By: Tameika Meadows, BCBA from I Love ABA
“Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities, as manifested by at least two of the following, currently or by history:
1. Insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualized patterns of verbal or nonverbal behavior (e.g., extreme distress at small changes, difficulties with transitions, rigid thinking patterns, greeting rituals, need to take same route or eat same food every day).”www.CDC.gov
It is part of the diagnostic criteria for Autism to struggle with Rigidity.
What is Rigidity? It is an inflexibility, an inability to tolerate change or unexpected events, to varying levels of difficulty.
This is something many of my clients struggle with, and it can be quite life impacting in negative ways. Issues around rigidity can affect the school day, relationships/social ties, life at home, transitions, community integration, and vocation/employment success (for older clients).
Some examples can include:
- Difficulty tolerating a change in teacher
- Difficulty staying calm if something breaks, loses power, or the battery dies
- Difficulty staying calm if mom or dad drive past Wal-Mart but we don’t go inside
- Insistence on the same routine every day, Monday-Sunday
- Refusal to change eating habits, clothing choices, etc., from one day to the next
- Difficulty sleeping if traveling, away from home, or the bedtime routine is different
As rigidity is a core characteristic of Autism, treating or intervening on it must be approached carefully. The goal should not be to turn an inflexible person into a flexible person. The goal should be to help the learner adapt to an ever-changing world that will NOT stay constant, and increase the learners coping skills to accept what they cannot control.
To a degree, most of us are creatures of habit. We buy a certain brand of makeup, we brush our teeth a certain way, we park in the same place when we go to work, we always sit in the 2nd row for our college lectures, etc. It isn’t inherently a problem to like sameness and predictability in your life.
This does become a problem when the reaction to the routine being disrupted, is explosion, aggression, self-harming, etc. For example, I have specific restaurants where I order the same thing every time I go. If I went one day and that item wasn’t available, I’d be disappointed, annoyed… I might even leave and go eat somewhere else. But I would not become a danger to myself or others, and I would not perseverate on that annoyance for hours or days.
So how do we help our clients, students, and loved ones calmly accept life’s inevitable changes?
ABA provides many, many strategies to teach flexibility and tolerance to change. Let’s discuss a few:
- What are we teaching instead? This should be priority #1, it is truly that important. We cannot just rip away established patterns and rituals, we have to first identify the replacement behavior(s). This could include teaching the ability to request (“I wanted the red cup”), to wait (“We will go to Wal-Mart, but I’m stopping at Wendy’s FIRST”), to self-manage anger and disappointment (“I can see you are angry. Let’s do our deep breaths, okay?”), and/or to problem solve (“Oh no, your tablet’s battery died. How do we fix that?”).
- Do we have rule out for underlying issues? It is not uncommon that Autism co-occurs with other diagnoses. Is the learner just “rigid”, or are they OCD? Or struggling with an undiagnosed Anxiety disorder?
- Intentionally, and systematically, introduce change. I work with so many families who try to skirt this issue by avoiding changing things in their child’s environment, giving in to the rituals, even driving out of the way in the community to avoid passing places that will trigger the child. I know this seems like the easy way to manage this problem, but in reality it will make things worse. It is almost presenting a lie to the learner to act as if nothing in their environment need ever change. That just isn’t real life. We need to help the learner by introducing small, intentional changes (start super small) and then helping them tolerate that change. Speaking of tolerate….
- Help the learner develop a “plan of action” when they are triggered. This will be highly specific to the individual learner, so I cannot give a recipe for this. What is most important is to utilize function based intervention to teach a strategy to the child for de-escalation. For example: When there will be a substitute teacher at school, inform the learner. (If possible) Talk about how they feel about this change. Empathize with their distress, and do not minimize it. Engage in action steps such as pacing, squeezing a stress ball, humming, and deep breathing with closed eyes. Remind the learner of the things they can control/the things that are unchanged. For example: “I know you’re angry that Mr. Walker is not here today. That’s disappointing. We can go in the hallway and take a break, and when we come back in you let me know if we’re doing our writing journal or sight word folder first. Okay?”.
- In Step # 4 I referenced “Empathy”. I know it can be frustrating and stressful when your client/child/student explodes over a moved seat, a different bowl at breakfast, or a broken toy. You might think “WHAT IS THE BIG DEAL?!”. Well, do you like change? If we’re honest, most of us do not like unexpected, unrequested change. It makes us angry, and we feel annoyed. So even if you can’t fully relate to the size of the explosion, you can relate to the feeling, right? That “relating” is empathy. Put yourself in the learners shoes, and treat them the way you would want to be treated if you were that upset and agitated.
- Rigid Eating Habits
- Food Selectivity
- Inflexible Thinking
- Use Inflexibility to Teach Flexibility
- SuperFlex Curriculum
- Intentionally Changing Routines
- Poljac E, Hoofs V, Princen MM, Poljac E. Understanding Behavioural Rigidity in Autism Spectrum Conditions: The Role of Intentional Control. J Autism Dev Disord. 2017 Mar;47(3):714-727.
This piece originally appeared at www.iloveaba.com.
About the Author
Tameika Meadows, BCBA
“I’ve been providing ABA therapy services to young children with Autism since early 2003. My career in ABA began when I stumbled upon a flyer on my college campus for what I assumed was a babysitting job. The job turned out to be an entry level ABA therapy position working with an adorable little boy with Autism. This would prove to be the unplanned beginning of a passionate career for me.
From those early days in the field, I am now an author, blogger, Consultant/Supervisor, and I regularly lead intensive training sessions for ABA staff and parents. If you are interested in my consultation services, or just have questions about the blog: contact me here.”