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Rigid! Who? Me!?

Autistic people have a marked behavioural rigidity, you would hear. And people with a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder are characterised by greater cognitive inflexibility, replied the other person back. But I'm also inflexible about some things myself, retorted the first one. And I know several people who like to do things in a certain and same way, quickly adds the other. But when do we draw the clinical line of what rigidity is? asked the first. And what do we consider rigidity? asks the second.

This question about what we are talking about when we refer to rigidity and inflexibility does not end here. We could be doing the same in relation to impulsiveness, or intelligence! It is fundamental that we can continue to reflect on what these and other concepts/constructs are leading us to. Even because when we read or observe autistic people, we frequently verify that there are multiple references and characteristics related to these issues of rigidity and inflexibility in several situations, domains and areas of the person's life. Which leads us to think that all behaviour may be rigid or inflexible, when in fact we can't be sure.

We speak of rigidity and inflexibility in autism when we refer to fixed interests, insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, "black and white" views, intolerance of uncertainty, ritualized patterns of verbal and non-verbal behavior, literal interpretation, or discomfort with change. As we can see from these examples, it seems that rigidity and inflexibility seem to fit any and all behaviours, even if their nature is different. And this is also why some researchers and clinicians propose the explanation for these aspects of rigidity and inflexibility related to executive functioning. But this notion is not consensual, even though it is a fundamental contribution. Other researchers and clinicians think of these aspects as more related to strict adherence to routines and the need for a structured learning environment, and associate routines with intolerance of uncertainty and the observed behaviour is related to the avoidance of these issues. Others try to put into perspective the various facets of rigidity, for example, insistence on sameness, narrow interests, and resistance to change, but do not include intolerance of uncertainty. And if we think about the issues of literal interpretation and symmetry, we can see that we are in front of quite a wide range of behaviours and mostly little or misunderstood.

Dealing with subjectivity, ambiguity or uncertainty is challenging for any of us, but apparently even more so for autistic people. Whether because of the need for things to be the same, because it is perceived by the person as being more functional and logical that way and as such that is how it should be kept, but also because of the difficulty in providing an adequate and timely response to an unexpected situation. And if things work according to a set of rules, the breaking of those rules, whether moral or conventional, may be seen in a more negative way. All these situations being framed within what might be called cognitive inflexibility, however broadly, does not seem to be enough.

It is important to be able to have knowledge from the point of view of the neurophysiological process and the neuronal mechanisms involved. But it is equally fundamental to be able to understand the meaning attributed by each autistic person to these same behaviours. We will not be denying the medical contributions when we try to look at the psychosocial aspects, as well as its opposite. And with all this we will certainly be less rigid in the attempt to understand the person who is a dynamic, complex and multidimensional being.

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