Cannot see grey area.
- Needs one right answer.
- Difficulty with multiple alternatives.
- Difficulty with evaluating “good enough”.
- Inflexible, hard to change mind.
Black and white thinking consists of two extremes on a continuum of variability. When you cannot read the gray area, you need to have one right answer. For them, multiple options that need to be appraised and evaluated can cause extreme anxiety. They prefer one right way of doing something. That way, once they learn it, it is constant. However, most of the world does not operate that easily.
Many of these children are strong perfectionists, who meltdown if they are not perfect at something the first time. They are unable to evaluate when a response is “good enough!” and must get it perfect. Hence they are rarely satisfied, and may spend countless hours trying to get it right. They have a very difficult time changing their mind, even if what they are doing is not working. They may freak if you try to interrupt them, or offer them a different way.
For some of these children their rigid/inflexible thinking is often based on rigid belief systems, called cognitive distortions, which taint everything they do. We all can relate to one of more of these cognitive distortions.
- Catastrophizing: Exaggerates the importance, or negative aspects of things. “It is horrible that…..”
- Over-generalizing: Views one negative event as a never ending defeat. “I suck!”, “I will never be able to ……”
- All or Nothing Thinking: Black and white thinking. I have to be perfect or I am a failure.
- Mental Filter: Pick out one single negative detail and obsess about it; darkening the whole event.
- Emotional Reasoning: Negative emotions can overwhelm rationale reasoning
Cognitive Distortions are rigid, inflexible ways of viewing the world. They are at the base of much anxiety, whether on the spectrum or not. You can recognize these cognitive styles in all of us to some degree, but more exaggerated in autism spectrum disorders. Which ones apply to your child)? Black and white thinking leans itself to cognitive distortions.
Related Behavior Challenges
As you can imagine, this rigid, inflexible thinking can lead to a host of behavior challenges. The anxiety that rigid thinking generates can be expressed in the following behavior challenges.Related Behaviors
- Rigidly seeks predictable, static routine/activities.
- Actively resists change.
- Must control all activity & interactions.
- Seeks rigid routine and self controlled activities to avoid chaos/confusion.
- Strong resistance to follow the lead of others.
- Compulsive, repetitive, ritualistic, self absorbed, oppositional, self stimulation and tantrums.
Of course this rigid/inflexible thinking results in a lot of the acting out behavior that we see in our children. When the world doesn’t go exactly the way they view it, they can meltdown very quickly. Now, the biggest problems occur when a rigid/inflexible child meets a rigid/inflexible adult! All “hell” breaks out. The more rigid the child, the more flexible the adult has to be. Since the adult supposedly has better self control and is “wiser”, they should become more flexible to hold off major confrontation.
For many of you your children must control all activity and interaction to feel safe. Uncertainty creates strong anxiety, and they resist following your lead. To keep sanity in the household, you usually have to give in and follow the child’s lead. This rigid/inflexible thinking can control a whole household, holding everyone in it captive.
In addition to sensory issues, rigid/inflexible thinking is at the heart of much of the anxiety experienced by those on the spectrum. It creates major stress, both for the child and for the people around him. The world has to be his way, or it crumbles. This inflexible thinking can be very difficult to change. The adherence to rigid beliefs, rules, and rituals helps reduce the chaos and confusion. It also serves as a defense mechanism to reduce uncertainty and anxiety. To help teach greater flexibility we must start where the child is at, help them feel safe, and then gradually stretch their comfort zone. The following posts will suggestions ways to promote flexible thinking, reducing both anxiety and challenging behaviors.
Aspergers Children and “Rigidity”
One frequently observed feature of Aspergers (high functioning autism) is rigidity in thought and behavior. Rigidity seems to pervade so many areas of the lives of children with Aspergers.
Novel situations often produce anxiety for these children. They may be uncomfortable with change in general. This can result in behavior that may be viewed as oppositional and can lead to emotional meltdowns. This general rigidity is what parents, neighbors, and teachers often label as stubbornness.
Children with Aspergers may have many fears in addition to those related to unexpected changes in schedules. Large groups of people and complex, open environments like school hallways, cafeterias, playgrounds, or bus stations tend to overwhelm children with Aspergers. They may also be overwhelmed by unexpected academic challenge or by having too many things to remember or too many tasks to perform.
They often have limited frustration tolerance and may display tantrums when thwarted. Routines and rules are very important to kids with Aspergers in providing a sense of needed order and structure, and hence, predictability about the world.
Another form or rigidity is moralism, a kind of self-righteous and inflexible adherence to nonnegotiable moral principles that is often out of context with practical reality. An example might be a youngster who criticizes a parent who has run a yellow traffic light when the parent is on the way to the emergency room for treatment of a severe cut or burn.
Rigidity is also found in the inflexibility over matters that are of little consequence, such as arguing about whether the route to the emergency room was the quickest when it might be the difference between a few hundred yards by choosing to take one turn over another. In the classroom, this may be found when an Aspergers student fixates on a perception that a teacher has not enforced a rule consistently. Such fixations on moral correctness can escalate and interfere with availability for instruction.
Reasons for Rigidity—
- A misunderstanding or misinterpretation of another’s action.
- A violation of a rule or ritual – changing something from the way it is supposed to be. Someone is violating a rule and this is unacceptable to the Aspergers youngster.
- Anxiety about a current or upcoming event, no matter how trivial it might appear to you.
- Immediate gratification of a need.
- Lack of knowledge about how something is done. By not knowing how the world works with regard to specific situations and events, the youth will act inappropriately instead.
- Other internal issues, such as sensory, inattention (ADHD), oppositional tendency (ODD), or other psychiatric issues may also be causes of behavior.
- The need to avoid or escape from a non-preferred activity, often something difficult or undesirable. Often, if your son/daughter cannot be perfect, he/she does not want to engage in an activity.
- The need to control a situation.
- The need to engage in or continue a preferred activity, usually an obsessive action or fantasy.
- Transitioning from one activity to another. This is usually a problem because it may mean ending an activity before he is finished with it.
Many Aspergers children have a hard time with changes. The reason for this behavior can be caused by anxiety, and this anxiety results in rigidity.
Here are the reasons Aspergers kids are so resistant to any kind of change:
- anxiety about a current or upcoming event (e.g., the start of school)
- not understanding how the world works
- not understanding the actions of someone else
- other issues like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD)
- reluctant to participate in an activity the child cannot do perfectly or an activity that is difficult for him.
- someone changing a circumstance or rule that has been established
- the need for instant satisfaction, the child may not understand delayed gratification
- the need to control a situation
- the need to keep doing the activity that the child likes (obsession or fantasy)
- transitioning to another activity, this is especially hard if the activity is not finished
The cause of anxiety or rigidity in your Aspergers child has a lot to do with the fact that she does not have the ability to understand the world like we do.
Because of the Aspergers neuro-cognitive disorder, she:
- does not “take in” what is going on around her
- does not know how to “read between the lines”
- does not understand implied directions
- does not understand social cues
- needs explicit instructions
- will have difficulty understanding rules of society
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