Aspergers/HFA Children and Inflexibility: 25 Tips for Parents

"Why is my (high functioning) son so set in his ways. When he gets an idea in his mind, no amount of logic will budge him - very stubborn on multiple fronts."

Parenting kids with Aspergers (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) means making and sticking to routines and schedules – or paying the price! Kids with the disorder often insist on a rigid routine, and something as simple as the "wrong" cereal for breakfast can send them into a tantrum or a meltdown. They often insist that things remain the same!

Consider trains versus cars: AS and HFA kids are much more like little mental trains compared to the average mind that is much more like a car driving on a road. They require a specific route, a specific timetable, and often a specific set of rules for the journey from A to B. Unpredictability is not something that they appreciate – it is widely suggested that the firm, repeatable structure and routine which these kids form in their mind is what makes them secure and comfortable. Interjecting the hand of change for the sake of change is often – as moms and dads have discovered – a catastrophic event.

The Reasons for Inflexibility—
  • A misunderstanding or misinterpretation of another's action.
  • A violation of a rule or ritual, changing something from the way it is supposed to be, or someone is violating a rule and this is unacceptable to the youngster.
  • Anxiety about a current or upcoming event, no matter how trivial it might appear to you.
  • He cannot see alternatives.
  • He does not know how to let go and move on when there is a problem.
  • He does not understand the way the world works.
  • He feels that you must solve the problem for him even when it involves issues you have no control over.
  • He is “rule-bound.”
  • He sees only one way to solve a problem.
  • He suffers from black-and-white thinking.
  • He tends to misinterpret situations.
  • Immediate gratification of a need.
  • Lack of knowledge about how something is done; by not knowing how the world works with regard to specific situations and events, the youngster will act inappropriately instead.
  • Often, if your youngster cannot be perfect, she does not want to engage in an activity.
  • Other internal issues (e.g., sensory, inattention (ADHD), oppositional tendency (ODD), or other psychiatric issues)
  • The need to avoid or escape from a non-preferred activity, often something difficult or undesirable.
  • The need to control a situation.
  • The need to engage in or continue a preferred activity, usually an obsessive action or fantasy.
  • There are no small events in his mind – everything that goes wrong is a catastrophe.
  • Transitioning from one activity to another. This is usually a problem because it may mean ending an activity before he is finished with it.

The Behaviors Associated with Inflexibility—
  • Becoming easily overwhelmed and having difficulty calming down.
  • Creating their own set of rules for doing something.
  • Demanding unrealistic perfection in their handwriting, or wanting to avoid doing any writing.
  • Demonstrating unusual fears, anxiety, tantrums, and showing resistance to directions from others.
  • Displaying a good deal of silly behaviors because they are anxious or do not know what to do in a situation.
  • Eating a narrow range of foods.
  • Having a narrow range of interests, and becoming fixated on certain topics and/or routines.
  • Having trouble playing and socializing well with peers or avoiding socializing altogether. They prefer to be alone because others do not do things exactly as they do.
  • Insisting on having things and/or events occur in a certain way.
  • Intensely disliking loud noises and crowds.
  • Lecturing others or engaging in a monologue rather than having a reciprocal conversation.
  • Preferring to do the same things over and over.
  • Reacting poorly to new events, transitions, or changes.
  • Remaining in a fantasy world a good deal of the time and appearing unaware of events around them.
  • Tending to conserve energy and put forth the least effort they can, except with highly preferred activities.
  • Wanting things to go their way, when they want them to, no matter what anyone else may want. They may argue, throw a tantrum, ignore you, growl, refuse to yield, etc.

Questions to Ask Yourself—

To help you determine the reasons why your youngster behaves the way she does, you should ask yourself the following questions:
  1. Because a situation was one way the first time, does she feel it has to be that way always?
  2. Does she need to be taught a better way to deal with a problem?
  3. Does she see only two choices to a situation rather than many options?
  4. Has she made a rule that can't be followed?
  5. Is she blaming me for something that is beyond my control?
  6. Is she exaggerating the importance of an event?
  7. Is he expecting perfection in herself?
  8. Is she misunderstanding what is happening and assuming something that isn't true?
  9. Is she stuck on an idea and can't let it go?

Below are some ways you can help your youngster prepare for – and handle – change:

1. Acknowledge your youngster’s worries and fears. Allow him to feel angry, sad, and confused during times of change. These feelings are normal and your youngster needs to be allowed to express them. Acknowledge his feelings and respond sympathetically. You might say, “Yes, saying goodbye to a friend is really hard. That makes me feel sad, too.” Be sure to let your youngster know that you take his concerns seriously. For example, you can say, “Are you worried about going to a new school? I used to worry about that when I was your age, too,” or “I know you miss your old friends from last year. It’s hard when things change.”

2. Be a role model for your kids in handling your own stress in a healthy way. If your kids see you talking to others about problems, taking time to relax, and living a healthy lifestyle, your example is likely to rub off.

3. Be clear about rules and consequences. Let your kids know specifically what is expected and together decide on consequences for misbehavior. Then follow through. Teach ways of handling difficult situations. Talk through and role-play with your kids how they can handle a stressful situation.

4. Do what you can to be available during times of transition and change. For example, if your youngster has a hard time at the beginning or end of the school year, try to be more available during these times. Do what you can to simplify your family life so that you can focus on your youngster’s needs.

5. Encourage healthy eating. Teach your kids by words and example that eating a healthy diet makes their bodies better able to handle stress.

6. Encourage vigorous physical activities. If your kids do not exercise often, try family activities like bike riding, hiking, or swimming.

7. Encourage your youngster to write about worries in a journal.

8. Give back rubs and hugs. A short back or shoulder rub can help your kids relax and show them you care. Gentle physical touch is a powerful stress reliever.

9. Have a positive attitude. If you are confident about an upcoming change, your youngster will be positive, too.

10. Help your youngster mark the change. If your youngster’s best friend is moving away, help your youngster mark the occasion with a card, a gift, or a special event. Keep farewells and goodbyes simple and low key.

11. Help your youngster prepare for the move to a new school or town. If your youngster is going to a new school, visit the school before the first day of class, get a copy of the school newspaper, or go online and look at the school’s Web site together with your youngster. Try to help your youngster meet new teachers and staff before the start of school. If you will be moving out of town, try to visit your new neighborhood with your youngster before you move so your youngster is familiar with her new surroundings.

12. Help your kids talk about what is bothering them. Don’t force them to talk, but offer opportunities; bedtime or car trips are good times for this. Instead of asking, “What’s wrong?” ask questions such as, “How are things going at school with your teacher?” Do not criticize what your kids say or they will learn not to tell you things that bother them.

13. Involve your youngster in decisions about the change. For example, if the change involves a move, let your youngster choose colors for his new bedroom and arrange his things when you move in. When starting a new school or a new school year, let your youngster choose what to wear on the first day and to pick out his school supplies. Kids typically have no control over the major changes in their lives. By involving and including your youngster in such decisions, you help him feel more in control of the changes in his life.

14. Maintain family routines. Knowing what to expect helps your youngster feel grounded and secure, especially during times of transition. Maintain family routines around bedtime, TV, and family meals as much as possible.

15. Make regular use of “social stores” to help your youngster adjust to changes.

16. Show your youngster the positive ways that you handle change. Talk about how you feel during times of change and about what you do to cope. For example, let your youngster see the lists you make to help you stay organized and focused.

17. Spend special one-to-one time. Find hobbies or other activities that you can do alone with your youngster. This allows for time to talk as well as time for having fun together.

18. Stick to a routine to keep them feeling secure, but don't shield them from changing situations; doing so will strengthen their belief that the details of life should stay the same.

19. Talk about the change. Talk about what will happen and what the change will mean for all of you. For example, if you will be moving to a new installation, talk about how hard that is, how fun it is, and what to expect. Answer as many of your youngster’s questions as you can, such as how long the move will take, how far your new home is from school, and what you know about the school and town.

20. Talk with your youngster’s teacher or child care provider about changes going on in your family life.

21. Teach relaxation skills. Show your kids how to relax by remembering and imagining pleasant situations like a favorite vacation or happy experience.

22. Teach your kids that mistakes are OK. Let them know that all people, including you, make mistakes. Mistakes are for learning.

23. Tell stories about dealing with stress. For example, if your youngster is afraid of a new situation, tell a story about how you once felt in a similar situation and what you did to cope, or find a library book that shows a youngster coping successfully with stress.

24. Try to keep other changes in your youngster’s life to a minimum during times of transition. For example, if you are going through a big change at home, this is not the time to send your youngster to a new camp or new after-school program.

25. Warn them ahead of time when changes are going to occur.

AS and HFA kids often appear pig-headed, stubborn, and down-right rude when they are faced with change. Let’s be honest; they don’t want to step outside their sandbox. Moms and dads in this situation not only need to understand that their youngster is routine-based, but they need to proactively predict when their youngster will require a routine. But, never forget that your youngster doesn’t believe that he is doing something wrong by presenting as stubborn towards change. He is merely trying to protect himself — and he wants you to help him feel secure by allowing him to do things in a sturdy, structured way. Using the tips above should make things run a bit more smoothly.

==> My Aspergers Child: Preventing Tantrums and Meltdowns in Aspergers Children

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