Whether someone’s autistic or not, being rigid and inflexible make life difficult for everyone else, and a constant stress for the rigid person…because life just does not cooperate.
Helping a child–or adult–or oneself–cope with inflexibility brings lifelong benefits. Each individual is different, some more rigid than others, but starting early to build in small variations (not chaos) into routines is one way to encourage flexibility. Different methods may work for different people, but the unifying idea is to demonstrate that something new/different/nonroutine can be fun.
“Demonstration” is the operative word, because if children with a tendency to rigidity are around rigid adults–especially if routines and schedules and the One Right Way to Do Things is always around them, where would they learn flexibility? They need to see other people making choices–choosing to change, to try things, and then enjoying it. So parents need to check their own behavior. Are they themselves rigid? If not, do they talk about and make visible the choice-making process?
Giving choices early on allows an individual some autonomy and requires initiative (to make the choice) even if it’s the same choice. Try giving three choices: A, B, and “other”. We found that quite often we’d guessed wrong–our guesses (A and B) did not encompass our son’s first choice and made him seem more rigid than he was. (Of course, then you have to figure out what “other” might be, and that does take time. But the goal is worth it.)
As mentioned before, familiar routines are comforting, and also make order out of life’s chaos–there’s nothing wrong with familiar routines. But to build flexibility, try having regular variation within the routine. Have two routes to the grocery store, and (even if sure the child can’t understand yet) explain why you choose one over another. When chores can be done a different way, or in a different order (some obviously can’t) use the other methods. Do the colored wash first one day, and the white wash first another day….and don’t just do it that way, point it out.
This may provoke concern–definitely will, with some–but by introducing small variations in routine activities, within the shelter of organizing routines, a little flexibility becomes routine as well…and thus less stressful.
Expanding this requires flexible thinking in the person doing the planning, as well as sensitivity to t he tolerance limits of the rigid person–and that includes trying to expand your own flexibility. When someone is tired, sick, hungry, thirsty, too hot or too cold–this is not the time to push for more flexibility in other things.
It’s also important not to overvalue flexibility–the person who has no stability in their desires, who is suggestible and can be talked/pushed/lured into anything–or who can’t make decisions–is not really better off than the person who can’t stand it if one sock is not as white as the other. They will both have problems in life–just different ones. So while moderate flexibility allows for easier coping with life’s crises and smoother interaction with others, none of us is required to suit someone else’s wishes and convenience all the time.
More on flexibility another time–this is not being a routine day at our household and I need to fix supper now, not half an hour from now.