Prepared by: Nicole Filiberti, LSW
In honor of National Autism Month, we are looking to help define and give an understanding of a thinking pattern used by children, adolescents and adults with Autism.
As a caregiver, friend, teacher or therapist, black and white thinking can sometimes feel intentional or manipulative, especially when it happens again and again and in similar situations.
Black and white, also known as polarized thinking patterns, are ways of thinking that just make sense to people with ASD. Individuals on the spectrum struggle with the nuances and non-verbal gestures and communication that exist in interpersonal interactions and communication standards that may come more naturally to others.
For example, anything lower than a 100% on a math quiz = failure. And, that’s even if the actual grade earned is a 97%. Handling conflicts is a tough one to begin with, but for someone with ASD, an argument or lack of agreement about a topic = no more friendship. A young woman with ASD may get in an argument with a friend at school and immediately feel they are not friends with this person anymore, struggling to understand that disagreements are a natural part of any relationship and can be worked through. These automatic thoughts can lead to significant setbacks in a child's academic and social functioning.
So how can we begin to help our children and adolescents develop a sense of the gray area? Below are a few strategies that can be used to help the black and white thinker in becoming more comfortable in all of the gray areas that life tends to throw our way.
Define the gray area for them
Since black and white thinkers don’t naturally see the gray, it can be helpful for others to define it for them. For example, if a child who has Autism worked on a long-term project in art class and brings it home, claiming they are disappointed with how it turned out and writing off the entire thing as a failure, a parent can ask their child questions such as "did you have to learn any new art skills to make this project?" or "what is one thing you do like about the project?" Asking these questions prompts children to see that both positive and negative aspects of one thing can coexist.
Another way to define the gray and expand the walls of black and white thinking is to ask the child or young man or woman if there are other reasons that a particular outcome may have taken place. For example, if you are driving along on the highway and notice that there has been a car accident, engage the gray area thinking by asking, “How do you think that car accident happened? How else could it have happened? What else? Anything else?” The goal is to help him to identify that it could have been the red car that hit the blue car. It could have been the driver in the blue car was texting or focusing on a phone call. Perhaps the driver in the red car sneezed or was arguing with the passenger and wasn’t processing that the driver in front of her was slowing down.
When gray area thinking isn’t happening naturally, provide choices or ask questions. For example, “Do you think it could have been the fault of the driver of the red car or the blue car? Do you think the driver didn’t notice that traffic was slowing down?”
And here’s another big set of questions – ask about perspective and feelings. “How do you think the drivers of the cars might feel? What do you think the driver of the red car is feeling right now (if the red is obviously banged up more than the blue car)?”
These conversations will not be met with ease and it will take persistence to initiate discussions about other reasons, feelings, and perspectives again and again until the language and thinking patterns begin to change, even if just a little.
Remind children that a bad moment does not equal a bad day
Many black and white thinkers are very quick to write off an entire day as a failure after making one mistake, or having one behavioral issue in school. Hearing from their teachers, parents and peers that the day still has a potential to improve can empower these children to move past their assumptions and generalizations.
This is another tough idea to internalize because one bad thing = bad day. It’s difficult to weigh the good and the bad of the day and come to the realization that although 1 or 2 bad things happened today, it was still a good day overall. Riding the ups and downs of the day is a life skill that will benefit black and white thinkers as they grow older and learn to navigate the world of school and work.
Utilize a visual
Visuals are an excellent tool to use to help expand those parameters beyond the black and white. Incorporating a rainbow with multiple colors or a traffic light visual can assist black and white thinkers by developing alternative options and will lead them to selecting the most likely and realistic outcome. That is, use the colors or different color lights to identify multiple solutions to a problem, or different possibilities that could take place if a decision is made (e.g., to end a friendship because of a disagreement, or to try to work through it and keep the friendship).
A number chart that includes rating scales of 1-10 can also assist children in understanding that the in-between area does exist. The bigger the range, the more the gray area because the nuances of the emotions expands and the child or adolescent has to make a decision how she feels without it being just happy, mad or sad. It could be a combination of feelings, or variations of angry or mad or sad.
Black and white thinking patterns can have quite the impact on everyday functioning, both in and out of school. Incorporating some of these strategies can assist black and white thinkers in challenging their automatic thought patterns. For those who see the world in nothing but extremes, it is important for them to gain some perspective and learn that life rarely fits itself perfectly into an "all or nothing" approach.
Dr. Liz Matheis
Dr Liz Matheis and her team specialize in assisting children and their families with Anxiety, Autism, AD/HD, Learning Disabilities and Behavioral Struggles