The Denver Autism Wheel

Learning some flexible thinking

Posted on: October 25, 2010

“Flexible thinking” is one of the terms we learn as we move through autism. It seems one of the most important skills people with autism struggle to learn is how to change mental direction. I had an epiphany the other day, though, while that thought was rolling around in my head. People with autistic brains possess a specific kind of rigidity of thought, but so do people with typical brains. But sometimes we manifest that rigidity of thought in different ways.

We typicals spend a lot of time daydreaming with random thought bubbles sidetracking our tasks, or multitasking to try to accomplish more in a given 24, and I think that’s part of the reason it’s difficult to talk to us in a casual setting. While the autistic brain wants to exchange information in an orderly fashion and then get something productive done with that information, the typical brain skips through the field, gathering daisies and chasing butterflies.

Moms in the room, see if this sounds familiar: you need to tell somebody to complete a task, but the person who needs to complete the task can’t maintain eye contact long enough for you to finish your instructions, and you finally…

  1. Shout at the person to get them to pay attention
  2. Give up and stop trying to get through
  3. Do it yourself because it’s easier than this painful exchange
  4. All of the above

Now comes the moment of my realization: Chris does the same thing with me, it just looks a little different.

He was a little embarrassed to tell me the other day, “Mom, you talk too much.” Guilty as charged. I do talk. I want clarity, but I go for word count rather than quality vocabulary sometimes…I probably sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher sometimes: “Wah wah, wah waaaah.” That’s something I need to work on, even, and maybe particularly, when talking to my own typical peers: note to self.

So, picture if you will, the inverse of the above situation. Chris needs to tell me about something he wants to do. But I’m in “morning routine mode.” That means I’m making breakfast, making sure both he and his brother are dressed (that includes socks and shoes, Mister) and have their lunches ready (and there’s more than a juice pouch and a granola bar in there), that their backpacks are all packed up, that the cats have food and water, that Karl gets out the door with a sammie and a kiss. In other words, my typical brain is in many different places at once, and I don’t (can’t, won’t??) spare the time to stop and listen. I’m not maintaining eye contact (I’m looking into lunchboxes, backpacks, breakfast plates, coat pockets…) and not paying attention, and he finally…

  1. Growls at me
  2. Completely shuts down and refuses to talk at all
  3. Goes and does what he was trying to tell me he wanted to do (even though it’s totally not the appropriate time for it)
  4. All of the above

Hmm. And if we play the tape forward, what happens? I finally start paying attention when it’s too late, and he’s “doing something he’s not supposed to be doing.” I missed the boat because I didn’t pay attention, much to my chagrin (and here I am, trying to teach him that paying attention when I’m talking to him is important, and I don’t return the favor…yeesh). Instead, I start paying attention when he’s doing something “wrong,” and yell at him for not finishing his breakfast…teachable moment lost to typical brain’s rigid thinking. Not only did he not get to engage in successful social contact, but he got yelled at for taking initiative…

Bang head here.

My point is that we both need to be flexible, but since I’m the adult and the parent, I need to be the one to live that first and show how it’s done. I’ve had to learn that lesson a couple of times (see: told you it was rigid thinking), but it’s getting easier each time, and hey, if I can learn new behavior, there’s hope!

7 Responses to "Learning some flexible thinking"

What a good reminder of how important it is to take the time to stop and listen to our children, rather than being so focused on our “to do” list that we only really pay attention when something goes wrong.

Thanks. It’s not always easy, but it’s always worth the effort.

I think you are right, flexible thinking is an effort for all of us. It is worth the effort to try to imagine what I must seem like to my daughter. Thanks for the reminder.

Way to go Chris for telling you he thinks you talk too much. 🙂

Yah, I’m going to have to keep both eyes on him: he’s a smart cookie 🙂

Those are some pretty brilliant observations. Good for you.

ICLW #14

This is a really interesting post. And the advice rings so true.
Thank you for sharing.

Way to go on the epiphany! Thanks for this post! It can be so enlightening! Happy ICLW! (#72 & 106)

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