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Ways to Promote Flexible Thinking in Children with Autism

The lack of flexible thinking may affect their daily lives in many aspects such as social interaction, ability to problem solve and opportunities to gain new experiences.

Flexible thinking is an important social cognitive skill which many children with autism may find challenging as they struggle with rigidity. Children with autism may find it difficult to learn how to be flexible by simply watching and learning. Therefore, they need to be taught explicitly on the idea of flexible thinking.

Many children with autism struggle with changes and have rigid ways of thinking. This makes it difficult for them to cope with unpredictability and thus, having a need for routine and repetition. However, this lack of flexible thinking may affect their daily lives in many aspects such as social interaction, ability to problem solve and opportunities to gain new experiences.

Children with autism who lack flexible thinking may also experience a great amount of anxiety when faced with any changes. For example, if they are used to being the one who closes the door every time, they may get upset when someone else closes it instead of them. What appears to be a minor issue for most of us may become triggers for them if they are fixated on sameness and are used to strictly following the same routine. Therefore, it is important to gradually introduce changes into their lives and teach them to cope with unpredictability.

Visual Schedules

Visual schedule is a sequence of pictures, symbols or texts that allow children with autism to understand what will be happening next. It is effective in preempting them about what to expect, and managing their motivation and expectations of what they need to complete. Visual schedule eases children into transitions and also assists children in becoming independent. Once they are familiar with the way visual schedules work, it is good to start implementing small changes to it, preferably positive ones first. For example, by replacing one activity that the children least like with an activity they enjoy. Positive changes will make changes less upsetting for the children to accept. Once they are used to small changes, bigger or less positive changes can be introduced gradually. Preempts may be given to children first before making changes to the visual schedule but this should be faded over time so as to allow children to become flexible with unexpected changes.

Social Stories

Social stories are story-based interventions and social narratives that present common scenarios that children may face and prepare them for what to expect or feel in unfamiliar situations. They usually include a visual aid such as a picture or video to help children visualise the scenario. Importantly, they can help children understand expected behaviours and other people’s actions and emotions in a new setting and can be a good way to introduce new environments to them. They are effective in encouraging children to step out of their comfort zone and to explore different possibilities.

Do everyday tasks differently

Following the same routine may encourage children in showing rigidity in their behaviour and thinking. Rigidity may be observed in children who prefer to do things in the same order and method, otherwise they would get upset or have a meltdown. By encouraging small changes in their everyday lives, it may help them to adapt to different possibilities and ways to do the same task. These small changes could be introduced slowly and with children having choices to choose from so that they feel more in control and will be less anxious. For example, if they are used to wearing their shoes before carrying their bag, a small change could be getting them to carry their bag before they wear their shoes. Another example could be taking a different route home instead of the usual route.

In conclusion, by exposing and introducing small changes gradually over time, children with autism may learn to become more flexible and adapt to changes better. Since they are usually visual learners, visual aids such as pictures or videos may help them understand the concepts better. With flexible thinking, children with autism will be able to cooperate better and adjust better to social settings.

Written by Guat Shin.


Benefit of Social Stories. Summit County Developmental Disabilities Board. (2017, March 16). Retrieved from

Difficulties in flexible thinking. Middletown Centre for Autism. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Using visual schedules to teach flexibility to students with autism. Autism Classroom Resources. (2021, April 1). Retrieved from

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