"Create purposeful, small problems within your daily life to help your child practice problem-solving, and appropriate coping skills."
Bottom-Up Processing & Rigid Thinking
Temple Grandin, an award-winning author and speaker with autism, has provided many insightful observations concerning individuals with autism and the benefits and struggles of being “visual thinkers." Sometimes visual thinkers engage with stimuli in a bottom-up fashion, which means they are missing the “big picture.” Focusing on the small details can create an individual to become “stuck” on something that might not matter in the grand scheme of things. Perseverating on little details can build rigid thinking: the lack of flexibility to adapt to changes, transitions, and new ways of talking and playing.
Struggling With Flexibility
There are times when cognitive inflexibility can be beneficial; it can promote perseverance, endurance, and tenacity. So what’s wrong with rigid thinking? Don’t we all have our own ideas, preferences, and favorite games and topics? Parents and teachers often report that there are many issues your child can encounter because of the inability to adapt to change and new experiences.
Society tells us we should wear appropriate clothing to specific events, and sometimes children or individuals on the spectrum may insist on wearing clothing that may not be particularly appropriate for the occasion. For example, a child may have problems with dressing because they are entirely fixated on the fact that they must always wear long pants, or insisting on wearing a particular jacket despite the nature of the weather outside. Unexpected changes to clothing requirements (like funerals or new school uniforms) can create frustration for both child and parent.
Food routines can also be affected by rigid thinking. Some children may only eat orange food or food cut up in squares or circles. It is essential to distinguish whether the food aversions (or arrangement aversions) are related to sensory sensitivities. Teaching your child to be “flexible” around food will not be functional if they cannot physically tolerate the texture of the food.
Anxiety and stress can arise when routines that are familiar and predictable are suddenly changed. Here are seven ways you can encourage cognitive flexibility in your child or student:
Schedules & Structure
Even neurotypical people follow schedules, and sometimes when an unexpected event pops up during our day, it can be entirely stressful. A visual schedule is the best way to communicate to your child what their day will look like, and what to expect. This schedule can look different for each person who may need it, but it should be concrete and predictable to diminish any anxiety about the day’s events.
Part of creating structure includes making sure you are streamlining activities and learning. I once worked in a second-grade classroom with two boys who were on varying areas of the autism spectrum. Every day the teacher would interrupt the mini-lecture, have each table group place their writing folders and pencils on the desk, and then return to the rug to finish up the lesson. I believe that this teacher hoped the children would start writing right away when they saw their tools on their desks when the lesson was finished. These two boys would often melt-down after the first transition; they thought when it was time to get out their writing folder, it was time to write. And they weren’t wrong. The lesson to take away here is to make sure you are eliminating any unnecessary transitions for clarity purposes.
Prepping, or what some teachers might call “front-loading,” is a strategy that is just as important as your schedule implementation is. For some individuals, this may look like a parent-led discussion of their day the night before or in the morning. This predictability can reduce stress and gives your child some time to process and understand what their day will entail. Prepping is a strategy teachers can use in school as well and works exceptionally well for days that might look a little differently than usual (such as Picture Day, Hearing/Vision testing, and other occasional school day variations). With more significant changes to the schedule, you should allow more time and opportunities to prep your child, such as leaving early for a doctor’s appointment or school holidays and celebrations.
Allowing individuals to practice what to do in specific outcomes can help prevent the inability to cope with new situations, and can teach them how to act appropriately. For example, if Mason, a student with Autism, wanted to play with Olivia, who is playing by herself, we can practice what Mason can do if Olivia says “yes,” but we should also prep him on what he should do if she says “no.”
Create purposeful, small problems within your daily life to help your child practice problem-solving, and appropriate coping skills. These can be minor “tweaks” to your schedule, like singing a different hand-washing song or taking a different route home from the grocery store. Make sure you are prepping your child before the change, and encourage while the change is happening. Give praise if they practice their coping skills.
This strategy is fundamental because it builds upon what the child already knows, likes, and expects, but also incorporates some element of change. Some ideas include: switching up small activities within a consistent primary schedule day to day, playing a familiar board game but using a spinner instead of dice or small figurines instead of place markers, or even doing an activity in a non-usual location. Make sure you are offering choices and exposure to a well-rounded selection of activities. The options help with managing control and power struggles, and the exposure balances out any rigid preferences.
This video is a lovely, quick example of how to switch up a “stuck” conversation:
Can a block be a spaceship, or do we only build with them? Maybe a railroad track could be a slide for figurines. Art beads could turn into peas to serve a favorite stuffed animal. Bending the rules around toys and their traditional use can help build flexibility. Some therapists and parents may experience difficulties with their child “accepting” this new way of playing. In my personal experiences, start the “new” play as parallel play, give time to process, and then invite the child to join. Even offering a new piece of “your” toys can non-verbally encourage them to add to the play. Give lots of examples and highly praise when they engage in the “new” way to play.
Teach Coping Skills
Coping Skills will help your child learn how to regulate their emotions to tolerate potential anxiety-creating changes in a functional way. There are hundreds of calming-based coping skills out there, but some easy ones that do not require any special equipment and can be done anywhere is deep breathing, tight self-hugs, pushing hands and palms together, or positive self-talk.
A tool you can use on-the-go is a “change board.” This would ideally be a whiteboard or laminated print-out and dry-erase marker where a parent or teacher can write the upcoming changes to the schedule or activity before it happens.
Help Your Child Conceptualize Cognitive Flexibility
Theory of mind is a concept most toddlers learn between the ages of 3 and 5, but it can be difficult for those on the spectrum to be aware of others’ thoughts, preferences, ideas, and opinions. A way you can strengthen this is by simply joining in on their behaviors, even stimming. By sharing an experience initiated by your child, they may start to establish the connection that other people are aware of their own independent thoughts.
We all have those days when we need to use “Plan B.” The car didn’t start this morning, so you needed to call a friend to hitch a ride to work. You forgot the meat at the grocery store, so you had to pull the frozen pizza out. Discuss your own flexibility skills in the moment with your child. Make sure you express your thoughts and explicitly state how you will be solving your problem. “Oh dear, I forgot to wash my favorite purple shirt for work today. Oh well, I can pick out a different purple shirt and make sure to wash my favorite tonight!” or “Oh man, they are all out of my favorite candy. Hm, this looks good, it’s the same color, and maybe it will taste even better!” It takes time, persistence, and exposure to the new language and problem-solving skills. By utilizing these strategies in your own life, you become a living example to your child and helps them apply this type of thinking in their own life.
Parents of children with autism often worry about how their child will compete and perform in the workplace as an adult. According to Lauren Kenworthy, Ph.D., and John Strang, Psy.D. in their article, “Use Inflexibility to Teach Flexibility,” “[…]a person with brain-based inflexibility is entitled to basic accommodations, like predictable routines, visual activity schedules, elimination of unnecessary transitions, and warnings of upcoming changes.” Working on these issues earlier in life will almost certainly combat complications further down the road. When rigidities have been allowed to be in place for such a long time, it becomes much more difficult to change. As the old saying goes, “Old habits die hard,” and most people can relate to that.
I developed a “change board” that you are welcome to copy and laminate for your personal use. Feel free to adapt or change an element of this board that you feel may make it more appropriate for pre-readers or more visual children.
Learn more about the Son-Rise program, which includes curriculum on cognitive flexibility, here:
https://autismtreatmentcenter.org/what-is-the-son-rise-program/Superflex and the Team of Unthinkables is an excellent curriculum that teaches social awareness and self-regulation. It’s geared toward ages 7-10+ and has personally been a program that has worked well for my students in the past.