In this Episode
Adapting to change can be really difficult for our neurodiverse learners, particularly those on the autism spectrum.
In this episode, we’re going to talk about why change is so hard and look at some tools for helping your child build stronger comprehension and mental flexibility.
In this week's episode, you'll learn:
- Reasons behind mental inflexibility
- Tips for you and your inflexible child or teen
- 2 easy strategies you can use right now to integrate both hemispheres of the brain
"The first step in building more mental and emotional flexibility is identifying the underlying skills that are not serving the student well enough."
- Jill Stowell
- Cross Crawls - braingym.org
- Infinity Walk Book I: The Physical Self by Deborah Sunbeck
- Infinity Walk: Preparing Your Mind to Learn! by Deborah Sunbeck
- At Wit's End - Chapter 20: Other Causes of Learning Problems
LD Expert Podcast - Episode #60
Mental Flexibility Tools for Neurodiverse Learners - Jill Stowell
Jill Stowell: Have you ever had a flight canceled at the last minute or been called to pick up your sick child from school in the middle of your work day?
Life throws us curve balls all the time. Sometimes, it’s just plain overwhelming, but the more quickly we can adapt to the change, the more ease we can feel.
Adapting to change can be really difficult for our neurodiverse learners, particularly those on the autism spectrum. In this episode, we’re going to talk about why change is so hard and look at some tools for helping your child build stronger comprehension and mental flexibility.
Welcome to the LD Expert Podcast, your place for answers and solutions for dyslexia and learning differences.
One of the most important skills for anyone, regardless of neurological makeup, is mental flexibility. Mental flexibility involves the ability to adapt to new situations, changes in perspective, and adjust to different ways of thinking.
For neurodiverse learners, mental flexibility can be especially important, because they may need to navigate a variety of learning environments and teaching styles that don’t necessarily align with their unique needs.
I’m your host, Jill Stowell, founder and executive director of Stowell Learning Centers and author of Take the Stone Out of the Shoe, A Must-Have Guide to Understanding, Supporting, and Correcting Dyslexia, Learning, and Attention Challenges.
Why is it that your child is so rigid and stuck in routines?
Why are transitions or doing something different so hard?
I remember, years ago, my brother-in-law, who is a neurodiverse thinker, was so excited to see my daughter perform with Disney on Ice. He loved Disney, so he just couldn’t wait. But when it was time to get in the car, he flat-out refused to budge.
What was that all about?
It certainly felt like stubbornness, but the truth was, that as soon as things were different than his typical routine, he felt insecure and maybe even unsafe. At the core, humans are survivors, and when we can’t quickly and accurately perceive or assess our surroundings, we feel unsafe. If we can’t think into the future to evaluate how something will turn out, it’s more secure to stick with the routines that we know. That is just human nature.
Let’s think about some of our students with different thinking styles. An individual with an auditory processing disorder is going to miss or mishear information, causing them to feel a little lost much of the time. They may tend to avoid meeting new people or going to new places because their auditory system can’t quickly and reliably tune-in to new voices and tune-out a new set of extraneous noises. Predictability supports their compromised auditory system.
I remember a 12-year old student who had visual processing and comprehension challenges. He became almost physically ill when his family would go to a restaurant because he couldn’t look at the whole environment and understand what he was seeing. He felt disoriented and unsafe.
Students with autism and OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) find security in strict routines and rules. The way they perceive the world through their senses may not be reliable, but the structure they cling to gives them a sense of control. And if you think about it, you probably have little things in your life that you routinely do that give you a stronger sense of control.
The more mentally flexible you are, the more easily you can navigate life and relationships. We see our students becoming more aware and more flexible as their underlying skills base becomes stronger and more consistent.
The most basic foundation of learning and functioning is movement, in particular reflex movements. The reflexes that babies are born with jump start learning by getting babies moving, even before birth. Infant reflexes integrate - maturing into lifelong reflexes or essentially disappearing when no longer needed. If these primitive infant reflexes continue to fire when not needed, they can cause discomfort, kind of like little neurological glitches.
Think of the nervous system as a highway, and unintegrated reflexes as little roadblocks along that highway. Humans are survivors, so we figure out ways to function, but just like getting around a roadblock when you’re driving, compensating for retained or unintegrated reflexes makes things take longer and feel more difficult.
The first step in building more mental and emotional flexibility is identifying the underlying skills that are not serving the student well enough - whether it’s retained reflexes, poor body awareness and control, auditory or visual processing, memory, or attention. These skills can be developed, and we see over and over, that when students have a strong foundation of processing skills they can operate with greater ease and flow. They can be more flexible and roll with the punches, so to speak.
I remember a student we worked with named Anya. Anya was 11-years old. Her family really liked to go to Baskin Robbins for ice cream, and they kind of did that every weekend, and Anya had never chosen any kind of ice cream other than vanilla. She was autistic and very afraid to branch out and try anything new. One day, her mom came into the Learning Center, ecstatic, saying that her daughter had chosen chocolate ice cream on the family’s weekend trip to Baskin Robbins!
One of the things that we see with our students, regardless of the type of challenges, is that as we work to help them develop more consistent and stronger underlying processing skills, they become more secure, confident, and mentally flexible. Being able to process information more quickly and accurately allows them to understand and adapt to change more easily.
Let’s talk about some things that you can do at home to make life a little smoother for you and your inflexible child or teen.
First, we all do better when we’re prepared. If you know your child is disrupted by change, take plenty of time to prepare him ahead of time for any changes coming up at home or school. If you’re going to have relatives come stay in your home, or if you’re going out to dinner or on a trip, multiple times, talk about what to expect. Talk about it, visualize it, role play it. Get your child to talk through it. Our students on the autism spectrum tend to be very visual, so drawings, photos, or other visuals can help.
If your child tends to get stuck, here are a couple of integrating activities that will help them get unstuck and be more open to a bigger picture.
The left hemisphere of the brain tends to focus on details and sequential information, The right hemisphere tends to see the big picture - the whole. We need both perspectives for ease in learning and functioning. When individuals are stuck, it’s often in the left brain details - they can’t seem to see the forest for the trees.
These activities will activate both hemispheres of the brain to work together.
So the first one is cross crawls. And, if you’ve been following us, you’ve probably seen this in our social media or on some other episodes. But it’s just a simple, really great activity for getting both sides of the brain working together.
You can do it standing or sitting. We typically do it standing, but either way is ok. You’re going to take one hand and cross over and touch the opposite knee. And then take the other hand and touch the opposite knee. And just alternate, crossing hand-to-knee, hand-to-knee. Do that for 30-60 seconds at a moderate pace. Sometimes our kids get going really really fast with it, and pretty soon, they’re not really crossing anymore. And crossing the midline of your body is really important. That’s what’s helping to integrate. So hand to the opposite knee. Do it for 30-60 seconds.
The second one is called infinity walk. And what you’re going to do is in a nice, big space, you’re going to walk the infinity sign. If that’s hard for your child to do, you might have them follow you as you walk the infinity sign. And so they’re just going to – you’re going to coach them with a soft, quiet, slow voice to walk at a moderate pace, to look forward, to just kind of relax their shoulders as they walk around that infinity sign or, what we sometimes call a “lazy 8.” And they should do that a number of times until you see that they’re just starting to relax.
These are really good activities for your kids to do before and after school or at transition times between assignments at school or between homework assignments. Cross crawls are very effective and very easy to do, even for a whole classroom.
In order to be flexible with information, we have to have good comprehension of the whole or the big picture and an understanding of how the parts or details fit in.
Do you ever read the synopsis for a book or a TV series before reading or watching it? Having that glimpse at the big picture gives you context for the characters and story so that you can feel more engaged from the beginning.
Remember the boy I mentioned who felt physically ill when his family would go to a restaurant? When he walked in the door, he just couldn’t “see” how the restaurant was organized. So there was just a lot of noise, people, and things, and movement in the space. He felt disoriented and uncomfortable.
When we work with comprehension at the learning center, we’re always are trying to build an understanding of the big picture. If the student is reading a story, we have them visualize what they’re reading about and imagine the images sequentially on the walls. We look at who is in every picture. What the action or idea seems to be for every picture. This kind of helps the student see what the whole story is about.
When we’re working with planning and executive function, we always want the student to start with the end in mind. “When I’m done, what do I want this to look like?” It’s easy for them to get stuck in specific details, so we want them to know what they are working toward or where they are headed first.
Once you have that big picture in mind, you can start to build some flexibility. It takes some forethought, but you can begin to build the idea of more than one way to do things into your everyday life.
An autistic child may have rituals and routines that they must follow everyday in order to feel in control and secure. Don’t start with those hard, fast rituals, but with things that the child is not particularly attached to. What you’re doing is building the idea that you can do things in different ways.
For example, if you’re going to the grocery store, together, visualize and talk about how the store is laid out.
In the store I shop at, the produce is on the far right side of the store and the dairy products are on the far left side. Then look at your store list and have your child help you plan out which side of the store to start on. Help them see that because most of what you need today is produce, you’ll start on that side of the store. You can propose different scenarios. “What if I mostly needed dairy products, which side should we start on?”
Use a visual schedule so that your child can see the big picture of the day and the order that they will do things. Together, notice the transition times. Visualize and talk about what will happen during the transition.
For example, your child may have some free time on Saturday morning, but he has a soccer game at 11. Stopping what he’s engaged in to get ready for soccer may be a challenge every single week. On the visual schedule, show both the free time and plenty of time for the transition. Visualize, role play, and talk through exactly what will happen in that transition time; turning off the iPad and putting it away, getting dressed for soccer, and going to the car. Keep in mind the intention of: preparing for transitions and change in advance and the big picture of play time, getting ready time, and get in the car time.
At Stowell Learning Centers, we help children and adults eliminate struggles associated with dyslexia and learning differences. We want to make this journey easier for you. Connect with us on social media and on our website, stowellcenter.com, for information and free resources.
If you found this episode valuable, please “like” and share. The struggles associated with dyslexia and learning differences can change. Let’s rewrite the narrative together.
- Episode 64: Brain Training for Self-Care, Focus, and Productivity – Alex Doman
- Episode 63: Dear Moms of Neurodiverse Learners… – Megan Champion
- Episode 62: 2E and Misunderstood – Lauren Ma
- Episode 61: School Refusal, Digital Media, and Medication and ADHD – Dr. Keeban Nam
- Episode 60: Mental Flexibility Tools for Neurodiverse Learners – Jill Stowell
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