How to Teach Flexibility

Categories: Behavior

When we first began to suspect that my oldest son, Greyson, had some kind of developmental delay, I examined his behavior as if it was under a microscope. What does that mean? Is he doing that because he has autism or because he’s two? I wanted to understand him, and support him as best as I could. I just didn’t feel equipped to do that because so many things caused him tears and anger.

An autism diagnosis often demands predictability and routine. This is something I try to consistently provide for my boys. In our life, we honor those needs with advance notice of changes in schedule, predictable routines, visual supports and a home environment that is predictable.

However, the world is anything but predictable. (Um— I’m looking at you Covid-19). Places close, restaurants run out of things, schedules change, people get sick, cherished things break. So- how do we factor those things into an autistics environment? There is no one size fits all when it comes to anything in autism. Some autistics may not struggle with inconsistency and lack of routine. Cool. But for those who do- I want to share some things we do to help us deal with rigid thinking and change.

#1 – Is This Something That Needs To Change? Let’s be real- I am a creature of habit and I capital L love my routines. When I stop to think about it- boy do I have a lot. I like to drink my coffee out of my favorite Yeti metal mug. I prefer to drink my water from a plastic Starbucks cup with ice. I usually paint my nails on Thursdays, clean my toilets on Fridays, and go grocery shopping on Sundays. Some of the things I do because it makes most sense schedule wise to do it on that day. However, lots of things I do because “that’s just how I do it.” In teaching flexibility/busting rigidity- does that mean you look for all routines and change them constantly? Heck no. We are all comforted by familiarity, and it also makes the world work like a well-oiled machine. We need consistency. Imagine your boss tells you- I’ll just call you every morning and let you know if you need to come into work for that day- each day. Ummmm- NO THANKS. That’s not realistic. It’s not functional. It won’t work for most people on a consistent basic. Back at the beginning of parenting a child with autism- I first tried everything I could to honor my son’s needs for things to be a particular way. GOD FORBID the banana broke when I was peeling it (I grabbed a new one! Don’t worry- I’ll try again I would say, nervously praying banana #2 didn’t break too.) Broken cookies created tears and were immediately exchanged for perfectly round cookies. You only want to drink from the sippy cup that’s blue with a picture of a car on the outside (that is no longer carried in any store) NO PROBLEM- I’ll just wash it after every use and pray we don’t leave it anywhere by mistake. Honoring these rigidities gave me so much anxiety because the need for same gave my son so much anxiety. Plus, sometimes the last cookie breaks, and bananas get brown spots and favorite cups break. When this did happen the terror in my son’s eyes was tangible.

The more I honored these rigid needs- the more they showed up in our life and the more I realized that living this way is not realistic and ultimately causing more stress on my son- not less.  After a lot of research and discussions with our BCBA, I was able to see the difference between routines that brought function and needed consistency in our life- and what rigidities/routines that brought my son stress if something can’t be exactly the way his mind needed it to be.

  • Waking up on Saturday, and staying in pajamas all day sometimes- absolutely.
  • The hall bathroom door needing to be open at ALL TIMES- not so much.
  • Only using one swing at the park, regardless if someone else is on it- NO.
  • Only wanting to wear one specific shirt- NO.
  • Preferring to wear (multiple different) white shirts- Why not? My closest is full of neutrals.


#2 Now What? If it doesn’t need to be changed, awesome. Not all quests for consistency and same is bad. Sometimes my boys will be watching/scripting/reenacting certain movies or focusing a narrow range of special interests for a period of time. So what? We use that to help teach concepts and keep learning engaging. When Parker was into the Statue of Liberty- we read about it, got books about it, watched videos on it, and even dressed like it.

It didn’t negatively affect our life. Special interests can be a great strength in many opportunities. But if lack of flexibility does create a negative impact? Read on. First- ensure that there aren’t any underlying medical issues that need to be addressed by a professional. In addition to autism, a student may have OCD or an anxiety disorder separate from autism which can have some overlap in these areas. Taylor an intervention based on the WHY you think the behavior is occurring. This may take time to fully understand. (Is it sensory? I.e.- the one t-shirt they want to wear is the only shirt that is soft cotton or doesn’t have tags?) Behind every behavior- there is a reason WHY it occurs. Trying to manipulate a behavior without understanding the why isn’t fair to do. Understand that rigid thinking has been a protective mechanism in their life, and work to teach them how to be more flexible overall.


#3 Proactively Teach Flexibility. There are many ways to do this- one is by simply modeling flexibility in your own life. “I was really hoping to go to TJ Maxx today, but since I don’t have time I’ll go a different day.” Flexibility is not my middle name, so this takes work for me too. We cannot expect our children to change their behavior if we are never willing to change our own. Another thing I like to do can be categorized as “planned sabotage.” Chances are there are frequently opportunities to practice change throughout your day. Make up new rules for a familiar game. Change your spot at the kitchen table. Park in different parking spaces, take different routes to familiar places, rotate favorite cups/shirts/shoes etc. Also- when able, when preparing for a change- we use accommodations to make change easier- things like visual schedules, and warnings of upcoming changes.


Temple Grandin PhD, is one of the most well-known autistic adults, and she shared four steps for helping autistic children learn flexibility:

  • Maintain a variety of activities in a variety of environments. Go to different public parks, at different times, on different days. At home, offer finger paints, a sand box, swing set, building blocks and stuffed toys. The more experiences a child can have, the better. “When I was little, my nanny made my sister and me do a variety of activities,” she said. “This prevented rigid behavior patterns from forming.”
  • Alter routines. Grandin illustrated this concept with a story about cattle. “Cattle that are always fed from the red truck by Jim may panic if Sally pulls up in a white truck.” By altering routines slightly children with autism learn to accept variation in their schedule. For instance, parents can have children brush teeth before bath one day, after bath the next. If you went to the library after lunch last Tuesday, go before lunch this Wednesday.
  • Use visual metaphors. Grandin described a metaphor of mixing colors to illustrate concepts that may not have a “right” or “wrong” answer. For instance, a friend may be very nice one day, and not so friendly the next. Grandin visualized white and black paint being mixed together. On the day when the friend was nice, the paint was nearly white. On the not so nice day, the paint was dark gray.
  • Show that categories can change. Children with autism may put something in one group, and not be cognizant that it can also belong with another group. For instance, a blue cup may be used for drinking in the kitchen. However, it can also be used in the bath to rinse shampoo out of hair. In another situation the same blue cup might be used outside in the sand box as a toy. If a child with autism thinks a blue cup belongs only in the kitchen, she may become confused or upset if she sees it in a different environment.


Learning skills to increase flexibility can create more stress in the short term, but can significantly decrease future anxiety and increase independence.

Chrissy Kelly
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