Okay. I used to be like this. All or nothing thinking. Anything’s just a yes or no. Black and white. Left or right. Right or wrong. When I have my opinion, my opinion only matters and I would have fought (even with my mom) or to validate for days to months just to prove I’m right. No detours. No gray areas or other colors. Period.
Surely everybody’s gonna get insane when they’re with a person with rigid thinking. Who’s going to be patient with this type of person anyway where there’s no exception to the rule?
Us humans (and me now have learned how to be flexible somehow) learn to be flexible so as to adapt in life. Flexibility is like learning to adapt in a changing world. Unfortunately, some people in neurodiversity (and me before) are not so flexible as most of us do.
This is called rigid thinking.
What is rigid thinking?
Rigid thinking occurs when an individual is unable to consider alternatives to the current situation, alternative viewpoints or innovative solutions to a problem. Rigid thinkers cling tightly to preconceptions and generalizations, and often react with fear or hostility in the face of unexpected change or challenges. These people are what we usually call “fanatics” and they are relatively common among religious people or people with mental health disturbances. Rigid thinking is a classic symptom of autism spectrum disorder and is considered as one of the three triads of autism the other two including communication difficulty and social difficulty.
To better illustrate this, rigid thinking is compared to a black and white picture with no alternative colors to be seen.
You can see this image above as black and white picture. No colors seen. This is how people with rigid thinking have in mind. It’s only positive or negative, two opposing views with no alternatives.
How is rigid thinking in everyday life?
Rigid thinking goes like this (I’ll use autism symptom of rigid thinking):
- People with autism may think in a rigid way. This means that they may find it difficult to consider alternatives or to accept when things are not as they expected. 
- It can be difficult for them to think ahead and to guess what is going to happen next, which means that they may become scared or confused in some situations. 
- The patterns of thinking mean that people with autism often like routine and are good at setting up and following routines.
- They may have fixed interests and be adept at focusing on detail.
For a person with rigid thinking when they learn to do something a certain way, well, that is the only way according to their thinking process. Any other way of thinking or learning is considered heresy to him or her. If your child is a rigid thinker, he may argue with others, not understanding that there are two viewpoints or two ways of doing something. Their way is the “right way.”
Let’s have an example. Consider this mother who have to struggle with her son’s homework just because of her son’s rigid thinking (he has Asperger syndrome):
I was helping my son with his math homework, showing him how to add up several 4 digit numbers. I showed him how I did it and asked if he understood. He looked upset. “That’s not right,” he said, “I’ll never get my homework done.”
“But it is right,” I said, “I have always done it this way, and I still get the right answers.”
“But it isn’t how the teacher did it.” He looked close to tears at this point. “I have to do it the way she showed me.”
I tried to explain that the point of homework was to make sure he understood how to get the correct answer, that sometimes there is more than one way of doing something, but he wasn’t buying it. In the end, he did what he could and I wrote a note to the teacher explaining what had happened and asking her to please send home an explanation of her method with his homework each night.
Here the son insists the he must do his homework the exact way his teacher did at school. When his mother taught him an alternative way of doing the assignment, the son lashed out and had a meltdown because of an alternate way of thinking, which is a big no-no in rigid thinking.
I have my own example. In fact I have many. But I’ll just give one.
Back in my grade school days, I was so rigid that I squarely prioritize school exams over my parents’ trip to Singapore. My dad during that time invited us for a vacation in Singapore (but it was actually make up trip for my parents after a huge fight) but unfortunately it was midterms and I had to take exams. I instead was left in the Philippines while my mom went to Singapore. Usually children would choose going to Singapore rather than taking exams while I chose the other way instead. For me back then I was too rigid that I missed the opportunity of going out of town (I mean the country).
There’s more. Back in my early to mid adolescence, I was puritanical. I then believed that dating and relationships (and sex too) is a taboo while studying (and while not yet married to have sexual relations) that I shunned dating at all and I even relied religiously on clergymen on sexual purity that I forgot how to be relaxed and enjoy conversing (and flirting) with boys even if my mom allowed me to date. I just realized that you can be more flexible in relationships and sexual purity can be not an absolute thing as most young people can have sex as long as they are responsible.
These two examples are because of my rigid thinking. For some reason, having rigid thinking is good especially for the neurodiverse (and sometimes neurotypical people too) is because as we have less developed methods of adapting into the world we need to double effort to be rigid or too committed to ie work or studies to be more focused on them. So does to the newly formed and struggling organizations like reformed Protestants in the 16th century so success will be more likely. On the other hand, rigid thinking can cause numerous arguments and unfinished businesses because a rigid person cannot consider other people’s opinions or other way of thinking, which can end in broken relationships or failed work just like also what happened during the Reformation (that’s where Protestants start to emerge) and Inquisition (where the Catholic church became too rigid in doctrine that anybody who opposes got excommunicated).
Does this couple above have rigid thinking? Serious faces, madmen like obsession???
Anyway, no more history stuff…
Rigid thinking, while good for some instances, is not actually good in the long run. Because people with rigid thinking struggle to consider alternatives to the current situation, optional viewpoints, or new and different problem solving strategies and respond to their own immediate needs with minimal ability to shift between ideas and actions they tend to become selfish in their views thereby making their academic/work arena and social arena suffer tremendously. Rigidity in thinking leads to power struggles or submission from others and distancing. If a person is rigid in his or her thinking, he or she will never adapt to the world, be unsuccessful in education or career, and will have broken or impossible relationships with people ad most of all, he or she will always be unsatisfied with life and will never be a happy person.
What causes rigid thinking?
Rigid thinkers have less developed executive functioning processes. Because this aspect of their brain has not matured, they lack the cognitive skill to appraise a situation, understand options, judge severity, or understand the effect of their behavior on others. Limited in inhibiting impulses, they may not think before acting. Poor impulse control lowers frustration tolerance leading to meltdowns when expectations suddenly change. Coinciding with less developed executive functioning is emotional dysregulation which causes negative and overwhelming emotions to come out of seemingly nowhere. This dysregulation makes it difficult for a child to immediately capture the appropriate thinking tools to calm down.
People with less developed executive function includes people with personality disorders and people in neurodiversity like those with autism spectrum disorders and ADHD.
Other causes for rigid thinking include:
- A misunderstanding or misinterpretation of another’s action
- A violation of a rule or ritual (i.e., changing something from the way it is “supposed” to be)
- Anxiety about a current or upcoming event
- Attention difficulties
- Difficulty transitioning from one activity to another
- Immediate gratification of a need
- Lack of knowledge about how something is done
- Sensory sensitivities
- The need to avoid or escape from a non-preferred activity (e.g., doing Math homework)
- The need to control a situation
- The need to engage in – or continue – a preferred activity (e.g., an obsessive action or fantasy)
What is the solution for rigid thinking?
Sounds hard to change a rigid person? Not really. Though it really takes spinning the whole world and the rigid person’s will to break or soften rigid thinking (just like what happened to me for the first 2 decades of my life and how my mom suffered because of me). The truth is, any neurotypical or the usual human approach to making a rigid person more relaxed is and will never be effective because rigid thinkers don’t understand how the world runs.
My Aspergers Child blog for tips for raising Asperger kids and teens gives three steps for managing rigid thinkers:
Step 1—Realizing that your AS or HFA youngster will not be a good observer of her behavior is your first step. She will not know what to do in certain situations, because she doesn’t understand how the world works. Not knowing what to do usually results in anxiety that leads to additional ineffective and inappropriate actions. AS and HFA behavior is usually a result of this anxiety, which leads to difficulty moving on and letting go of an issue, and “getting stuck” on something. This is “rigidity,” and it is the most common reason for behavioral problems.Step 2—The second step in effectively dealing with rigidity is to understand some of the associated theories on AS and HFA. These theories cite the occurrence of rigid thinking in these children. Aside from immature executive function, cortisol deficit, brain dysregulation and theory of mind deficit are the causes of rigid thinking.Cortisol Deficit: According to researchers, cortisol (the body’s stress hormone) may be a key factor in understanding AS and HFA. Cortisol is one of several stress hormones that acts similar to a “red alert” that is triggered by stressful circumstances, which helps the individual to react quickly to changes. In “typical” children, there is a two-fold increase in levels of cortisol within 30 minutes of waking up, with levels gradually declining during the day as part of the internal body clock. One study found that children with AS and HFA didn’t have this peak, although levels of cortisol still decreased during the day as normal. This difference in stress hormone levels may be highly significant in explaining why kids on the autism spectrum are less able to react and cope with unexpected change.Brain Dysregulation: Another theory suggests that the brains of children on the autism spectrum are structurally normal, but “dysregulated.” In other words, there is an impaired regulation of a bundle of neurons in the brain stem that processes sensory signals from all areas of the body.Weak Central Coherence: Weak central coherence theory describes the inability to understand the context of a situation or to see the “big picture.” This might explain common behaviors found in AS and HFA children (e.g., repetitiveness, focusing on parts of objects, persistence in behaviors related to details, etc.).Theory of Mind Deficit: Theory of mind is the intuitive understanding of your mental state, and the mental state of other people (e.g., emotions, thoughts, beliefs, perceptions, knowledge, intentions and desires) – and of how those mental states influence behavior. Kids with AS and HFA have difficulty understanding others thoughts, which according to this theory, is the core cognitive deficit.Step 3—The following strategy is your third step for dealing with rigidity, and can be used with a variety of activities (e.g., chores and homework). There are two main parts to this strategy: 1) practicing in small steps, and 2) providing praise based on effort.Practicing in small steps: The first part of this strategy is the use of subgoals. Setting a subgoal helps the youngster focus. In any activity, watch for him to begin to lose interest, become bored, get frustrated, or become distracted. At that point, set a subgoal that requires him to attend only slightly longer than he initially desires. For a 5-year-old, this may mean a subgoal that can be completed in 30 seconds. For a 10-year-old, a subgoal that lasts 3 minutes may be more appropriate. The goal is to give the youngster brief practice in “being patient with the process” without overloading him by extensive demands.Providing praise based on effort: Whenever the youngster puts in “a little extra effort” or works beyond the frustration point, the second part of the strategy can be employed. This is “praise based on effort” instead of “praise based on level of performance.” Usually, moms and dads focus on their youngster’s “productivity” rather than focusing on “the amount of energy the youngster had to devote to the activity.” When using praise, acknowledge the amount of “applied effort,” and point out that the youngster’s “attempt at being productive” paid off (e.g., “You worked very hard and trying to solve that Math problem!”). If you build pride in this extra effort, rigidity will likely lessen.
- Introduce changes to your child’s schedule or routine.
- Offer choices.
- When teaching a new skill, show several different ways of doing the same thing.
- Explain that sometimes rules change depending on the situation.