Students with autism often have inflexible thinking. When kids hear a comment like “We’ll go in 5 minutes”, typically-developing kids make guesses about it, or understand that the meaning is about 5 minutes and not exactly 5 minutes. Kids with autism tend be concrete thinkers and may take language literally, and think the meaning is exactly 5 minutes! Figurative language is tricky for the student with autism also. They may hear someone say “She knocked my socks off” and may think the speaker’s socks came flying off.
Inflexible thinking causes many problems for students. When a student is inflexible, it will be hard for him to get along with his classmates. It will be like his brain is a rock – hard and stiff, and unwilling to consider other’s actions and feelings. He often misunderstands phrases or behaviors that his classmates use. He takes things literally and won’t understand the nuances of polite language. His classmates use language to navigate socially, but his “rock brain” will prevent him from knowing the differing meanings of language like figures of speech, irony, sarcasm and the difference between bullying and just kidding around.
Inflexible thinking can also cause problems with school or family schedules, as well as environments. Some students can cling to their routines and have difficulty being flexible if their routine is interupted. If there is a change in a child’s regular schedule, it may cause a meltdown or at the very least some anxiety. Some students need to have their environments arranged a certain way, and feel anxious if their items are moved, or out of place.
Ways to teach your child to be flexible:
Choose your words. I once knew a student who appeared to be struggling with an assignment. His teacher said “Just do the even ones.” The student immediately did numbers 2, 4, 6, 8. and 10. With 15 minutes left in class, the teacher took his paper and saw he was capable, and said to him “Now go back and do the odd.” The student melted down and shouted at the teacher “You promised I only had to do the even!” This was a problem with the word “just”. The student understood it to mean one thing, that he “only had to do the even ones and no more“. The teacher may have let it be, but not understanding her student’s difficulty with language flexibility, she created a larger problem. I worked with a middle schooler last year on problem-solving. When working through an activity I said to him, “Guess“. But he refused. He insisted “I can’t guess. Don’t make me guess.” I changed my wording. ‘OK,” I said, “Let’s come up with a solution.” The student could do the work (as long as I didn’t use the word “guess”.)\
Check for understanding. Watch your child to see if they understood what you are asking.
Give advance warning on changes. Kids with high-functioning autism (like Aspergers) appreciate when you warn them of a change coming up. I’ve found younger kids need this more often, and older kids begin to understand that changes are normal in life and to expect changes (or at least to be flexible with changes when they occur.)
Help your student be a “language detective”. One of the best ways to figure out a message is to consider the whole body. Is the facial expression and body language matching what the person said? Teach your child to “read” the other parts of the message (tone of voice, body language, context etc.) Is the message “for real” or “sarcasm” or “a joke”? Teach explicitly. Your child has not figured it out on his own yet. Come along side and teach him.
Flexible Brain and Rock Brain Lesson – I teach this lesson to my spectrum kids: I use a small flexible brain (check your local toy store) and a rock. I show the two items and let the kids hold them, try to squeeze them etc. We talk about how everyone’s brain needs to be flexible, because interacting with others will always be changing. When I ask the kids about what will happen if we are “rock brains’? they can usually say that we’ll have trouble playing and working with others. We talk about how a soft squishy brain toy will not hurt a friend if we throw it at them. (Before talking about the “throwing” be sure to collect up the rock, so that the kids have only the brain to throw around, if they get too excited. ) But a hard rock would hurt others. I tell them it’s the same with them. If they are being flexible it will be easier to get along with friends, no one gets hurt. But with a rock brain, it’s possible we will hurt others’s feelings, and no one will want to hang out with us.
Older students can recognize different scenarios as “flexible” or “rock” brain. And many kids can recall a time when they noticed another’s behavior with them was “flexible” or “rock brain”.
If you like these lesson ideas, you’ll like Stephanie Madrigal and Michelle Garcia Winner’s “Superflex”.
(Reposted from 10/6/13)