Education and Counseling for Individuals Affected by Autism Spectrum Disorders

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Aspergers Children and "Rigidity"

One frequently observed feature of Aspergers (high functioning autism) is rigidity in thought and behavior. Rigidity seems to pervade so many areas of the lives of children with Aspergers.

Novel situations often produce anxiety for these children. They may be uncomfortable with change in general. This can result in behavior that may be viewed as oppositional and can lead to emotional meltdowns. This general rigidity is what parents, neighbors, and teachers often label as stubbornness.

Children with Aspergers may have many fears in addition to those related to unexpected changes in schedules. Large groups of people and complex, open environments like school hallways, cafeterias, playgrounds, or bus stations tend to overwhelm children with Aspergers. They may also be overwhelmed by unexpected academic challenge or by having too many things to remember or too many tasks to perform.

They often have limited frustration tolerance and may display tantrums when thwarted. Routines and rules are very important to kids with Aspergers in providing a sense of needed order and structure, and hence, predictability about the world.

Another form or rigidity is moralism, a kind of self-righteous and inflexible adherence to nonnegotiable moral principles that is often out of context with practical reality. An example might be a youngster who criticizes a parent who has run a yellow traffic light when the parent is on the way to the emergency room for treatment of a severe cut or burn.

Rigidity is also found in the inflexibility over matters that are of little consequence, such as arguing about whether the route to the emergency room was the quickest when it might be the difference between a few hundred yards by choosing to take one turn over another. In the classroom, this may be found when an Aspergers student fixates on a perception that a teacher has not enforced a rule consistently. Such fixations on moral correctness can escalate and interfere with availability for instruction.

Reasons for Rigidity—

1. A misunderstanding or misinterpretation of another's action. 

2. A violation of a rule or ritual – changing something from the way it is supposed to be. Someone is violating a rule and this is unacceptable to the Aspergers youngster. 

3. Anxiety about a current or upcoming event, no matter how trivial it might appear to you. 

4. Immediate gratification of a need. 

5. Lack of knowledge about how something is done. By not knowing how the world works with regard to specific situations and events, the youth will act inappropriately instead. 

6. Other internal issues, such as sensory, inattention (ADHD), oppositional tendency (ODD), or other psychiatric issues may also be causes of behavior. 

7. The need to avoid or escape from a non-preferred activity, often something difficult or undesirable. Often, if your son/daughter cannot be perfect, he/she does not want to engage in an activity.

8. The need to control a situation. 

9. The need to engage in or continue a preferred activity, usually an obsessive action or fantasy. 

10. Transitioning from one activity to another. This is usually a problem because it may mean ending an activity before he is finished with it.

Many Aspergers children have a hard time with changes. The reason for this behavior can be caused by anxiety, and this anxiety results in rigidity.

Here are the reasons Aspergers kids are so resistant to any kind of change:
  • anxiety about a current or upcoming event (e.g., the start of school)
  • not understanding how the world works
  • not understanding the actions of someone else
  • other issues like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD)
  • reluctant to participate in an activity the child cannot do perfectly or an activity that is difficult for him.
  • someone changing a circumstance or rule that has been established
  • the need for instant satisfaction, the child may not understand delayed gratification
  • the need to control a situation
  • the need to keep doing the activity that the child likes (obsession or fantasy)
  • transitioning to another activity, this is especially hard if the activity is not finished

The cause of anxiety or rigidity in your Aspergers child has a lot to do with the fact that she does not have the ability to understand the world like we do.

Because of the Aspergers neuro-cognitive disorder, she:
  • does not “take in” what is going on around her
  • does not know how to “read between the lines”
  • does not understand implied directions
  • does not understand social cues
  • needs explicit instructions
  • will have difficulty understanding rules of society

Facts” are what kids with Aspergers learn and feel less anxious about. Since Aspergers kids have a hard time with all the normal rules of society, having “rules” has a calming effect on them. They think, “This is the rule. I can handle it o.k.”

Facts also have to be from someone they think is an “expert” in their eyes. Teachers and doctors may have this leverage with them, but moms and dads are, for the most part, not considered “experts.”

Understanding what causes so much anxiety, tantrums, and out of control behavior helps parents to know where their Aspergers child is coming from, and with that, parents will be able to help their kids become healthy and happy adults.

My Aspergers Child: Preventing Meltdowns in Aspergers Children


Anonymous said...

nice post. thanks.

Leanne Strong said...

I'm 23 (24 at the end of June) and have Asperger Syndrome. Here are some more examples of rigid thinking in people on the Autism Spectrum:

Jane's dad said he would pick her up at 3:00, but he actually arrives at 2:59. Jane is very upset that her dad did not come to pick her up at the exact time he said he would, and lets him know how upset she is. Jane is on the Autism Spectrum. Like many people on the spectrum, Jane's thinking is very literal and concrete. When Jane's dad said he would pick her up at 3:00, she expected that he would pick her up at EXACTLY 3:00.

Cody notices that his teacher gives a classmate a detention for coming to class late one day. But another student comes to class late one day (on either the same day or a different day) and the same teacher seems completely cool with it. Cody tells the teacher that s/he is being unfair by giving one classmate a detention for showing up late, but another classmate gets off scot free for doing the same thing (showing up late to class). Other people might think Cody is just trying to be mean to this teacher, but Cody most certainly is NOT trying to be mean AT ALL! Cody is on the Autism Spectrum. He does not easily understand when certain rules don't need to be followed. He remembers how adults and older kids have taught him that he needs to be fair, and that fairness means everyone gets the exact same snack. Or the exact same number of turns on the monkey bars at recess. He also doesn't understand how what he does or says makes other people feel. Cody may even be thinking, "how could what I said have hurt this teacher's feelings? All I did was tell him/her like it is."

Shaniqua overhears a peer saying "move over," instead of, "excuse me." She tells this peer. "you should know by now that you're supposed to say 'excuse me.'" Others might think Shaniqua is just trying to make the other kid feel bad about saying "move over," but that most certainly is NOT Shaniqua's intention. Shaniqua has a very mild form of Autism. The adults and older kids in her life have always taught her to say "excuse me," instead of, "move over," and she likely does not realize that this peer has not been taught this.

Ryan is at the park, and a kid he doesn't recognize asks him if he wants to play. Ryan says, "NO!" The other kid might be thinking, "why doesn't he want to play with me?" Ryan isn't saying, "NO," because he really doesn't want to play with that kid. Ryan is on the Autism Spectrum. Like many people on the Autism Spectrum, he is very rigid and concrete in his thinking, and doesn't understand that there are times when certain rules don't need to be followed. Adults and older kids have always taught him to say no to strangers, and he doesn't understand that this is a situation where this rule doesn't need to be followed.

Do you need the advice of a professional who specializes in parenting children and teens with Autism Spectrum Disorders? Sign-up for Online Parent Coaching today.

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My Aspergers Child - Syndicated Content