Flexibility in thinking has to do with being able to adapt when circumstances change by adjusting or shifting from one expectation to another. This has never been easy for me, but I have learned how to live more comfortably with my autistic thinking style in a world where flexibility is much more highly valued than my inborn trait.
First, I had to accept my own autism and the fact that I think differently (Endow, 2009). Self-acceptance doesn’t come easily for most autistics because we are brought up being molded into acting as an neurotypical (NT) acts (Endow, 2012). While some of this is necessary to enable us to live in the world, the flip side of it is that we come to understand that in the eyes of the world we are less than and have little value in our natural state.
Nobody sets out to teach us this, but it is what we learn. It took me many years to figure out that the truth is my brain has a different operating system than the brain of a NT. It isn’t good or bad – just different. While this doesn’t make me a bad or wrong human being, it does make life difficult in that I have to constantly accommodate the ways of the majority.
Next, I had to learn to fit in. In reality this meant that I had to come to terms with the fact that the world would not change and run according to what would make sense to me and make me comfortable. I have to accommodate everyday for the NT world. Not an easy thing to do!
Essentially, I had to learn how to outsmart my own neurology. I think visually. When circumstances change the information is typically delivered verbally. I have spent many years figuring out how to efficiently translate this verbal/language-based information into a visual format that allows me to keep up with the fast pace of the ever-changing social interface I meet every time I step outside my door.
Most often, because helpers do not have an autistic style of thinking they are unaware that the brains of most autistic children do not automatically translate language-based information (especially spoken words) into their primary visual language. Here is a strategy I have used both with myself and with many autistics of all ages. It helps us to outsmart the phenomenon that others call our inflexible thinking (Endow, 2013).
How to Outsmart Inflexible Thinking
1. Know You Do NOT Have to Tear Down Your Picture
Much trouble occurs because our thoughts are a picture in our heads. When one little thing changes we have to tear down that picture and start from scratch. This is one reason we protest change!
2. Instead, Make Your Picture in Layers
Demonstrate this by showing an actual picture thought in layers. I do this by using clear overhead projector sheets. I draw each element of a picture on a separate sheet, stacking the sheets up to create the one picture thought.
3. Now You Can Switch Out One Layer
Using the stacked up sheets you can show how one overhead sheet can be removed and another inserted to accommodate a change. For ease in manipulating the stack of overhead sheets use a hole-punch on the sheets so you can then put them into a binder.
4. Practice and Apply to Real Life Situations
Some autistics, once they see a picture made in layers, understand it and can apply it to the picture thoughts in their heads. Others need to watch the demonstration with overhead sheets. Most need to physically practice using the demonstration picture by actually changing out a layer and then go on to apply it to their own real life situations. This application process usually involves drawing out a picture thought onto layers of clear overhead sheets and then manually replacing one picture component with another. This is the basis for flexible thinking when your thinking is visual and your thoughts are in pictures. I have illustrated some concepts of flexible thinking through paintings that can be seen under the Art Store tab of my web site (www.judyendow.com). In addition, the picture in this blog shows four separate paintings that I use to illustrate another way to bring understanding about and work with inflexible thinking (Endow, 2013).
And lastly, I need to give myself lots of down time (Endow, 2011). Now that I am able to be more flexible by thinking my picture thoughts in layers, I am often exhausted at the end of the day. Because it takes a lot of energy to do this I need much down time where I do not need to interact with others. In addition, I have a group of autistic friends I arrange to spend time with periodically. With these friends I am able to be myself, not having to worry about fitting in and acting appropriately. For me each day involves a high personal cost to fitting in. I choose to pay that cost and balance it with down time because it has allowed me to do and to be all I want in life.
Endow, J. (2013). Painted Words: Aspects of Autism Translated. Cambridge, WI: CBR Press.
Endow, J. (2009). Paper Words: Discovering and Living With My Autism. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.
Endow, J. (2012) Learning the Hidden Curriculum: The Odyssey of One Autistic Adult. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.
Endow, J. (2011). Practical Solutions for Stabilizing Students With Classic Autism to Be Ready to Learn: Getting to Go! Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.
JUDY ENDOW, MSW