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Conquering Emotions Workshop

Tanner Browning: Autism and Flexibility

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People With Autism Can Be Inflexible

Every parent wants their child who has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) to lead the best life possible. But life can be very unpredictable.  Through experience, a neurotypical person learns to be flexible, so that when they encounter an unexpected situation they can adapt without assistance. People who are “on the Spectrum” typically have difficulty in learning to be flexible and adapting to change. People with Autism can be very rigid and often don’t deal well with changes or when something unexpected happens.

For someone with ASD, unexpected can be as simple as leaving the house to go out for dinner, attending a social event, or even spending an extra hour shopping at the mall. People with ASD tend to plan out their rituals for specific times throughout the day. If those schedules are disrupted, they can react by becoming anxious, freaking out, or just refusing to do the activity that conflicts with their rituals. There are several issues why people “on the Spectrum” are rigid or unwilling to be flexible. In this blog, I plan to highlight some of those reasons and provide a story of how I am dealing with my own inflexibility.

Protection Through Comfort Zones   

The main reason that people “on the Spectrum” are not willing to change is because it disrupts their comfort zones. Comfort zones are places where a person is in control of their situation or places themselves so that they can feel safe and ease their stress. For someone with ASD, comfort zones typically include doing the same rituals and routines repeatedly. People with Autism use their comfort zones to avoid change or challenges that can make them feel uncomfortable. It’s kind of an invisible barrier that protects them from things that they might find threatening.

It is often hard enough for people who want to step out of their comfort zones to adapt to the difficulties they might encounter. People who have Autism can literally hold on to their comfort zones, because of their fears, to the point that they would do anything to keep their schedule as rigid as possible. This inability to change is called inertia. Inertia is a feeling of being paralyzed during stressful events.

Oftentimes when people with Autism must leave their comfort zone, they just shutdown. The result is that they then become isolated and more inflexible. This can be very frustrating for parents who must deal with their child’s lack of flexibility. As a result, it is very easy for parents to let their children remain in their comfort zones, thereby avoiding the consequences encountered when those comfort zones are disrupted.

How I Used Comfort Zones

Being Autistic myself, I have had a hard time making changes and being flexible about basically anything. To deal with life, I have developed my own comfort zones. When I was younger, my comfort zone was going to school and playing video games when I got home until I went to bed. My parents would often push me to clean my room, take a shower, or do my homework. When there was an event happening like going to church on Easter or cleaning up when a guest was coming, I would glare at my parents and resist complying with their requests. Often, I felt that my very rigid schedule or ritual was being threatened, triggering inertia or defiance. I would then ignore them so that I could complete a multiplayer game like Call of Duty or Halo. This made my parents very frustrated with me and angry that I was not addressing my chores. Sometimes, they would call me lazy, unmotivated and selfish because of my inflexibility, but really, it was just an intrusion on my comfort zone.

In high school, my parents often worried about how this inability to be flexible would impact my life after I graduated. During high school I played football and my dream was to play for the NFL. This focus on my fantasy caused my grades to suffer. I was barely passing with Cs and a few Bs. I graduated high school with only a 2.8 and almost flunked out of community college after one semester. Several years later, I am about to graduate from California State University of Fullerton (CSUF) with a 3.72 GPA in Public Health.

To be honest, it took me a while in college to figure out the best way to handle my study schedule. I often relied on my anxiety about grades to create the motivation I needed to get schoolwork done. I know that anxiety-based motivation isn’t the best way to enable change, but it seems to work for me.

Increasing Motivation with Rewards

One method I use to increase my motivation and willingness to change is to reward myself for participating in activities. In looking back, this can be considered both a good thing or a bad thing. The good thing is that rewarding yourself creates motivation to go to a place or deal with schedule changes. The bad thing is that when you reward a person for doing something, the person might become spoiled and expect a reward, believing, “Oh, I am always going to get my favorite food for going to church with them on Sundays or going to each social event.” For me personally, reward-based motivation can backfire about 65% of the time, because of this “spoiling” effect. The other problem is that it can take a long time to change a person’s behavior. This can be frustrating.

Here is an example of how I used rewards to change my attitude. I used to HATE going to the movies because it seemed like too much time. As a result of my disdain, I would often not talk to people before and after the movie along with not even watching the movie. What helped me to adapt is that I rewarded myself for doing things I did not want to do. For example, if I went to a movie and interacted with people, my reward would be that my parents would pay for the movie tickets and dinner. As a result, I started going to the movies, once a month, with a couple of people. I got used to going and learned to like going to the movies. I enjoyed talking to people and eating free dinners. In fact, I became excited about going to the movies and engaging with my friends, however, I still needed the free movie tickets and a free meal to motivate me, because I wouldn’t do this activity on my own. Yes, it took me about three months of going to the movies, but by slowly adding this new activity of going to the movies over time, I was able to adapt. In the end, I was enthusiastic about attending a blockbuster and going out with my friends. Eventually my parents stopped funding the movie and dinner, and while I did resent this, it did not stop me from going.  It had become more comfortable for me to go and enjoy myself.

I cannot guarantee that this method would work for everyone with Autism. I am sure there are many other ways to deal with flexibility and changing of schedules. In the end, Autism and lack of flexibility remains a big issue. In the past, I was one of the most inflexible people I know. However, I am working on increasing my flexibility and I hope that I can continue to become more flexible over time.