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Rigidity in your child's behaviour can hinder their learning progression

As we are probably aware, children on the spectrum tend to be rigidity-prone. Rigidity refers to the need to do things in a certain way, a fixed order, for instance always drying hands with paper towel after washing and resistance towards other ways of drying such as tissues or hand towels. You may have encountered situations that are a result of rigidity. Encouraging and giving in to these may do more harm than good in the long run, even though sticking to a routine may momentarily provide some ease. Of course, routine is good for everyone and facilitates a lot of processes. However when rigidity gets in the way of learning new things, that might be detrimental. Taking control of the situation can allow them to slowly realise things are not strictly black or white, and help increase their tolerance when things do not go the way they want.

For example, if there was some construction works and the child has to take a different path to school, or he only eats a specific meal every day and that store happens to be closed. The child could be very resistant to these changes, which might in turn lead to a meltdown. While it is natural for them to desire control and regulation of their environment, we have to intervene so that they are not overwhelmed by anger and insecurity the moment something does not go the way they are used to. Breaking that rigidity is therefore encouraged, not in an absolute and restrictive manner but by taking small steps or not even letting it develop to begin with.

The reason behind most inflexibilities is that children with autism are pretty quick to form patterns, helping themselves cope and feel comfort in familiarity. Therefore, do make sure that you do not always ask a set of questions in the same order. An example of rigidity could be: after a child has learned some personal information-type questions like “What’s your name?”, “how old are you?” and “What is mummy’s name”, you might realise that rearranging the order of the questions may cause them to reply “5 years old” to the question regarding their mother’s name. This tells us that they were either not attending or did not truly understand the questions.

In the case of learning new skills in an intervention program, therapists need to be on the constant lookout for when a child is only answering a question out of repetition rather than because he has truly understood the question. It is only through comprehension that the child can apply what he learnt to a variety of situations (generalise).

Sometimes, as immediate carers, it is possible to unwittingly contribute to rigidity if that seems like a good way to keep things on track and let day-to-day operations flow smoothly. This is alright in certain situations, but some behaviors may need to be corrected and intervened before the child becomes too fixated on it. Note that prolonged and repeated exposure to that behavior will only strengthen the association in the child’s brain, so the earlier we correct inflexibilities, the easier.

Another example is when a child tries to do a receptive task even before you have given the instruction, because he has been repeating that action many times or has predicted what you were going to ask based on past patterns. Hence, as therapists, we have to be extremely alert to these tiny details! With careful observation, we can deduce whether the child succeeds in tasks only because they were quick to pick up on patterns, or because they have understood the requirements of the task. 

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