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Cognitive Flexibility in Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Often individuals with autism may be described using terms such as rigid or rote. One area that may be important to focus on is flexibility. This is an area that may prove to be difficult for some individuals with autism and most certainly also for individuals without autism at times as well. We tend to be "creatures of habit" as they say. We may often eat at the same table in a restaurant, order the same meal, take the same route home from work every day. So, we are often not as flexible as we maybe could be. Sometimes it may be important to be more flexible and at other times it may not be.

In some individuals with autism, we may see that they will engage in fixed routines, repetitive responding, or display limited repertoires of responses. We may see limitations in flexibility across several areas such as cognition, behavior, and language.

Cognitive flexibility refers to being able to respond to the same stimuli differently. To be able to change your response in the presence of the same stimulus (to make a new rule in the presence of the same stimulus). It explains awareness of the fact that every problem has a number of possible solutions and that every individual has a personal opinion that may reflect only one side of an issue. Cognitive flexibility shows people’s ability to contemplate different perspectives, opinions and analyze multiple possible solutions.

For learners to develop cognitive flexibility and to acquire content knowledge structures which can support flexible cognitive processing the following are recommended:

  1. A flexible learning environment

  2. Presentation of the same stimuli in a variety of ways

  3. Responses to the same stimuli should be varied

  4. Varied presentation of materials

  5. Learning across materials and categories

  6. Use of materials across student goals

  7. Practicing flexible matching/ categorization

This image shows how someone may respond to the same stimuli in different ways. Where does the card go in this matching task? You should have multiple answers to this question.

Although you may be able to use your ability to think flexibly and determine that there are multiple answers to this question, this may not come naturally to many individuals with autism. So we will need to consider this when designing a curriculum for students with autism. Students with autism also often get "stuck" and will continue to respond in the way they first responded and not be able to "switch".

One particular skill that will be important to teach is understanding the term "different". If we can teach someone to respond to the term "different" then we are on our way to promoting more varied responses. For example, we can say "Tell me a color" and then also say "Tell me a different color" to encourage the student to provide an answer that varies from the one they typically provide. This provides a prompt to the student but does allow for a broadening of responses.

It is important for students with autism to be more flexible in their responses, which can be reflected in their language use as well. When a student with autism is presented with a photograph for example and asked to describe it they may provide the same description each time. We would like the student to be able to vary their responses when they are presented with the stimulus. So, we may show a scene of children at the beach, and rather than varying their description they may say "I see children at the beach" every time. Once the student has associated that description with the picture, it may be difficult to get the student to "switch" and say something new.

Another way to practice more varied responding would be to work on a goal in which the student is told "I'm thinking of.... " and descriptors are provided and the student needs to figure out what it could be. An example would be I am thinking of something green that you can eat. You probably already may have a few answers in mind. That's the point, we want our students with autism to realize that some questions have more than one right answer. Maybe it is broccoli or string beans or maybe a green jellybean. The idea is that the student can generate a number of responses to a "stimulus" that is presented.

It is helpful to think about the relationship between cognitive flexibility and generalization as well. Cognitive flexibility focuses on the student being able to respond differently to the same stimulus and response generalization refers to the student responding similarly to the same stimulus based on a prior response that was reinforced. In generalization, the student learns a skill and then successfully transfers that skill. For example, a student learns how to use a zipper on their backpack and then is able to zip their jacket without being taught, then the skill has been generalized. Or a student engages in a variety of tapping responses (different pressure or location from the response that was originally taught) to get someone's attention. We may attempt to promote response variability by teaching multiple responses so that when someone says hello to a student, they can respond with a variety of responses such as “hello”, “hi”, or "good morning”.

If this is a topic that interests you- consider attending my webinar on June 11th at 12:00 (EST) where I will discuss flexibility and problem solving in students with ASD.

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