Behavioral and Cognitive Rigidity in Kids with High-Functioning Autism

Behavioral rigidity refers to a child’s difficulty maintaining appropriate behavior in new and unfamiliar situations. The opposite of rigidity would be flexibility, which enables children to shift effortlessly from task to task in the classroom, from topic to topic in conversation, from one role to another in games, etc.

Rigidity can also affect thinking. Cognitive rigidity occurs when the child is unable to consider alternatives to the current situation, alternative viewpoints, or innovative solutions to a problem. The child with rigid thinking tends to view things in “either-or” terms (e.g., things are either right or wrong, good or bad). He or she wants concrete, black and white answers. The “gray areas” of life are very uncomfortable (e.g., often has an exact way of doing things with no variations).

Children with High-Functioning Autism (HFA) often demonstrate extreme forms of rigidity or inflexibility. This may manifest itself as difficulty with (a) ending an intense emotional feeling, (b) making transitions during the school day (e.g., from lunch back to the classroom), and (c) tolerating changes in schedules or everyday routines.

Rigidity and Defiance in Kids with High-Functioning Autism 

Here is a 3-step process for helping your HFA child with his/her rigidity issues:

Step 1—

Realizing that your HFA youngster will not be a good observer of her behavior is your first step. She will not know what to do in certain situations, because she doesn't understand how the world works. Not knowing what to do usually results in anxiety that leads to additional ineffective and inappropriate actions. HFA behavior is usually a result of this anxiety, which leads to difficulty moving on and letting go of an issue, and "getting stuck" on something. This is “rigidity,” and it is the most common reason for behavioral problems.

Reasons for rigidity may include the following:
  • A misunderstanding or misinterpretation of another's action
  • A violation of a rule or ritual (i.e., changing something from the way it is “supposed” to be)
  • Anxiety about a current or upcoming event
  • Attention difficulties
  • Difficulty transitioning from one activity to another
  • Immediate gratification of a need
  • Lack of knowledge about how something is done  
  • Sensory sensitivities
  • The need to avoid or escape from a non-preferred activity (e.g., doing Math homework)
  • The need to control a situation
  • The need to engage in - or continue - a preferred activity (e.g., an obsessive action or fantasy)

Often times, parents of children with HFA do not fully understand what their youngster is thinking, how he interprets the world, and how his deficits cause problems. After their child receives an official diagnosis, parents often rush into action before collecting enough information about the disorder. If they don’t learn about the ins-and-outs of the disorder, parents may very likely do the wrong thing. So, the second step in effectively dealing with rigidity is to understand some of the associated theories on HFA. Below are the prominent theories that will shed light on this topic:

Cortisol Deficit: According to researchers, cortisol (the body’s stress hormone) may be a key factor in understanding HFA. Cortisol is one of several stress hormones that acts similar to a “red alert” that is triggered by stressful circumstances, which helps the individual to react quickly to changes. In “typical” children, there is a two-fold increase in levels of cortisol within 30 minutes of waking up, with levels gradually declining during the day as part of the internal body clock. One study found that children with HFA didn’t have this peak, although levels of cortisol still decreased during the day as normal. This difference in stress hormone levels may be highly significant in explaining why kids on the autism spectrum are less able to react and cope with unexpected change. The study suggests that these young people may not adjust normally to the challenge of a new environment on waking, which may affect the way they subsequently engage with the world around them. By viewing the symptoms of HFA as a “stress response” rather than a “behavior problem” can help parents and teachers develop techniques for avoiding circumstances that may cause anxiety in kids with the disorder.

Executive Dysfunction: Executive function theory deals with impulse control, inhibition, mental flexibility, planning, the initiation and monitoring of action, and working memory. This theory explains some of the symptoms of HFA. For instance, poor social interaction may be due to a defect in cognitive shifting, which is a vital part of executive function. Also, repetitive and restricted behavior observed in young people on the autism spectrum may be explained due to executive dysfunction.

Brain Dysregulation: Another theory suggests that the brains of children on the autism spectrum are structurally normal, but “dysregulated.” In other words, there is an impaired regulation of a bundle of neurons in the brain stem that processes sensory signals from all areas of the body.

Weak Central Coherence: Weak central coherence theory describes the inability to understand the context of a situation or to see the “big picture.” This might explain common behaviors found in HFA children (e.g., repetitiveness, focusing on parts of objects, persistence in behaviors related to details, etc.).

Theory of Mind Deficit: Theory of mind is the intuitive understanding of your mental state, and the mental state of other people (e.g., emotions, thoughts, beliefs, perceptions, knowledge, intentions and desires) – and of how those mental states influence behavior. Kids with HFA have difficulty understanding others thoughts, which according to this theory, is the core cognitive deficit.

Step 3—

The following strategy is your third step for dealing with rigidity, and can be used with a variety of activities (e.g., chores and homework). There are two main parts to this strategy: 1) practicing in small steps, and 2) providing praise based on effort.

Practicing in small steps: The first part of this strategy is the use of subgoals. Setting a subgoal helps the youngster focus. In any activity, watch for him to begin to lose interest, become bored, get frustrated, or become distracted. At that point, set a subgoal that requires him to attend only slightly longer than he initially desires. For a 5-year-old, this may mean a subgoal that can be completed in 30 seconds. For a 10-year-old, a subgoal that lasts 3 minutes may be more appropriate. The goal is to give the youngster brief practice in “being patient with the process” without overloading him by extensive demands.

Providing praise based on effort: Whenever the youngster puts in "a little extra effort" or works beyond the frustration point, the second part of the strategy can be employed. This is “praise based on effort” instead of “praise based on level of performance.” Usually, moms and dads focus on their youngster’s “productivity” rather than focusing on “the amount of energy the youngster had to devote to the activity.” When using praise, acknowledge the amount of “applied effort,” and point out that the youngster’s “attempt at being productive” paid off (e.g., "You worked very hard and trying to solve that Math problem!"). If you build pride in this extra effort, rigidity will likely lessen.


Here are two specific examples of how to apply this strategy:
  1. If your youngster is helping you fold clothes and begins to lose interest or focus, you can assign a very small number of clothing items to be folded before she takes a break. This minimizes the frustration and the amount of distraction. Once your youngster makes this extra effort, use “praise based on effort” in order to build pride. This strategy can be used even when she is not “successful” (e.g., doesn’t finish folding all the clothes). Any extra “pride in effort” is likely to reduce rigidity and attention difficulties.
  2. If your youngster is working on a lengthy Math assignment and shows signs of frustration or boredom, set a subgoal that requires completion of only a couple more problems before taking a short break. This should help minimize angry outbursts and distraction. Next, use encouragement, rewards, or loss of privileges in order to get your youngster to focus slightly longer. If your child has an angry outburst when the subgoal is set, give him an opportunity to take a “time-out” before working. He can choose to either work on the subgoal, or to go to a designated area until he calms down (e.g., "You can finish your Math assignment now, or take a time-out and finish it in a few minutes”). However, make it clear that once he has calmed down, the only choice is to return to work on the subgoal. This provides your youngster a chance for an outlet for his frustration, but it also sets clear limits so that he must eventually complete the subgoal. This will also help you limit your “lectures about the importance of completing homework.”

The strategy described in Step 3 will have the most impact if it is used daily. Look for opportunities involving homework, chores, or play activities. Look for every chance to build pride and “effort.” Pay less attention to “productivity” or “successful completion” of activities/tasks.

==> Need tips on how to handle your child's fixations and obsessions? You'll find more than you'll need right here...

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