Posted: December 29th, 2008 under interventions, life on the spectrum.
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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.


  • Comment by sari — December 29, 2008 @ 8:38 pm


    Terrific post, Elizabeth!

    For anyone who’s interested, here is a technique that worked for us.

    A popsicle stick schedule posted on velcro every morning, with at least one activity changed from the day before. A preliterate child might have pictures attached to the sticks instead of words. Anyway, as the child accomplishes a task, he or she removes the stick and places it in a cup and continues on to the next activity. If the child is unhappy with the order (some activities induce more stress and anxiety than others), s/he can “discuss” changes with the parent or teacher. Sometimes the answer is no, but often the answer can be yes. The point is to set up a visible framework which provides structure to the day and a daily change, dictated by either the parent, teacher or child.

    Specified activities included academics, timed periods of specified exercises for sensory integration, pleasurable/reward activities (computer, playing with classroom animals), opportunities for socialization (chess, visiting a friend), therapies (OT, Speech, PT, etc.) and field trips. By implementing the same technique at home and school, the child can generalize across environments.

  • Comment by Elizabeth — December 31, 2008 @ 2:53 pm


    Negotiation is an important socialization skill–so you’re right, allowing for negotiation (as in order of tasks) is important.

    But that brings up communication level–verbal kids can negotiate more easily than the nonverbal, so the techniques for encouraging flexibility in the nonverbal must take that into account and allow time for nonverbal processing/response.

  • Comment by Sari — December 31, 2008 @ 5:28 pm


    Absolutely. I wanted to share a low cost, low tech technique that worked well for us and which helped our extremely routine-bound child become more flexible. Non-verbal classmates successfully used picture versions, so this strategy seemed to work well across the board. Too many parents spend a small fortune on organizational tools when inexpensive alternatives exist.

    Verbal children may have the advantage in that they can communicate more easily, *if* they can find the right words to express their needs when they’re upset or overwhelmed, but better verbal skills do not necessarily translate to greater flexibility–an enormous problem in classroom settings, where speech is often equated to higher intelligence and level of function, and at home, where other people’s needs must also be met.

    The stick schedule is used first and foremost to provide a visual framework for the day, so that the child has time to prepare for and then transition from activity to activity.

  • Comment by Elizabeth — December 31, 2008 @ 6:13 pm


    I guess I wasn’t clear. I didn’t assume that greater verbal ability meant greater flexibility–just that it often meant more effective negotiation, and more chance that others (outsiders particularly) would recognize an attempt at negotiation.

    And yes, I did grasp what the stick schedule was for. There are many ways to provide a visual framework–and you’re quite right that these can be done at minimal expense. Parents can improvise many tools if they understand the goal of the exercise. (Hence our use of math manipulatives made of things we happened to have in quantity.) Cuisinaire rods as used in schools cost a fortune…uncooked pasta and foot coloring are cheap. Not durable…but cheap.

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