Rigid Thinking in Teens with Asperger's Syndrome

by Eileen Bailey Health Writer

I was helping my son with his math homework, showing him how to add up several 4 digit numbers. I showed him how I did it and asked if he understood. He looked upset. "That's not right," he said, "I'll never get my homework done."

"But it is right," I said, "I have always done it this way, and I still get the right answers."

"But it isn't how the teacher did it." He looked close to tears at this point. "I have to do it the way she showed me."

I tried to explain that the point of homework was to make sure he understood how to get the correct answer, that sometimes there is more than one way of doing something, but he wasn't buying it. In the end, he did what he could and I wrote a note to the teacher explaining what had happened and asking her to please send home an explanation of her method with his homework each night.

All of this occurred before I even guessed that my son had Asperger's syndrome or even knew what AS was. At the time, I only knew how my heart sank when I heard the words, "I need help with math homework" because it always ended up in a battle, just one small difference in how I explained my steps made him go into melt down mode.

Rigid thinking is one of the classic signs of Asperger's syndrome. For a child with AS, life is black and white, there are no gray areas. When they learn to do something a certain way, well, that is the only way according to their thinking process. This is often a problem when completing homework assignments, as it was for my son, but it can also be a problem in social interactions. If your child is a rigid thinker, he may argue with others, not understanding that there are two viewpoints or two ways of doing something. Their way is the "right way."

Inflexibility and rigidness can also impair your child's ability to adapt to a change in routine. Suppose each morning your child gets up, has breakfast, dresses, gathers his books for school and goes outside to catch the bus. One morning, you ask him to get dressed first and then come down for breakfast. Any parent of a child with autism or AS will tell you the entire morning will be off. You might check on your child and see him sitting on his bed, still in pajamas because he can't adapt to getting dressed before eating.

Some ways to help your child learn flexibility include:

Introduce changes to your child's schedule or routine. In the example above, Mom asked her son to get dressed before breakfast as a change in schedule. If your child strictly adheres to a schdule or routine, he may resist any changes. Start slow, incorporating little changes into his day (brushing his teach before his bath instead of after, having dinner early and watching a video after he eats instead of before). By introducing small changes at first, your child learns to be flexible and adapt to change, rather than panicking.

Offer choices. When your child is going to make a picture, offer crayons, colored pencils, paints, and markers. Choose a different park, a different restaurant, or drive a different way to school. The more varied experiences you give your child, the more chance he has of developing flexibility in his thinking.

When teaching a new skill, show several different ways of doing the same thing. For example, if you are teaching your child to put away silverware after you have finished washing the dishes, show thim that the forks can be placed pointing in or out, if he is drawing a picture, show him the paper can go in landscape or portrait style. This helps him see that tasks can be completed in more than one way.

Explain that sometimes rules change depending on the situation. For example, in school or in the library you use an "inside voice" but if you are in gym class, your voice can be a little louder, especially when playing a sports game; you do not have to use an inside voice every time you are inside.


"Teaching People with Autism/Asperger's to be More Flexible," 2002, Temple Grandin, Autism Asperger's Digest

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.