Rigid Thinking in Children with Autism

by Eileen Bailey Health Writer

Mona was helping her son, Jonas, with his math homework. She explained how to do the problem and then figured it out on paper. Jonas started crying and Mona didn't know why. "That's not how Miss Regan did it. I have to do it the way she showed us. This is wrong" Jonas refused to listen to Mona or do the homework any way but the "one" way Miss Regan had showed him in class. He went to school the next day with incomplete homework. Mona called Miss Regan to explain the situation and asked her to explain that there was often more than one way to solve a problem.

Like many children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), Jonas was very rigid in his thinking. He saw only one way of thinking and doing things. He insisted on going through the same routine each night before bed. He had a hard time listening to other people's point of view. He was sure the way he looked at situations was the only "right" way.

Rigid thinking is common in children with ASD. Teachers, friends and even family members might see your child as "stubborn" for insisting on having things his way or not listening to others. This inflexibility can get in the way of schoolwork and social interactions. Teaching flexibility is an ongoing process. The following tips might help.

Understand the common reasons for rigid thinking and address the underlying issue. Some common reasons for rigidity include:

  • Anxiety about an upcoming event

  • The need for immediate gratification

  • The need to escape an undesired activity or the need to engage in an intensive interest

  • Lack of understanding how something is done

  • Fear of breaking a rule

  • Misunderstanding another person's actions or behaviors

Acknowledge your child's point of view. Before explaining your point of view, acknowledge their point of view and then express yours. Explain that it is important to listen to others.

Change your routine occasionally. Children with ASD often feel comfortable following the same routine, day after day, however, this can encourage rigid thinking and make it more difficult for your child when the routine must be changed. Instead, insert changes into the daily or weekly routine. Your child will learn that he can manage change.

Point out that objects can be used for different purposes. For example, books can be used for learning and also for enjoyment. Look around at the objects around you and see if your child can name a different use for them. This can help your child learn flexibility in thinking.

Give your child examples of how there can be different points of view but no one is right or wrong. You might want to ask everyone in the family for their favorite color. You can point out that although each person has a different favorite color, there is no right or wrong answer. Explain that opinions about other things are the same way.

Teaching your child flexibility is an ongoing process. Enlist the help of teachers, therapists and family members to help reinforce your efforts and help your child to explore different ways of thinking and looking at the world.

Eileen Bailey
Meet Our Writer
Eileen Bailey

Eileen Bailey is an award-winning author of six books on health and parenting topics and freelance writer specializing in health topics including ADHD, Anxiety, Sexual Health, Skin Care, Psoriasis and Skin Cancer. Her wish is to provide readers with relevant and practical information on health conditions to help them make informed decisions regarding their health care.