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


Anonymous said...

Well, I can only say, my wife and I are experiencing a most difficult time with our 17 year-old son, Oliver. A senior in high school in central New Jersey, Oliver maintained a 3.8 GPA up until this year. Much has changed since then.

Oliver was diagnosed at an early age with language processing issues, something he received professional help with as well as his mother's considerable and wonderful input. Given his issues, Oliver needed to study far more than the average student to succeed. And he did so, obsessively.
But while his grades climbed and helped rank him in the top 10% of his classes, his communication skills suffered. As a result, he never made many friends and retreated to the solitary world of studying, watching television, playing electronic games and the guitar. (We thought music would enable him to meet fellow musicians and to make friends, but it wasn't meant to be. My wife feels it's attributable to low self esteem and innate fear of socializing in the outside world).

Understandably, Oliver wants nothing more than to fit-in, be one of the guys and meet girls. But low esteem and his lack of social skills has kept him for realizing his goals. And this has led to a major shift in his demeanor marked by extreme anxiety (something Oliver attributes to his acne outbreaks and not knowing what to say to people), angry outbursts generally directed towards his mother, the increasing inability to focus on his studies and a refusal to attend classes, sometimes days at a time. Some days he's okay, others he is not. Best described our son these days is much like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde character. We never know who he'll be, one day from the next. Today he went to school without a problem and is in good spirits. Whether he will agree to go to college -- he's been accepted by three excellent schools -- is anyone's guess. But one thing is for sure, the boy is fearful off-the-charts.

Had all this come to a head a few years back, time would have been on everyone's side to resolve it. But that's no longer the case. We're at critical mass given Oliver's pending HS graduation and his need to respond to colleges by May 1. The upshot is that we're floundering and need some professional guidance. Hopefully, you can make suggestions that we can act upon.

Anonymous said...

I have a 9 year son with aspergers and ADHD. Because of his intelligence and his outward presentation of a "typical" child, his teacher has earmarked him for a child with a behavior problem and deals with any classroom issues as such. Can anyone offer me any advice as to how to make his teacher and Special Education Consultant Teacher understand the difference?

Anonymous said...

make sure your sons college has a disability department and that can deal with aspergers the anxiety level that they experience at this level is immense my daughter finally dropped out after many attempts to succeed she is very bright diagnosed late
you may need to get him a coach that can keep track of his studies

Anonymous said...

Debbie Sammons Hill Yes, the 'black and white' thinking is one of the hardest aspects of AS that we deal with, with our son. One little thing can turn a great day into a horrible one. It's either all great, or all ruined. I am trying to remove the words 'always' and 'never' from our vocabulary.
4 hours ago · Like · 1 person
Sharon Martin I think we're all guilty of saying things like 'do you always have to do that' or 'you are never to do that again'. They are so literal, my 13-year old misses out on a lot of humor because of it!
4 hours ago · Like
Erin Gardner My husband may have a touch of this cause he can say we had a good day UNTIL.... not lets see if we can finish this day on a good note...
4 hours ago · Like
Candice Mays ‎@Debbie..I agree with you about the day..either its good or bad :(

@Sharon..I know how you feel about the humor! Frustrating at times. I can say you are soo funny and my son will say back..Mom I wasn't laughing. I was trying to explain his sarcastic attitude but he doesn't understand at all.
4 hours ago · Like
Cynthia Dudley Phillips I deal with this all the time with my teenage daughter who has AS. For me, the hardest part is even getting her to open up to me about her day. I can't offer her a different perspective if she doesn't share :-(

Anonymous said...

Your 17 year old son Oliver should be evaluated for Bipolar Disorder. It is not unusual to have both Aspergers and Bipolar. Bipolar Disorder in teens is often seen with "rapid cycling". Moods shifting sometimes multiple times in one day. Have your son appropriately evaluated. Anxiety can be profound with Bipolar Disorder.
A psychotherapist

Anonymous said...

I have a 5yo with aspergers ADHD and odd and I'm ready to kill him. The constant bad behavior , backchat and disobedience have broken our relationship. I don't Feel for him any more

Anonymous said...

I have a 5yo with aspergers ADHD and odd and I'm ready to kill him. The constant bad behavior , backchat and disobedience have broken our relationship. I don't Feel for him any more

DuQue said...

Dear anonymous,
I have a 5 yr old with aspergers and ADHD. I have spent the last year with him in ABA and OT. I have learned so much from him. Sometimes, I get to see the world thru his eyes. It's amazing! But it isn't easy. There have been many days when I just cry and think I can't do it anymore. But then I see how far he has come. Where once he "didn't listen" ..... Now he hears. And then we have a bad day.....and then a good day. These kids are special. They are here to teach us something that we need to learn. Remember that when they act "badly" they are just trying to tell you something and it's probably "help mommy! I can't take anymore"

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Anonymous said...

We just got a diagnosis of Asperger's for my 11 year old son on Wednesday. His father and I have been divorced since he was about 2 and ever since then I have been "blamed" for our son's "questionable actions" from biting his fingers, imaginary friends with the same name as himself, being late to school because of his meltdowns with hating to wake up in the morning or that "there are bees after him on the way to school". He has meltdowns when doing school work and at times has tried to stab himself out others with his pencil because "homework makes him angry". The doctor prescribed Risperidone (he has tried various ADHD medications until this diagnosis that didn't work) and I'm leary. I keep a strict schedule and give him space when needed so he doesn't feel pressure and learns to be responsible for himself. My question right now is how do I get others (the court, his dad, school) to understand that you cannot control a child when they can't even control their own actions and help then to see that this is not my fault? I'm about to lose parenting time with my son because of their lack of understanding. I really am providing my son with what I think are important stepping stones for a positive future and trying to help him understand his actions. Where do I get resources to prove that giving his dad visitations during a school week will only disrupt our son's much needed structured schedule without making it seem like I just don't want him to see his dad? I feel that any change to his week will only be detrimental for an Asperger's child. Please help. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I am so sorry to hear about your frustrations. My son is 8 and I am going through a separation with his dad (who has severe ADHD problems). I think the most important thing for you to do now is to seek out and find a REALLY good psychiatrist that would be willing to give you a written diagnosis of your son's Aspergers, including all of the symptoms and indications of the syndrome. I have struggled with this issue when out in public. Sometimes I just want to yell out, "STOP LOOKING AT ME! MY SON HAS ASPERGERS!!!" Everyone just wants to assume that we can control our children and if we can't, somehow it is our fault. A good child psychiatrist will be 100% on your side and will be an excellent voice for you AND your son in your situation. I wish you all the best!!!

Anonymous said...

We do have a Psychiatrist, he is who diagnosed him with Asperger's, ADHD, anxiety disorder NOS and a ODD. He feels that our court matters are contributing to his anxiety, which I agree with. The hardest part is that my son's dad doesn't even see that his actions are a result of a chemical deficiency in his brain. He thinks that I am brainwashing our son and that I am just a bad parent (especially for my son's tardies at school) even though that is not the case. I need to physically hand him proof, I feel, and file it with the courts in order for them to see, this is our life and it's not my fault. I'm trying to fix it and the courts, so far have only made the problem worse.

Anonymous said...

This should NOT be all on your shoulders!! Asperger's is a very real condition and you are not responsible for your son's dad's ignorance on that! Shame on him! I'm sure that your son is sensing your tension so the best thing you can do is to take care of yourself, do yoga or meditate a few minutes each day.. just to keep your sanity! I know I sometimes forget to do that and before you know it it's so crazy and frustrating!! Stick to your guns and give your son's dad any literature you have on Asperger's.. heck... give him a whole BOOK on it!! Geesh! And above all, remember that the courts ALWAYS put children first and especially children with special needs like your little guy. They will look at the diagnosis by the psychiatrist and your son's dad will look like a fool. Don't worry about that at all. Like I said... take care of yourself so that your son can be in a calm and stress-free place right now. I think you will see some good results and feel better yourself! All my best :)

inger said...

Just add another label right that will help particularly Oliver I am sure he will benefit from some meds as well to sedate him a little! They might make him over weight and kill his kibido and turn him into a zombie but hey that's all we can do for bi polar! I am appalled dsm v manual had grown to catastrophic proportions with no mental health benefits! I have some one close with aspergers! Adolesence is hard enough for neurotypicals let alone kids with a social diFFability and teenagers can be cruel! Sounds like you are doing well! Have you linked in with a counsellor or family therapist who understands ASD's! Support group for aspergers teenagers online? Link him in for music jams if there is a local group that meets and plays music! And this might sound small but seen great results gluten and cassein free diet, a really nutritious diet of only whole foods and high dose magnesium it is a muscle relaxant equivalent of a chill pill the is plenty of research on that! Has in the get support, it sounds like you are doing a great job!

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