Flexible thinking can be hard with ASD, here are 10 ways to improve flexible thinking

Ten Ways to Increase Your Child’s Ability to Be Flexible

Our guest blogger this week is Lauren Kerstein, a licensed clinical social worker who specializes in working with children, adolescents, adults and families. Lauren will be speaking at our Calgary Conference on November 16, 2019. In this post, Lauren discusses the challenges with flexible thinking and suggests ten strategies to try to teach a child to be more flexible in the face of change and transition.

Ten Ways to Increase Your Child’s Ability to Be Flexible

By Lauren Kerstein, LCSW

Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) often experience enormous challenges in the area of flexibility. It is frequently believed that challenges with flexibility may be related to anxiety. Increasingly, the literature has focused on the role of anxiety in the world of a child on the autism spectrum. In an article by Rotheram-Fuller & MacMullen (2011), they state that 72%-80% of children with ASDs meet criteria for an axis I disorder with anxiety the most reported disorder (Bruin, Ferdinand, Meester, Nijs & Verheij, 2007; Leyfer et al., 2006.) Anxiety impacts many areas of development including social interactions, academic performance and general comfort in life’s challenging circumstances. Anxiety also prevents children on the spectrum (and children who are not on the spectrum) from effectively managing the everyday requirement to be flexible in the face of change and transition.

Children with and without a diagnosis on the autism spectrum can struggle with many challenges related to anxiety. Our world is moving at a very fast past. Information is abundant, and constantly bombarding us. Transitions and change are the norm rather than the exception. For many children including those on the autism spectrum, these transitions and changes can provoke discomfort and even intense anxiety. There are many strategies to assist children with increasing their ability to be more flexible overall.

The following ten strategies may assist you with teaching your child how to be more flexible in the face of these ever increasing demands.

1. Assist your child with developing strategies for anxiety. This may include using Tamar Chansky’s (2004) concepts of The Worry Bug, the worry tape or the Exaggerator. All of these concepts give us concrete ways to describe the anxiety that our child or adolescent is feeling. Describing anxiety in a concrete way is critical for helping a child or adolescent feel they have the power to conquer and take control of the anxiety.

2. Once you’ve identified the anxiety and named it, children or adolescents can draw pictures of their “worry bug” or their “exaggerator”. They can write out the words on their “worry tapes”. The next step is to determine strategies that might ameliorate the anxiety. If you are describing anxiety as a“worry bug” for example, you can then discuss “fly swatter” strategies to shoo the “worry bug” away.

3. It is critical to examine triggers of both anxiety and rigidity. You might look at times when your child or adolescent really dug in his/her proverbial heels and analyze the specific triggers that may have caused such a strong reaction. This is critical to do in calmer times, retrospectively or prospectively. If you attempt to examine the triggers when your child is too escalated, it will backfire.

4. Another strategy for tackling anxiety and thereby increasing flexibility that may work with younger children around ages 2 -9 is to blow bubbles and POP…POP…POP their worry bubbles. You can simply call them worry bubbles with a very young child to introduce the concept. In the experience of popping them, the child can begin to see the power we have over tackling worry. For older children, you can talk about the specific worries that are floating in the air and how you can pop the worries to make them disappear. What progress, you ask, have I made? I have begun to be a friend to myself.~Hecato, Greek philosopher

5. Additionally, children often relate to the concept of an elevator when examining anxiety. The first floor represents an extraordinary low level of anxiety and the tenth floor represents a huge amount of anxiety. You can teach children to identify what floor they are on and what strategies might bring the elevator down again. You can also link the fact that our ability to be flexible decreases as our elevator travels higher.

6. Michelle Garcia Winner (2008) has designed a curriculum that works with children and adolescents to assist them with being more flexible. SuperFlex is a superhero that develops strategies to defeat the “Team of Unthinkables”. The “Team of Unthinkables” includes “rock brain” who represents a rigid, stuck brain. Many childrenlove superheroes and can relate to SuperFlex. You can have your child make a superhero cape so that they can use their SuperFlex powers to be more flexible and defeat the “Team of Unthinkables.”

7. It is also quite helpful when teaching flexibility to get arock and some clay. You can show your child how boring rocks are. They just sit on the table and do nothing. You can then take out the clay and stretch it and make things out of it and talk about how much more fun the flexible clay is. This is a very helpful demonstration of flexible versus rigid thinking.

8. Play games that provide you with the chance to change the rules. For example, with a younger child, you can play Candy Land and then periodically announce that you are changing the rules. This concept originates in the work of Drs. Steven Gutstein (2001) and Rachelle Sheely. The intent is to show a child that transitions and changes can be fun rather than anxiety-provoking. For older children, you can introduce rule changes in Uno, card games or any game that is interesting to them.

9. There are some very simple things that you can do to practice flexibility throughout your day. You can drive a different way home than you typically do from a particular location. If you have “assigned” seats at the kitchen table, switch seats around. You might have a backwards day in which you eat dinner for breakfast and breakfast for dinner. Silly little changes throughout the day can go a long way to building flexibility.

10. Finally, praise your child or adolescent when they are acting in a flexible manner. Name it, point it out and reinforce it. You might even start a system in which your child can earn pennies, nickels or quarters in a jar for flexibility. Once the jar is full you can have a family outing to your child’s favorite restaurant for a celebratory dinner. It is critical to name the flexibility and celebrate it so that being flexible is fun rather than frightening.

It takes time to help your child or adolescent be more flexible. There are so many factors that impact flexibility ranging from anxiety to sensory challenges. It is critical to recognize small successes and build many opportunities for flexibility into your day in a natural way. Take time to model flexibility in your daily activities.

Further Reading

A Week of Switching, Shifting, and Stretching

Developing Flexibility Skills in Children and Teens with Autism

Solving Executive Function Challenges: Simple Ways to Get Kids with Autism Unstuck and on Target

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