Fort Myers occupational therapists

Fort Myers Occupational Therapists: Learning to Be Flexible is Key for Kids With Autism

Autism is a neurological condition characterized, in part, by restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities. Someone with autism may insist on adhering to the same routines and rituals – and any attempt at changing the slightest element can set off a major meltdown. But the fact is: We live in an ever-changing world. As Fort Myers occupational therapists, one of our primary goals when treating children with autism spectrum disorder is to teach them flexibility.

Flexibility is the quality of being easily bent but not broken. It’s not a natural skill for any of us. Think about your reactions when events take a sudden, unexpected (and unwanted) turn. But the ability to be flexible is what allows us to move on from the big emotions of that and continue with the task or the rest of the day.

Change is just an inherent part of the world we’re in. Lots of kids with autism struggle with this – and often for seemingly very minor things. Helping them learn to get themselves “unstuck” is critical for functioning in daily life.

How Can Fort Myers Occupational Therapists Teach Flexibility? 

Because adherence to rigid patterns is a core characteristic of autism, formulating an intervention and treatment plan for it needs to be done with great care. What we’re not looking to do is turn someone who is largely inflexible into someone who goes along with everything. It’s important that kids maintain their ability to be assertive and voice their needs and wants. The goal instead is to teach them how to adapt in ever-changing environments. Because the fact is, absolutely nothing will be constant forever. There will always, always be things occurring outside of their control. Teaching them how to identify their feelings when that happens – and then self-regulate – is essential.

Of course, the notion of “flexibility” is fairly abstract. That makes it tougher to teach, but our occupational therapists have many strategies. Many of those involve increasing their tolerance to certain changes in patterns and routines, giving them tools to cope with those incremental changes, and then delivering positive reinforcement when they show improved flexibility.

An example would be starting with a certain game they love. But maybe they always have to be “the red guy.” But we take the red piece away. Now they have a choice to make: Play with the blue or yellow piece or don’t play at all. Their initial response may be to meltdown and not play at all. But we help them see there are things about the situation they can control and that are constant. We give them strategies like deep breathing, requesting, and taking a break that help them move past this seemingly major change. Once they are able to do this successfully, we may move on to making that game entirely unavailable. It’s an even bigger crisis of pattern interruption, but we continue to teach them ways to identify their feelings, voice them, and have a plan for how they’re going to cope with the change in ways that are expected/socially appropriate.

It’s important that these strategies for flexibility focus on empowerment. It’s not simply compelling a child to go along with whatever anyone else says without disappointment or resistance. It’s giving them the tools to de-escalate their own internal responses so that they can react from a place of self-possessed calm. It’s also giving them the assurance that even when things don’t go exactly as they expect, it will still be Ok.

Ultimately, the goal is for them to be able to carry over these skills of flexibility into other areas of life.

If your child is on the autism spectrum and struggles with flexibility, our Fort Myers occupational therapists can help.

FOCUS offers pediatric speech therapy, ABA therapy, occupational therapy and physical therapy in Southwest Florida. Call (239) 313.5049 or Contact Us online.

Additional Resources:

Signs and Symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorders, CDC

More Blog Entries:

My Son Has Autism… When – and How – Should I Tell Him? July 25, 2021, Fort Myers Occupational Therapy Blog

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