Recognizing Mental Rigidity in Autism: 3 Strategies to Increase Flexibility and Enlarge Your World

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One of the core features of autism is a leaning toward rigid thinking and inflexible behaviors.


This feature is present when the individual has unyielding opinions about a topic.

One autistic individual expressed that she would "want undeniable proof that my opinion is wrong" before she would consider shifting her thought process. A part of reciprocal social communication, another area of difficulty for the autistic, is the exchange of thoughts, experiences, and opinions with others. Rigid thinking in the autistic reduces the desire to ask for additional viewpoints or consider the experiences of others as relevant to ways of thinking about a topic.


Repeating daily routines can be another expression of inflexibility. The individual on the spectrum may want to take the same route to a location daily, even when another way would be faster or more scenic. The person may complete daily activities in a specific order even though a different order would lead to the same outcome. The individual's lunch order in the cafeteria at work may be the same for decades.


Becoming stuck in the problem-solving process is another reflection of

inflexibility of thinking. The autistic may struggle to generate multiple ways of approaching one problem. As a result, he may walk away from a tricky situation or may use the same approach repetitively though the solution has not helped in the past.


Although the autistic will generally lean toward inflexibility, he may also be able to influence how entrenched his patterns become.


For the ASD individual who wishes to work on flexibility, the following suggestions may help.


1. Ask Other People About Their Experiences and Opinions


For the autistic who wants to connect better with people, he may commit to asking for the input of others. During a conversation on any topic, he could decide to ask at least one time for the experience of the other person. He could say, "That's what I've always thought, but what do you think?" or "What has your experience been with this computer program? What do you like or dislike about it?"


2. Mix it Up A Bit


When the individual on the spectrum wishes to improve flexibility for daily routines, she could pick one small change and try to embrace it. For example, she could decide to drink her coffee in the mug she typically uses for tea. She could choose to use three different routes to travel to the same destination and mix these up during the week.


3. Decide to Look for Two Solutions


Even though his brain may lean toward getting stuck in one answer, the ASD individual may commit to identifying at least two solutions to daily obstacles. If he feels unable to think of a second solution, he could ask input from others. Even the acknowledgment that looking for multiple solutions is valuable may in itself be a step forward for the autistic individual.


Stepping outside the rigid limitations of the proverbial box can bring more freedom in everyday life.



For more information, you may wish to read the following:


Cognitive Rigidity: The 8-Ball from Hell (James Coplan, MD; Psychology Today, Aug 2016).


How to Use Inflexibility to Teach Flexibility (Lauren Kenworthy, Ph.D. and John Strang, PsyD; researchautism.org, Aug 2017)


©2020 by Theresa Regan