The Cycle of Anxiety to Inflexibility in Kids on the Autism Spectrum

“My son on the autism spectrum (high functioning) is very stubborn - and is often angry and disobedient. He also has severe anxiety. Is it possible that the anxiety is causing him to act-out in various ways?”

The short answer is “yes.” A common theme exists among children with Asperger’s and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) – specifically, their tendency to exhibit both behavioral and cognitive rigidity (which parents often perceive as stubbornness and disobedience) in response to anxiety. A strong correlation between anxiety and inflexibility is evident both at home and in the school environment. 


A vulnerability to anxiety is an intrinsic feature of Asperger’s and HFA due to (a) specific neurotransmitter system defects, (b) a breakdown in circuitry related to extinguishing fear responses, and (c) a secondary consequence of the child’s inability to make appropriate social judgments.

There are several factors at play that increase the anxiety level of children on the autism spectrum:
  • A lack of empathy significantly limits skills for autonomous social problem-solving. For example, if the child is unaware that she hurts her peers’ feeling by being the “class tattletale” when anyone breaks a rule, she is not likely to change that behavior, resulting in being the “class outcast.”
  • For the higher functioning youngster on the autism spectrum, there is sufficient grasp of situations to recognize that others “get it” when he does not.
  • Limitations in generalizing from one situation to another often contribute to repeating the same social mistakes. For example, the child may have found a way to positively connect with his siblings at home, yet he doesn’t translate that same skill over to connecting with classmates.
  • Limitations in the child’s ability to grasp social cues (e.g., body language) creates repeated social errors. For example, he may talk incessantly about a special interest, but due to an inability to read non-verbal cues, he fails to recognize that the listeners have become bored. But, he continues to ramble on about his interest and fails to get his message across because no one is paying attention anymore. 
  • Social limitations make it difficult for a child with the disorder to develop coping strategies for soothing herself and containing difficult emotions.
  • The child on the autism spectrum is often teased and bullied by his peers, yet he has great difficulty mounting an effective socially adaptive response.

The circumstances that raise the anxiety level of children with Asperger’s and HFA often result in their increased need to control people, places, and things. This need for control takes the form of rigidity.

Behavioral and Cognitive Rigidity—

Behavioral rigidity refers to the youngster’s difficulty in maintaining appropriate behavior in new and unfamiliar situations. Cognitive rigidity occurs when the youngster is unable to consider alternatives to the current situation, alternative viewpoints, or innovative solutions to a problem.

Children with rigid thinking tend to view situations in “either-or” terms (e.g., right or wrong, good or bad). They want concrete, black and white answers. The “gray areas” of life are very uncomfortable.

Symptoms of rigidity often introduce some of the most disruptive, chronic behaviors exhibited by children with Asperger’s and HFA. For example, aggression, difficulties tolerating changes in routine, dislike of changes to plans that have been previously laid out, meltdowns, tantrums, frustration, and problems with minor differences in the environment, such as changes in location for certain activities.

Parents often find themselves “walking on eggshells” in an effort to circumvent any extreme reaction from their brittle child. In addition, the child herself may articulate her anxiety over fears that things will not go according to plan, or that she will be forced to make changes that she can’t handle.

Sometimes these behaviors are identified as “obsessive-compulsive” because of the child’s need for ritualized order or non-functional routine. In other words, the child has a strong “need for sameness.”

As one can easily imagine, behavioral and cognitive rigidity causes many problems in the Asperger’s or HFA child’s relationships, which usually results in an even higher level of anxiety for him or her. Thus, the cycle continues.

==> Click here for more information on anxiety in children on the autism spectrum…

==> Click here for more information on rigidity

More resources for parents of children and teens with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's:

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

==> Launching Adult Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Guide for Parents Who Want to Promote Self-Reliance

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

==> Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism: Comprehensive Handbook

==> Unraveling The Mystery Behind Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Audio Book

==> Parenting System that Reduces Problematic Behavior in Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

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