When one is cognitively flexible, a typical day of school may include transitioning with ease from topic to topic, subject to subject and emotion to emotion. Things such as having a supply teacher, moving to a different desk to work at and having lunch at a different time may be regular occurrences that do not affect a student’s emotional state. However, for some children with autism, their brains do not allow such flexibility, which can create rigidity and inflexibility around emotions, tasks and transitions. Many people can experience the feeling of being “stuck in a rut” or have moments of being “stuck” on their own thoughts and unable to see things from another perspective. This differs largely from the true term of being rigid because true rigid behavior can be so severe that everyday functioning becomes compromised. One inflexible moment can create such stress and anxiety in the individual’s mind that their emotions and reactions become extreme. Rigid thinking does not allow an individual to consider alternate solutions or properly problem-solve in order to overcome their initial thought.
Some children with autism are known to have restrictive and repetitive behaviors. They are also known to grasp on to rules and routines as a way to know what is expected in the future. These qualities along with anxiety can create conflict and develop inflexible and rigid thinking around their regular routines at school.
One way that we are promoting flexible thinking in our classroom is by teaching the Superflex curriculum to our students. Superflex helps our students become social thinkers and to open up their minds to what others may be feeling emotionally. It also helps to teach them about the difference in problems (small, medium and large problems) and what the appropriate reaction should be. For example, a small problem (such as dropping your snack on the ground) should have only a small reaction (picking it up and moving on). By giving our students the tools to learn how to react appropriately to problems in their everyday life, it can help them to ease stress or anxiety around things that are known to trigger their inflexible behavior.
Another tool that we have recently begun to use is to show our students a web-like schedule for our day, rather than a concrete time-based schedule. We have a white board with all of the topics and subjects written in a scattered and web-like design to show that there is no set time-based schedule and that things may happen at different times and that it is ok to not have a specific order of the day. By doing this, it promotes students to use their flexible thinking and to be accepting of the schedule as the day goes on.
A different tool that we use is to encourage the idea that ‘everything changes’. Whether it is times, schedules, days or plans; we encourage our students to understand that at some point or another, everything can change. Not only can things change, but when things do change we understand that it will be hard for them, but it is ok.
Although we have strategies in the classroom to promote flexible thinking and take action proactively to avoid rigid and inflexible moments, it is inevidable that children who have rigid behavior will have moments of difficulty in regards to emotional regulation around a rigid topic or situation. Our job in that moment is to support the child and help relieve their anxiety around the topic or situation. During a rigidity-based behavior, children may not be at the level of self-awareness to acknowledge their own emotions or others emotions. We must help our students through that by recognizing it is hard for them but also redirecting them to use their tools to overcome this challenge.
By combining the concepts of flexible thinking that are practiced in our classroom, during a rigidity-based behavior we hope to give our students tools that they can use to decrease anxiety and focus on regulating their emotions to get through these challenging moments.
Written by: Aynsley Barron