Research suggests that the brains of kids on the autism spectrum are quite inflexible at switching from rest to task, and this inflexibility is correlated with behaviors characteristic of spectrum disorders. This behavioral inflexibility can manifest as restricted interests (e.g., preoccupation with particular activities, objects or sounds). These behaviors impact how a youngster attends to the external world.
Compared to “typical” kids, young people on the autism spectrum show reduced differentiation between brain connectivity during rest and task (called “brain inflexibility”). Also, there is a correlation between the degree of brain inflexibility shown in the fMRI scans and the severity of restrictive and repetitive behaviors in this population.
Symptoms of inflexibility or behavioral rigidity are often difficult to quantify, and yet often introduce some of the most disruptive chronic behaviors (e.g., tantrums, meltdowns) exhibited by children with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA). These can be manifest by (a) changes to plans that have been previously laid out, (b) difficulties tolerating changes in routine, or (c) minor differences in the environment (e.g., changes in location for certain activities). For some AS and HFA kids, this inflexibility can lead to aggression, or to extremes of frustration and anxiety that impede certain activities.
Parents – and even teachers – may find themselves “walking on eggshells” in an effort to circumvent any extreme reaction from the AS or HFA child. Also, the children themselves may articulate their anxiety over fears that things will not go according to plan, or that they will be forced to make changes that they can’t handle. Sometimes these behaviors are identified as “obsessive-compulsive” because of the child's need for ritualized order or nonfunctional routine. The idea that OCD and these “needs for sameness” could share some biologic features is a popular notion among professionals.
Some of the causes of inflexibility or behavioral rigidity in AS and HFA include the following:
- Behavioral problems: Some AS and HFA children are just naturally more “set in their ways” and prone to tantrums. Also, some have a very low tolerance for frustration.
- Neurological catalysts: Underlying neurological issues may explain inflexibility.
- Parenting issues: Inflexibility can also be influenced by well-meaning parents (e.g., parents may be too busy with other things to take time to teach their child how to deal with frustration or agitation). Some parents find it easier to just let some things go, thus allowing their child to have his/her way time and time again (i.e., over-indulgent parenting). Also, some parents simply do not know how to redirect inappropriate behavior or to systematically teach flexibility.
- Security-seeking: Children on the autism spectrum often thrive on routine – sometimes to the extreme. Routines help these children feel secure, and they often have meltdowns if they encounter unwanted changes in their routine (e.g., changes in schedules, activities, food, clothing, music, pillows, the arrangement of knick-knacks, etc.). Over-reactions may look like tantrums, or they can mimic panic attacks.
- Sensory sensitivities: Finely tuned taste/smell/sound/touch may cause the child to develop an extraordinary attachment to certain things (e.g., food, a particular song, a favorite pair of shoes, etc.). Sensory sensitivities paired with obsessive interest often cause problems when things change unexpectedly.
Some of the signs of inflexibility or behavioral rigidity include the following:
- repeats same movement constantly (e.g., clapping hands, facial tics, etc.), which is a self-soothing technique
- is highly obsessed with narrow topics of interest (e.g., numbers, symbols, phone numbers, sports related statistics, train schedules, etc.)
- has great difficulty in adapting to changes in school (e.g., shifting from the classroom to the playground)
- experiences meltdowns or tantrums when unwanted changes are introduced at home (e.g., an earlier bedtime)
- reacts strongly when thinking or seeing that something has changed from its usual pattern or setting (e.g., his or her display of toy dinosaurs on the dresser)
- has a very strong attachment to certain items (e.g., toys, keys, switches, hair bands, etc.)
- likes watching objects that are moving (e.g., ceiling fan, wheels of a toy car, etc.)
- lines up items in a certain pattern or order (e.g., all the blue crayons must be grouped together)
- difficulty multitasking due to adhering rigidly to tasks in the order they are given
So what can parents do to help their AS or HFA child learn flexibility?
Below are some simple ideas that will get you started on this journey (hopefully, you will be able to generalize from these ideas, and then create your own based on your child’s unique needs):
1. Alter routines slightly. This helps your AS or HFA child to learn to accept variation in his or her schedule (e.g., you can have your youngster work on his homework BEFORE dinner one day, then AFTER dinner the next day).
2. Give your youngster the “freedom of expression” (e.g., give her the ability to wear the clothes and items of her liking). Allow your child to express herself in the unique being that she is.
3. Illustrate that categories can change. Young people on the spectrum often put something in only one group, and are not be aware that it can also belong with another group (e.g., a yellow plastic bowl can be used for eating cereal in the kitchen, but it can also be put on the dining room table and used to hold candy, or it can be used as a container filled with soil to grow a small plant).
4. Incorporate role playing and storytelling in everyday activities (e.g., while you are eating animal crackers, have your child pick a particular animal cracker, name that animal, eat the cracker, and then imitate that animal).
5. Maintain a variety of activities in a variety of environments (e.g., go to different public parks, at different times, on different days).
6. Offer a variety of creative avenues. For example, theatre activities (whether in-school or out-of-school) can be encouraged. Many local organizations for the arts can help parents find a place for their youngster in their programs. Even if the child is shy and does not feel comfortable acting in a play, the organization can always provide other services for the stage play (e.g., lighting, decorating, sound, costume, narrating, etc.).
7. Offer your child the ability to help provide the rules and regulations of the household, but also teach that there will be occasions when a particular “rule” can be disregarded temporarily (e.g., “no eating in the family room” may be an ongoing house rule – except when the family gets together to watch a movie and eat popcorn).
8. Prepare an indoor play area in a way that encourages diversity (e.g., play dough, small inexpensive musical instruments, books, blocks, crayons and paper, etc.).
9. Provide multiple opportunities for an assortment of activities outside as well (e.g., sand box, teeter totter, swing set, a fort, tree house, trampoline, etc.). The more “total-body movement” experiences your youngster can have – the better!
10. Teach your child how to review alternative ways of problem-solving by evaluating the problem, thinking of a variety of solutions, and then figuring out which is the best way to execute the solution (e.g., if your child’s friend refuses to share a particular toy, then give 3 or 4 alternative methods to solve this problem and have your youngster execute the one that appears to be the best choice).
While teaching kids the alphabet or how to count may be fairly straightforward, teaching them how to be more flexible in matters is often not as clear-cut. Fostering flexibility in AS and HFA kids often involves a lot of creativity – and even some unconventional tactics – on the parent’s part.
How to Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums in Asperger's and HFA Children