Rigid Thinking and Set Shifting in Adult Auties


I have been meaning to do this post for a while but I finally have some concrete examples and the wherewithal to do so. “Rigid, Concrete Thinking” is often touted as one of those “signs of autism” and a myriad of examples float around the internet. That is all fine and good for neurotypical parents but when it comes to Autistics ourselves, it can be hard to generalize and apply those examples to our own thinking styles and neurology. Those examples, by and large, are those of young, male children. You’ve heard them before, “A boy can do a math problem in one room and not another”, “autistic children think in photographs and in individual examples”, “black and white thinking where a person is ALL GOOD or ALL BAD”, I could go on. Like I said, these are all examples of the way children think, not the way adults think. As with neurotypicals and any human of any neurology, we DO develop(contrary to popular belief, we do not have ‘mental ages’ and we do not come to a developmental stand still) and as such, our ways of thinking become more complex and sophisticated. So what is an adult who is wondering if they may be Autistic, or a parent of an adult child looking for diagnosis supposed to think when they don’t see themselves/their adult child exhibiting such primitive behaviours, yet the person likely does have some issues shifting set, generalizing and rigidity? We need examples that are ABOUT adults, of any gender.


Set shifting refers to what our brains do when we adapt ideas from one context to another, and shift ideas and topics. We shift cognitive strategies in response to new situations, in essence. In Autistics, this kind of thinking is not natural. Many of us DO see and think in photographic images that come in series. Others of us use semantic scripts that we use in situations. Yet again, we may become inert and unable to shift from the focus of one topic to another. This ends up with us being referred to as “rigid” with a love of routine and predictability. But how does this manifest in adult persons?

My own examples come from real life things that have happened to me. This weekend I went to Girl Guide Camp. I love camp and though I am not overtly social or extroverted, I am happy to help anyone and do a lot of heavy lifting and busy work. Everyone does their part. That’s the name of our game. So, as such, we were standing in an assembly line and loading up our camp gear into our truck. Because the bus could not come up to our building due to snow, we brought our luggage to the bus. We then went back to load up the camping utensils and gear into the truck. At first, we ordered our third years to remain and organise and tarp the luggage, and then return. The rest of us headed up and got in line. It all went smoothly and as planned. Then I had a thought. Where were our third years?

Me to Other Leader: “We forgot the third years at the end of the driveway!”
OL:”No we didnt, theyve been here helping us the whole time. You were just talking to them.”
Me: sighing, “Oh. Faces have no meaning.”

Now I am not prosopagnosic. I have other visual agnosias and I know what they are like. I CAN extrapolate. What was happening here wasn’t a case of second guessing what I saw, or of visual agnosia. It was a case of an adult example of rigid thinking and difficulties generalising. In my mind, I was not able to conceptualise the idea that the children had moved away from their original spot. Though I had seen them, my brain had not generalised and adapted to the new situation and location. As a result, I embarrassed myself quite thoroughly in front of the NT leaders that were around me, including one who is studying special education.

Another example, just in case you need one more, is a hypothetical one,
Let us say you wish to buy a game, perhaps Dragon Age. You know there is a plaza with a Walmart, an EB Games, a Gamestop and various clothing stores, a food pavillion, you get the idea. You, in your mind, conceptualise the space and context in which you would buy Dragon Age. You mentalise and plan your trip. Go to EB Games and purchase Dragon Age. When you get there, they are out of stock. Your whole day is shot! Your Plan is all messed up. What do you do next? Where do you go? How do you move your body to the next step in your plan when the first step cannot be completed? These are all things an Autistic struggles with. Furthermore, an Autistic person would not consider that they could go to Gamestop and check to see if they have Dragon Age, or that Walmart may even have it. For me, I would need someone to TELL me I could go to Gamestop to purchase my game.

This thinking is somewhat two dimensional(as much as we hear ‘black and white thinking’, two dimensional thinking is also an issue). Our conceptual brainspace is often just that. Two dimensional and discrete and concrete….rigid even. This inability to shift set can manifest as autistic inertia and can cause overload, panic, shutdown and meltdown. This is a cognitive short-out. The stuff meltdowns are notoriously made of.


These are more sophisticated and complex examples of a similar theme. Something people who are looking at ADULT Autistics need to take into consideration. We need to adapt our thinking to alternate examples. There are other, more basic examples to such as always taking the same route to work, even if it is more inefficient and not extrapolating that there are alternative ways of moving and doing things(changing a tire, doing their hair, getting dressed, brushing their teeth, making a meal, the list is endless). There is a sense of security in doing the predictable because of this inability to shift set. We do not have to embarrass ourselves if we have it down to muscle memory. No one needs to look stupid or have a meltdown in public. And yes, adult Autistics DO have meltdowns, and yes, even in public.

It is an issue of executive functioning and processing and brain space organisation. It may take me months or even years to shift set and realise there is an alternative and more efficient way of doing things. Likewise, it would take someone to remind me, prompt me or tell me that what I am seeing in my brain space is not a reliable interpretation of the world outside me. That I need to reorganise my conceptual space.

Be gentle. Think about these things and if you see an adult thinking or saying bizarre things, we’re not being stupid, we’re being Autistic. Give us that alternative context to conceptualise and prompt us to move. It does wonders, I can assure you.

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