A child grows from being a black and white, literal thinker as a young child into understanding that things are not always the same and it is Okay.
For some children, many with Autism Spectrum Disorders, “gray” thinking does not develop naturally and sometimes it does not develop at all. These children are sometimes referred to as 'black and white thinkers in a gray world'. These children have a significant difficulty being flexible and adaptable. They tend to get extremely frustrated when things do not happen the way they expect them to happen.
These children thrive on predictability, on routines and are often clueless on how to handle change in their environment or from how they 'think' the world should be. They tend to focus on one small detail and do not see the whole picture, much as in the familiar saying of she can not see the forest for the trees. All these children see are tress and not the forest. This rigidity leaves both child, and parents in uncharted territory.
One reason for this wonderful calliope of opposing feelings is that the child's view and the parent's view of the situation bare little if any similarity.Children who are black and white thinkers and are rigid experience extremely intense emotions and frustrations as they try to apply concrete rules in a world where adaptability is the expected norm.
Let me share an episode of this break in thinking that I experienced with my young daughter.
We had a 17 mile trip home from her daycare to our house. Invariably I went the same route, traveled at about the same speed and made the same turns. One evening there was road construction on the highway. I wanted to get home so decided that taking another route home would be quicker and less frustrating than waiting in traffic in a construction zone.
As soon as I turned off from the normal route, my daughter, quite loudly told me I had turned wrong, to stop and go home the right way!
I responded, Honey there is road work the way we usually go and this way will get us home faster.
She was very upset now, and started screaming No, No, No, we are lost. We will never get home this way. Turn back NOW!
I was aware of the possibility of the change of route upsetting her. I did not expect it to be this challenging though, and decided to continue on the route that I had chosen. She too, continued on her route of crying, screaming, kicking and did I mention screaming? She was sure that we were doomed, and I was wrong, I had no clue how to get us home.
The detour that I took was about 5 miles long, and then we came back to the highway we normally followed. She recognized the familiar highway but that did not release the frustrations she felt during the time of her being 'lost'. If she calmed down at all, I missed it! She continued to cry and complain about everything. the car was too hot, she was tired, she was hungry, and it was all my fault because I chose the wrong route home.
We finally arrived at the house, none too soon to suit me! She ran in and proceeded to tell her grandmother on me for being so careless as to get us lost. I would have thought that being home would allow her to calm down, but no – now she was free to vent in her comfort zone. She vented by going into a full blown tantrum that went on and on and on, it looked like for hours. She was too distraught to eat, and finally sacrificed herself to sleep.
I too was exhausted, I knew that she was a black and white thinker, that she had an autism spectrum disorder, and that any change in routine was extremely challenging. But even if I had chosen to stay on the normal highway, when I would have to stop and she saw the construction equipment I have no idea if that would have triggered the same response. Our world changes around us constantly and to maintain a rigid schedule and route sometimes is not possible. I knew that, and you probably know that, but there are many children and adults who can not accept change.
Does autism and rigidity go hand in hand? Yes and no, many autistic children cling to routine for stability and comfort. However, there are many children who are locked into patterns of rigidity who are not autistic. So even though the two conditions may co-exist they are not mutually exclusive. You may have an autistic child who is less rigid, and you may have a non-autistic child who is more rigid.