What is rigidity and how can we improve rigidities in children with ASD?
While keeping an open-mind and being flexible in our thinking is a lesson we all need to learn to adapt to our ever-changing environment, children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) often experience vast challenges in the area of flexibility. That is, they have restricted interests and preference for sameness in behaviour – behavioural rigidity or rigid processing.
These are not due to a defiant or misbehaved child, rather, it’s reactions that arise from feelings of being overwhelmed which causes an "overreaction" to try and delay/avoid the transition to something different altogether (Poljac, Hoofs, Princen & Poljac, 2017). Now, the golden questions – do we need to stop it, and how do we improve it?
What is Behavioural Rigidity?
To answer that, let’s first delve into this idea of behavioural rigidity in children with ASD and get a clearer understanding of what exactly does it mean to show rigidity in your processing and behaviour?
Rigid, inflexible thinking is a common characteristic of individuals with ASD which results in difficulty problem-solving or generating more than one solution to a certain problem. IT is characterized by a desire for predictability, displaying difficulty with unmet expectations, feeling compulsions to do certain things, and in some cases exhibiting perseveration – repetition of words and gestures. Often, it is also termed as a “black-and-white” or “literal and absolute” thinking, where people gravitate towards thinking in one way; quite alike a one-way street.
As such, many with ASD:
Struggle adapting to routine changes – they thrive on consistency
Have difficulty comprehending social expectations – they often take things at face value and have trouble foreseeing how social expectations can change across different situations
May appear as defiant or resistant to change
May experience increased anxiety when asked to view things differently and believe their way of doing things is “improper”
Is There a Need to Change?
Now, I’m sure you’ve heard plenty about the negative aspects of rigidity, so today I’d like to focus a little on the positives too. While rigid thinking impacts many aspects of daily functioning such as social interactions, it can also serve as a benefit. Let’s take a closer look at the optimistic side of your child’s rigid thinking – celebrate the ways that inflexibility is useful!
For example, being able to keenly focus on certain activities, topics, or routines may lead to positive outcomes. Think of the young individual who fixates on a certain topic (like science) and goes on to become an expert in the field. Temple Grandin is a great example of a person with autism who is a highly valued expert because of her deeply focused knowledge in one area, in her case, how to build humane slaughterhouses (Centria Healthcare, 2020).
Having inflexibility also builds persistence and perseverance – a fundamental trait to have in life. After all, the “squeaky wheel” that gets things done is often an individual who sticks with something important to them and doesn’t get discouraged.
So, to answer the question of “do we need to stop it?”, I’d say take a moment to think of the following:
Is your child’s rigidity hindering his functioning – social interactions, daily living, learning, and etc?
Is your child’s rigidity causing harm to himself or others?
Is your child’s rigidity impacting those around him?
If you were nodding as you read those questions, then yes, you do need to find a way to stop or reduce the rigidity. But of course, it’s easier said than done, right? Fear not mummies and daddies – you are not alone. Let me share some ways you can do so!
Strategies to Reduce Inflexibility
Reasonable accommodations can be made in most situations and environments to help those on the spectrum learn to tolerate change, but the child themselves also needs to learn how to handle situations that requires flexibility. In this way, it builds their independence. After all, we can’t constantly change every environment in their lives.
Help your child learn to advocate for his/her accommodations by:
Making a list of helpful considerations together such as the time needed to adapt to changes in routines
Role-playing scenarios as a form of social story to help the child visually see what alternative behaviours, he can engage in
It is also crucial to praise and respect the positive aspects while offering reminders on manage the need for change from time to time:
When a child fixates on minutia, remind the child that their point "is an important detail of what is happening, but let's look at what else is going on here."
"I love that you are so interested in ____, but let's give it another minute and move on to something else."
“"I love how you notice details buddy! Once we are done with those details, let’s switch to the big picture."
Lastly, it is important to verbalize and exemplify unexpected situations with your child by being a model of flexible thinking:
The more often unexpected encounters are verbalised and modelled, the less intimidating it will be for your child when they encounter their own unexpected situations.
You can play the "What if…" game to show and discuss different reactions to various scenarios that occurs
Try to be fun and creative so it is since as a positive thing and motivate their interest to be flexible
All hope is not lost if your child shows rigidity; possibly, it’s a good thing – we can equally celebrate their uniqueness for getting “stuck” because it can be a great strength in many situations. So, sit down to think the impact it has for your child and others around them. Does it really seem as harmful as others say it is? And remember, you are not alone in this journey.
Written by Joey.