Cognitive Flexibility

Fresh from yoga class, where we did a bunch of bendy, stretchy things on the way to the splits.  We stretched some hips, hamstrings, and kept our kneecaps engaged and flexed.  There are rules to yoga: respect your limits, offer both sides of your body the chance to try the pose, keep it on your mat, breathe.  When I think about therapy with folks with ASD, we are often talking about rules, cognitive flexibility, and breathing.

People complain that my clients miss social rules, and that they create too many rules on their own.  This is where the flexibility thing starts to come into play.

Imagine this: a student gets emotionally overwhelmed on Mondays, and sometimes even picks fights.  The rule is no fighting.  But my client’s rules are far more complex: I am smart, and learning is easy for me.  On Mondays there are spelling pre-tests, I don’t always know how to spell those words, breaking the rule that I’m smart.  This is uncomfortable, and I start feeling overwhelmed.  And once overwhelmed…it is pretty hard to pick up on social cues and respond appropriately.

This scenario, in various forms, is in my office at least once a week.  So, yes, my clients miss some rules, and adults in their lives fail to understand how remarkably complex the rules are inside the minds of my clients. Here are some strategies I try to employ:

  • Understand the rules What rules have my clients developed to structure their world? Are the rules working? Is there ever a time that rules can be flexible?  If rules can be modified, what are the guidelines for that?  (With respect to spelling tests, the teacher is supposed to find words that the students don’t already know how to spell.  If the words are too easy, the teacher isn’t doing her job.  Is there space for that rule AND still allowing a child to be smart?)


  • Understand the rules, again Does my client understand what is expected of them? Once upon a time, long, long ago, a client urinated in a location where he perhaps should not have.  But upon closer inspection, the client thought he followed the rules (he was, in fact, in the bathroom, the proper bathroom, and washed his hands after).  Ends up he did not understand the unspoken rules for that bathroom; he was confused.  Once the rules were clear, that infraction never happened again.


  • Rewards for flexibility How flexible can my clients make their thought processes? How many solutions can be generated for a single problem?  How many of these solutions might my clients employ?  First, reward a cognitively flexible thought process, then reward actual implementation of ideas.  My favorite phrase is, “I never thought of it that way!”


  • Respect your limits Know when and where to be flexible in problem solving. Attempting to problem solve when very emotionally upset, hungry, or tired is not going to end well.  Make multiple attempts, recognize when you have had enough problem solving, and take breaks.


  • Keep it on your mat Recognize what problems are yours to solve, and what is “off your mat.” Sometimes my clients have some rigid rules and require others to follow them, too.  If you must be rigid, you will have to apply those rules only to yourself.


  • Breathe Breathing helps most things: emotional regulation, problem solving, taking a tiny time out in conversation, getting your mind together during an exam. Breathing is free, simple, and cannot be overdone: in, out, repeat.


I never finished that splits pose (know your limits!), but I certainly did learn about life in yoga, again today. Know the rules, find some cognitive flexibility, breathe, and have a great day!



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