Teaching Flexibility - An Important Skill - Autism Awareness
Teaching Flexibility - An Important Skill

Teaching Flexibility – An Important Skill

Not everything in life goes according to plan – when change happens, we need to be able to adapt. While autistic people need predictable and consistent routines, it’s still important to be able to cope with changes both planned and unplanned. Having flexibility will build resilience, problem solving skills, and help a person to overcome changes and challenges.

In order to comprehend why flexible thinking is challenging for autistic people, we have to first understand something about autistic neurology. Peter Vermeulen, my colleague in Belgium, is doing excellent work on the topic of autistic thinking. He says:

An autistic brain also develops models, but its models are a bit too precise and too absolute. And it tends to take little prediction errors a bit too seriously. So, it could be that an autistic brain connect tears to sadness. And that brain would be confused if someone who is crying is also laughing and saying positive things. And an autistic brain also pays a lot of attention to little differences that other people ignore. Based on this description of the autistic brain, my definition of autism is: absolute thinking in a relative world.

But autistic thinking is only a problem – or a disability – in an environment that demands flexible and contextually sensitive reactions. In other words, in conditions that demand a-contextual, straightforward, absolute and rule-based thinking, the autistic brain is an advantage. And there’s another thing as well: non-autistic brains with their contextual sensitivity and flexibility sometimes are a prisoner of context, while autistic brains because of their ‘context blindness’ can create meanings and ideas that are ‘out of the box’.

You can see that there are advantages to absolute thinking; however, there are situations where being flexible can help a person too. Rigidity can be a defense mechanism to prevent stress and anxiety. You may see rigid behavior in play sequences, eating patterns, routines and the insistence for sameness throughout the day. Our goal is never to force change, but rather to help a person learn flexible thinking strategies and healthy ways to manage anxiety.

What is cognitive flexibility?

Cognitive flexibility, also called flexible thinking, is an executive function. It is the ability to adapt behaviors in response to changes in the environment, switch tasks, and adapt when things are changing in the environment. Cognitive flexibility is crucial to our ability to shift to something else and to see things in another way, like when people say “look at this from another perspective”.

People who think rigidly or inflexibly have trouble seeing alternatives or doing things in a different order. They often get stuck on an activity or idea and may not know why or even be aware that this is happening. In Julie Rawe’s Understood.org post, she has compiled a list of what inflexible thinking looks like:

  • Not accepting other people’s ideas
  • Arguing the same point over and over
  • Getting upset when others don’t follow rules
  • Having trouble switching from one activity to another
  • Getting anxious when plans change, or frustrated when small things go wrong
  • Not following new schedules
  • Struggling to take on new, more complicated tasks
  • Repeating the same mistakes
  • Having trouble getting jokes

How can we help build flexible thinking skills?

Learning to be flexible can be practiced in a number of ways. Start with small changes. Introduce enough of a change to give an achievable challenge, but not too much that it causes a person to feel overwhelmed and want to disengage.

  1. Change the routine order occasionally. Swap a visual around on the visual schedule. Ex. Change the day for a certain activity. Making these changes can also be used to make a choice. Being able to choose is another important life skill and something we do daily.
  2. Make a physical change. This could be changing the location of a piece of furniture or where an object is in a room.
  3. Introduce a new activity into the routine. There may be a struggle when this is introduced initially and engagement time is shorter. Consider putting this change into the visual schedule.
  4. Prepare for those unexpected moments. Things in life don’t always go to plan but that doesn’t mean it has to be a disaster. Create intentional challenges for regular activities that can help teach the skills needed to respond to challenges and become more flexible when things don’t go according to plan. For example, set the table but forget a utensil.  Give the wrong item. This can also encourage the asking for help skill.
  5. Play games that have an element of chance. Card games or games with dice will have an element of unpredictability to them. Examples of games would be Kerplunk, Don’t Wake Daddy, or Pop-Up Pirate. Different outcomes of winning and losing will help prepare a person for unpredictable outcomes.
  6. Brainstorm together. Explore different options with a child, beginning with easy situations and moving on to more challenging ones. For example, you can decide together what to have for breakfast. A more challenging situation may be a real life situation. My daughter and I do this all the time with WattPad, an online story writing site that users also communicate on. We look at communication threads that are taking a wrong turn and figure out where things went wrong and what a better response would be.
  7. Frontloading. This is a way of preparing a child ahead of time for what to expect, possible scenarios, and what they can do.
  8. Explain what is happening. Sometimes, the reason for rigid behavior is because a person doesn’t understand what is going on around them. Take the time to explain other people’s actions and the reasons for them.

Building flexibility takes time. There are many factors that impact flexibility ranging from anxiety or stress to sensory challenges. The best way to increase flexibility is to build opportunities to practice in natural ways throughout the day. Be a good role model yourself and demonstrate how you deal with change and the unexpected.


Bethel, S. (August 13). Cognitive Flexibility/Executive Functions. Stephaniebethany.com

Day, N. (February 13, 2022). 9 Ways to Improve Cognitive Flexibility And Reduce Rigid Behaviorhe’s-extraordinary.com

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