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Understanding Rigidity in Autism

Understanding Rigidity in Autism

I had my first stereotypical autistic moment in 2024, and this is what I learned about autistic rigidity.

My spouse and I were in the grocery store, perusing the dairy aisle for my preferred oat milk that I use only in smoothies and shakes. I beelined it right to where the store normally stocks it. As I reached out to pick one in haste, my brain came to a screeching halt like a fast-moving train engaging the emergency breaks. The brand name of the oat milk was in a different font, on a differently designed carton, with a clear label of the parent company that was previously non-existent.

“This is usually where they keep it, but I don’t think this is the right one,” I said to my spouse.

“What do you mean? It’s the same name.”

“I know, but the font isn’t even the same!”

We both stared at the alternative milk section for a while, processing what to do next as only two AuDHDers would do. My spouse patiently waited for my next move.

“Right, can you Google to see who the parent company is? And maybe if there is anything published about a change in branding?” I queried.

Even though I had my own phone where I could have done this, doing so would have been too overwhelming. I needed time to process the change from my expectation that was taking place, so delegated this task to my spouse while my brain continued processing this new information.

As my spouse pulled up the search results, I exclaimed, “See! This is the branding I’m used to! And look, the product doesn’t even look like that anymore!”

“Yeah, the font is completely different, too.” My spouse confirmed.

He stared and scrolled some more. Clicking links, while I bit my lip to manage my growing anxiety. Eventually he said, “So, the parent company label is accurate. It seems like they did just change the branding, so it’s the same.”

“It’s the same? You promise?”


“Okay, fine, we’ll buy it. But, if I die, on your head be it,” I facetiously joked to lighten the mood of what just took place.

“I think that’s a risk I’m willing to take,” he joked back.

Even though I decided to trust that the product was the same, I could not get my mind off it for the rest of the shop. I kept ruminating over the details and re-confirming the new details of what we learned trying to integrate the new information. The days since this shop was no different.

I realised, instead, that maybe I needed to understand why this was like a scratchy sweater I was gifted, and chose to wear to keep the people around me happy. Through the exploration of where my apprehension came from, I learned a few things that I wanted to share with you all in case it helps give language to what you experience or if your experience would expand on mine.

First and foremost, as the saying goes, if you met one autistic person—you met one autistic person. We’re not all going to react the same way to a particular context because we all have our own contexts that we come from and grew up in. We also know that we are usually told that a trait of autism is rigidity in thinking. This moment I had in the grocery store taught me that, instead, maybe it’s not a symptom of pathology at all. Maybe it’s a symptom of the world we’re collectively living in where we are traumatised and limited in our ability to practice autonomy. The mirroring of symptoms between trauma and neurodivergence more broadly deserves a deeper understanding so we can begin to identify what is our responsibility to ‘fix’, and what responsibility belongs to the people in positions of power like corporate CEOs, or politicians.

Understanding Rigidity in Autism

There is no shortage of discussions on rigid or inflexible thinking and the way it has been associated with Autism. So much so, some researchers consider it to be a “vulnerability factor”, citing that flexible thinking is what we need in order to “adapt to a world with changing environmental demands”. Many of the examples that we hear are stereotypical ones like an inability or difficulty of taking another person’s perspective into account, or a need for strict routine. In fact, therapeutic organizations acknowledge the history of clinicians “working to eliminate repetitive behaviors in people with autism”.

In fact, even through understanding the cause of ‘rigid thinking’ or ‘inflexibility’, well-meaning organizations still find themselves doubling down on the responsibility of ‘maladaptive rigidity’ being with autistics because of the unpredictability of the world we live in. We now know that change creates insecurity and anxiety, and that this isn’t unique to autistics. Indeed, whole countries are in pursuit of security that we have politicized it to be something we can get from politicians.

By thinking of it this way, we know that the reasons for rigidity are the same motivations of seeking security. For instance, we can have sensory sensitivities where abrupt changes can cause debilitating overwhelm. Or, having predictability and structure can actually be a form of self-care and support managing anxiety or overwhelm. Similarly, routines can help manage stress and emotions by supporting us in keeping sustainable work/life balance.

Yet, somehow, when it comes to neurodivergent people engaging in these practices, we try to quantify how much rigidity is necessary before it’s deemed harmful. Now, look, I’m not saying that rigidity can’t be harmful. Like, when someone’s behaviour has hurt a loved one because they consistently prioritise their wants and needs over their partner leading to neglect—that’s pretty harmful for anyone. Is it true that autistics can have a harder time of realising when this is happening, absolutely! But that doesn’t mean this ‘phenomena’ is specific to autistics, or that it needs pathologizing. Simply because autistics, and neurodivergents more generally, have a higher need of predictability due to a lower capacity of coping with overwhelm because of a world that is brutally unaccommodating.

Trauma and Its Symptoms

You may have heard of PTSD, C-PTSD, or trauma before. But just in case someone hasn’t, trauma is generally defined as an emotional response to an unpredictable event that survivors didn’t have control over or could escape from. Examples can be events like natural disasters, abuse, violence, and so on. The lasting effects of being traumatised is hypervigilance, avoidance, and difficulty with change.

These examples give us hints of the ways trauma changes the neural make-up of our brains, and how we adapt to trauma by changing our behavior to regain a sense of control and predictability that was previously taken away from us. We shift our focus from living and experiencing to surviving and seeking safety. For instance, when someone gets into a car accident they might drive slower, avoid the street where it happened or altogether, and might even pick specific times during the day to drive to avoid traffic altogether minimizing the probability of another accident in the future.

Rigidity, then, becomes a way for survivors to protect themselves and to cope with the lasting effects of the traumatizing event—and that’s just if it’s from a singular event, too. But, what happens when you can’t make these decisions because your work schedule doesn’t allow you to miss traffic hour. Or, the route where the accident happened is the only way to get to the grocery store if you live in a rural neighborhood. All of a sudden, these completely normal protective behaviors as a response to trauma are diagnosed as maladaptive behaviours. The common denominator: an environment that is so rigid and refuses to change unless it’s on the terms of those in power, and expects us to remain flexible or be subjected to being called “disordered”.

Reconceptualizing Autistic Rigidity

I want to be clear, I am not saying that autistics don’t exist! Nor am I saying that all autistics are traumatised! What I am saying, though, is that when we notice the overlap between autistic rigidity and trauma responses, we can see a pattern. We can use our fine-tuned pattern recognition to deepen our understanding of the underlying mechanisms that motivate the behaviors of both autistics, survivors, and autistic survivors.

Particularly, both autistic rigidity and trauma responses might lead individuals to have heightened stress responses which leads to a need to control their environments in any way possible to create a sense of predictability, routine, and safety. This overlap between the many diagnoses that could be associated with these responses lead to many misconceptions and misdiagnoses about and for autistic individuals. Unfortunately, misdiagnoses only increases if someone is gendered as a woman, or subjected to racial oppression, and only increases further with the combination of these marginalized identities.

Self-understanding and self-mastery as an AuDHDer – a life-long process

This brings me back to exploring my reaction to a seemingly simple brand change and the underlying lack of trust I was clearly grappling with. When I was honest with myself, it wasn’t about the brand packaging at all—it was not knowing if the stuff inside will be the same if the stuff on the outside changed. But when my spouse, someone I trust and have luckily been able to find stability with, took the responsibility of predictability that a large corporation with disposable resources should, I felt secure enough to at least try the newly branded oat milk.

In case you’re wondering, and because I wouldn’t want to keep you in suspense, yes. The oat milk was the same, and I bought it again with the new brand marketing recently.

But the sheer fear of not knowing whether or not the inside would be the same since the outside no longer was highlighted the very deep-seated trust issues I was, and am, still living with. Months later, the realization of the instability and insecurity of the attachments I had with my caregivers any people I relied on came up to the surface. Maybe, then, this lack of trust became an unfortunate foundational part of my AuDHD childhood that only repeats itself through ‘rigid’ stereotypes of autistic symptoms.

Without understanding what it takes to be rigid in the first place, can we truly say that rigidity is symptomatic of an “intolerance of uncertainty [as] explained in terms of higher uncertainty instead of higher intolerance of uncertainty with respect to neurotypicals.” Particularly because my capacity, or window of tolerance [PDF], as an AuDHDer will naturally be different to the a neurotypical’s window of tolerance who may have been traumatized but had resources or support that someone like me just doesn’t have access to in an deeply ableist world.

To be clear, people who live with PTSD are still subjected to ableism and are still forced to try and ‘heal’ on a linear colonial timeline. People who live with PTSD and have the resources and support to reach this expectation will probably be more likely to get close. Whereas, already neurodivergent people living with PTSD, even with resources and support, cannot get as close to this expectation as a neurotypical would. This is only exacerbated, again, if someone has also had an abusive childhood and/or is further marginalized. Especially if we consider that racism, ableism, and genderism (it’s a real word!) all expose people and communities to being traumatized on a daily basis in various contexts.

Understanding Rigidity in Autism Is More Complex Than You Thought

Not a single autistic person, or neurodivergent or individual in general, is the same. We’re not all going to present in the same way, especially since we all have varying experiences that shapes our lives. Similarly, we cannot assume that rigid thinking is a symptom of autism without having a deeper understanding of why this is the case in the first place.

Committing to exploring my own motivations and reasons for my seemingly unexplainable reactions helped me realise that the instability, unpredictability, and violence of the world is not something we have to accept. Unfortunately, it is still something we end up adapting to even without realizing it or without mindful decision-making to minimize being exposed to a traumatic experience again.

Deepening our understanding and nuance of all the ways autism and other neurodivergences overlap with trauma response symptoms opens the path for us to determine what is actually our responsibility. It opens the path for us to learn who we need to hold accountable, in what context, and where the power lies in each interaction or event. Through the practice of connecting these dots that are usually kept separate and challenging the stereotypes even if they do apply to us personally, we can do our part to shift the focus back on those who limit our access to resources, care, support, and autonomy.

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