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Students with autism are not known for being flexible when unexpected changes occur, and this can be a nightmare for many parents and special education teachers. It might even lead to the treated tantrums. Luckily there are ways to improve this and reduce a student’s attempts to be controlling and improve flexibility.
Have you ever had a student throw a fit over a sudden change in the schedule? What about if something wasn’t done exactly the way it was expected to go? How about if someone said something that was not the way the child liked?
This comes from what many of my coworkers and I call a lack of flexibility.
According to The Autism Breakthrough by Raun Kaufman, flexibility is not just when we can bend our bodies in all kinds of strange ways, but also our ability to adapt to change.
Kaufman and the Autism Institute suggest that lack of flexibility leads to controlling behaviors, which means something specific in their therapeutic practice, Son Rise. For more information click here.
However in practical settings, outside of their therapeutic setting controlling behaviors might look different.
It could be a student demanding that they get a certain lego piece in a specific size or color. Or a child insisting that they get a break at a set time, and getting upset if it comes later. It also could look like a student telling their friends or family what to say.
If your kiddos are getting Son Rise, then there’s a specific way to handle that, but if they aren’t, how do you handle that controlling behavior while still respecting their wishes and encouraging flexibility?
This post is going to handle my strategies for handling controlling behaviors, and ways to talk to students about them. Make sure also join my email list to get my checklist for flexible thinking versus controlling others, and access to everything else in the free resource library.
Why Do Our Kids Do It?
The first thing I learned in my first dedicated class on behavior in students with special needs, is that every behavior has a motivation. A student is not doing something just because. They want something.
Typically controlling behavior is not actually about the specific results of the behavior. Your student might want that specific lego piece or for their friends to say a certain phrase, but really the bigger deal is they’re trying to make their way in the world.
Our kids, particularly if your student is nonverbal, have such little control over their surroundings. And who can blame them? The world is a big scary place!
Your student might be sitting there thinking something along the lines of, I have no idea what this lady is talking about, but if I scream and cry about a missing lego piece she’ll get up and get it for me.
Bam, they did one thing and were able to control how you responded. That probably made them feel good, so approach them with empathy when you’re trying to address this challenge.
They aren’t bad kids. They’re just trying to gain a sense of security.
What does flexibility look like?
Imagine you’re in an airport in St. Louis. You’re trying to get to Denver. You have your ticket printed and the itinerary saved to your phone. Your partner is going to pick you up from the airport at a set time.
Then every traveler’s nightmare happens. There are mechanical problems and your flight gets canceled. Everyone around you is very angry. Some people are screaming, but you stay calm. You go up to the counter and politely ask the desk clerk what can be done.
He says you can get a flight to Kansas City and make a connection there to Denver. The flight to Kansas City leaves an hour later, and your connection will be thirty minutes long, but overall, not the end of the world. You would have flown over Kansas City if you flew directly anyhow. All you really need to do is get to your new gate and call your partner to pick you up at a new time.
That is flexibility. It’s the ability to adapt to sudden unexpected changes. It’s being the person who gets in line to talk to the gate agent rather than being one of the screaming people.
Now we’re not talking about having the ability to make a new plan. For that, you need executive functioning.
Flexibility isn’t about making a new plan. It’s about how you respond to problems and changes, and simply not having control over everything.
How do we increase flexibility?
The first thing you need to do is introduce changes to your child. Start small, like getting them a lego piece that is the right size but maybe a different color. It’s not the end of the world.
If your student asks that you do something a certain way, tell them “I actually prefer to do it like this.”
Exert your will in small controlled environments to get them used to not being able to control everything you do. Make each thing a little bigger, slowly over time.
Be prepared for crying. It will happen eventually, no matter how small you start. When your student cries, remain calm. Once they’re able to think clearly, ask them if this is a big deal or if they are actually unsafe in any way.
Giving into the crying will only reinforce that crying is a way to control other people rather than a perfectly valid way to express a feeling.
The second thing to do is stop shielding them from unexpected changes, and be upbeat and calm when these changes occur.
Doctor’s appointments get moved up, playdates cancel, picnics get rained out, and there’s nothing to be done.
I had a student once walk around the building crying about how I was mean because I wouldn’t let him go outside for recess. It was snowing, and I told him the school rule was if it’s snowing, we don’t go out. He kept telling me to change it and didn’t understand when I said I couldn’t.
It took a while, but eventually, he calmed down. It taught him a valuable lesson that not only can he not control everything, but I can’t either. I let him learn that lesson and feel those feelings before pointing out all the awesome things we got to do instead.
He wound up having a nice indoor recess and played games with his friends.
As time goes on and they get better at adapting to change, be sure to praise their progress and responses.
Don’t forget to explain it
Whenever I’m teaching a new social skill, I like to give my students a formal lesson on it, to make sure they understand what I’m doing and any language I might use, like, “Thanks for being flexible.”
If you’re interested in teaching your students about controlling behaviors versus flexible behaviors, make sure to define both and give examples.
They should also know that if they don’t get to control others, then their friends don’t get to control them.
You can also purchase my premade lesson on controlling others versus flexibility from my teachers pay teachers store, by clicking here.
It includes fun graphics, text boxes for you to take notes on your great conversation with your students, and scenarios with clickable buttons to give your students practice and instant feedback!
Teaching students to stop controlling others and be more flexible takes time. Be sure to be kind to yourself and students as they learn this skill.
Some things they might accept easily, and other things might come as more of a challenge. That can change from week to week, and it’s okay.
The important thing is to remain calm, and model being flexible yourself. Allow them to express emotions and help them learn healthy coping techniques.
Also, be sure to check out this blog post on executive functioning so you know how to help your kiddos learn to make new plans once they’re masters in flexibility.
Don’t forget to join my email list to get access to the free resource library, including my checklist on signs your students are controlling or flexible.