Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) often experience unique challenges surrounding communication, verbal, social, and motor skills than someone who is of neurotypical development. Specifically so, while it can feel trying for many of us to adapt to new and unfamiliar situations, for someone on the Spectrum doing may feel debilitating, even next to impossible. Yes, learning to be flexible takes practice, but someone with autism may require a specialized plan suited to their individual needs before changing up their daily routine.
Still, if the change is brought on too quickly, or unwarranted pressure is placed on someone to adopt new beliefs and behaviors, the severity of one’s symptoms, as well as problem behavior, could increase—ultimately causing someone with autism to become frustrated, anxious, or untrusting about leaving their safety net again. This of course can also be a difficult place for caregivers and professionals to navigate. We must remember that change and growth are a process—one that is unique to the individual whether they’re on the Spectrum or not—and must be initiated with responsibility and care.
Here, we provide some tips that can help someone with autism branch out of their comfort zone and continue taking steps forward for ongoing success.
Before discussing the significance between autism and familiarity, it’s helpful to establish an understanding of the disorder as well as which symptoms contribute to the strong uneasiness of leaving one’s comfort zone.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurological and developmental disorder caused by differences in the brain that can result in problems with social communication and interaction, as well as restricted or repetitive behaviors or interests. Individuals with autism may also learn at various speeds and by way of different methods than someone who is of neurotypical functioning.
Autism is viewed “on a Spectrum” since symptoms and severity will vary from one individual to the next; where one individual may be mildly impaired by their diagnosis, another may be severely impaired and require more supportive services.
In looking at the symptoms of this disorder (https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-Conditions/Related-Conditions/Autism), several contribute to the reasoning of why it proves challenging for some individuals with ASD to step away from, even temporarily, what’s familiar and safe.
Let’s take a look at a few.
The above symptoms can make it difficult to adapt to new and unfamiliar situations, especially when these situations call for shifting their routine and communicating with others in a way that feels worlds apart from one’s own. When placed in a situation individuals do not yet have the skills to navigate or have deemed threatening (real or perceived), it’s common to see agitation, defiance, withdrawn behavior, or engagement in highly concentrated repetitive behaviors to help counteract the internal chaos.
Tanner Browning explains it spot-on here (https://ocaspergers.org/index.php/2019/03/18/tanner-browning-autism-and-flexibility/):
“Inertia is a feeling of being paralyzed during stressful events. Oftentimes when people with Autism must leave their comfort zone, they just shut down. The result is that they then become isolated and more inflexible. This can be frustrating for parents who must deal with their child’s lack of flexibility.”
But, as professionals and family members of persons with autism know, it can be worthwhile to challenge the attachment to one’s comfort zone (through way of environment, routines, and/or behaviors) to achieve an overall more fulfilling, enriching life experience.
When we’re repeatedly exposed to new and unfamiliar situations, and come out the other side unharmed, we’re likely to feel less inhibited and more willing to continue challenging our perceived boundaries. Here, is where we realize our strengths and our capabilities. And while some of us may take notice of our accomplishments straight away, others of us may need a marker of some sort—a way to better connect the cause and effect of our exceptional efforts and to remain motivated for next time. This is why monitoring one’s current skills and level of readiness, as well as using a reward-based system, can help immensely for individuals with autism looking to increase their flexibility.
One might now ask the question—so, how do I proceed with helping my child, student, or client become more flexible, less tied to their habitual routines, and willing to try something new? The answer is not always one-size-fits-all but below you’ll find some great ways to help veer you in the right direction and keep you on track for ongoing success.
A diagnosis of autism does not suggest that someone cannot leave their comfort zone, or that they shouldn’t make efforts to do so to avoid the onset of difficult thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Rather, with adequate time, patience, support, and the right methods in place, individuals with ASD can make incredible progress, opening the door to an abundance of opportunities ahead.
What is Autism Spectrum Disorder? | CDC
Autism | NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness
Tanner Browning: Autism and Flexibility - OCASG (ocaspergers.org)