Bend, Don't Break - Teaching Flexibility

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By Dan Coulter

Want to be more flexible? Try yoga. Want your child with Asperger Syndrome to be more mentally flexible? Try mental yoga.

I can attest to the physical yoga. A painful back sent me to the doctor, who sent me to a physical therapist. Regular stretching (suspiciously similar to yoga exercises I’d done in the past) dramatically eased the aching muscles in my back. No surgery. No injections. No quick fix.

It’s taken about a month to really see results, and I have mentally grumbled about taking an hour twice a day to stretch. But I’m due for another physical therapy appointment soon and expect I’ll be able to cut back to maintenance stretching that takes less time.

Just like it felt impossible to bend over when my back and leg muscles were tight, it can seem impossible for someone with Asperger Syndrome to bend mentally. Before you get frustrated with your child for this inflexibility, consider how he might see things.

Say he’s standing next to the edge of the Grand Canyon to have his picture taken. The photographer asks him to take a step back and moves forward as if to push him. Your child knows this would plunge him to the canyon floor. Apprehension turns to panic, and he resists. Then he’s too freaked out to hear anything else the photographer says.

That may be how he’s feeling when he resists what seems like a simple, obvious suggestion from you – and insists on doing things his way.

Many people with AS rely on structure. Creating a detailed mental structure for what will happen and knowing how it fits together makes them feel safe and comfortable. To you, moving a block in that structure a few inches is no big deal. But to your child, it may seem like you’re pulling out a keystone that’s going bring the whole building crashing down on you both. Understanding your child’s perspective can help you design a mental yoga program to gradually stretch his capacity to deal with change and see things more realistically.

You can start by helping him build some options into his structure. Instead of saying, “We’re going to the park tomorrow,” you might say, “Let’s plan to go to the park tomorrow, but if it rains, we’ll go to the library or the science museum.” You can make a very small change in her routine in a safe environment, and show her there are no disastrous consequences. You might talk her into eating a different cereal, or playing with an alternative toy. Try to avoid situations that spark confrontations and meltdowns. If they occur, wait until things calm down to teach. An overwhelmed brain is protective, not receptive.

Praise him or provide other rewards when he’s successful at being flexible, even in a small way. Look for opportunities to have her practice being increasingly adaptable, in different situations, as she gets older. Before he enters a situation, talk about what may happen and give him alternatives for how to react. At the end of a day, routinely talk about how you found alternatives when things didn’t go as you planned. Be a role model of flexibility.

Gaining even a modest ability to adapt could tip the scales toward a happy, independent life for your child. A life in which he gives the photographer a chance to point out the suspension bridge that he didn’t notice over the canyon, and what a great picture they can make when your child takes that next step.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dan Coulter is the author of the DVD, "Asperger Syndrome for Dad: Becoming an Even Better Father to Your Child with Asperger Syndrome." You can find more articles on his website:

Copyright 2011 Dan Coulter All Rights Reserved Used By Permission

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