Understanding and Addressing Black & White Thinking in Autistic Children: Practical Strategies for Parents

Written by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS
Dr Lucy Russell Clinical Psychologist Founder of They Are The Future
Author: Dr Lucy Russell, Clinical Psychologist

The cognitive pattern of black and white thinking is a very common trait of autistic people. It refers to a tendency to view situations, emotions, and ideas in absolutes or extremes.

For example, as a child psychologist I often work with children who will provide me with a list of people they “hate” and a list of people they like. There is no in-between.

You may notice that black and white thinking affects different areas of your child’s life, such as social interactions, emotional regulation, and problem-solving. Black and white thinking can also contribute to anxiety. For example, a child might assume that their school trip will be “100% terrible” and that there is nothing whatsoever about it that they will enjoy.

Positives of Black and White Thinkers

Just like all autistic traits, whilst this thinking pattern may create difficulties in some situations, it can also be an advantage in other contexts.

It is not always a bad thing.

For example, black and white thinkers can often make quick decisions in situations where there is a clear right or wrong answer. Autistic people often have a strong sense of justice, fairness and loyalty which is enhanced by their black and white thinking.

It can be a great advantage to have a clear strong opinion about an issue.

However, black and whiteness can be problematic when it leads to rigid thinking or an inability to see shades of grey in more complex situations.

Autism Spectrum Disorder and Black and White Thinking

What is Black and White Thinking?

Black and white thinking, also known as dichotomous thinking, is a cognitive feature that involves viewing situations, ideas, or beliefs in an all-or-nothing manner. In the context of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), this cognitive style is part of a cluster of features that I refer to as cognitive rigidity. Cognitive rigidity can manifest in many different ways in autistic children. For instance, your child may have difficulty with change or engage in behaviours that are perceived as unusual due to their rigid thought patterns. They may become fixated on a particular routine or way of doing things. They may insist on wearing the same clothes every day, or become very upset if their routine is disrupted.

Just because a child is autistic, doesn’t mean they will never be able to see shades of grey in a situation or accept that there is a middle ground. It’s different for every autistic person. However, some characteristics of black and white thinking in people with ASD include:

  • Inflexible thinking: They may struggle to accept that they got something wrong or interpreted something inaccurately.
  • Tendency to oversimplify: They may have difficulty considering multiple perspectives.
  • Heightened emotional sensitivity: Black and white thinking patterns can lead to intense emotional reactions to seemingly minor events or changes.

Understanding the possible connection between ASD and black and white thinking can help you better support your autistic child. I always advise parents to support the development of flexible thinking in their child, whilst also providing clear explanations and maintaining consistency as much as possible.

Examples of Black and White Thinking

Good Vs Bad

Autistic children may seeing things or people as either good or bad, including themselves. This can lead to labeling people as either entirely good or entirely bad.

To help your child in this situation, you can:

  1. Encourage your child to see both the positive and negative aspects of situations and people. Reinforce the message that people can have both good and bad qualities at the same time. Point out both positive and negative qualities in people.
  2. Teach your child to consider multiple perspectives. Encouraging them child to think about how other people might see a situation or person.
  3. Expose your child to new experiences and gently challenge their assumptions about the world.

Right Way Vs Wrong Way

Another example of black and white thinking in autism is the concept of a right way and a wrong way to do things. You might find that your autistic child will adhere staunchly to routine, as it provides security and predictability.

They might not be open to alternative ways of approaching a task, believing that their way is the only correct method.

It’s important for them to understand that there are often many ways to accomplish a goal. At the same time however, there’s nothing wrong with sticking with a specific method if it works for them.

A girl doing hopscotch. Other children are lined up waiting to have a turn at the end.

All or Nothing Thinking

Autistic children commonly struggle with all or nothing thinking, in my experience. This way of thinking can make it difficult for them to accept small gains, and they might be excessively critical of themselves or others. Some examples of all or nothing thinking include:

  • Needing to completing a task perfectly or considering it a total failure. This thought pattern often leads children to refuse to try a new activity for fear of failure.
  • Believing that if someone disagrees with them, it means that person is entirely against them.
  • Deciding “If I’m not the best at something, I’m not good at it at all.”

You can see how all or nothing thinking can lead to anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. It’s important to help our children recognize when they are engaging in all or nothing thinking and teach them to gently challenge these thoughts.

The Positives and Negatives of Black and White Thinking for Autistic Young People

When it comes to black and white thinking in autistic young people, there are both pros and cons to consider.

On the one hand, black and white thinking can be a good thing for those on the autistic spectrum. A strong sense of routine and structure can be beneficial in many areas of life.

For example, an autistic child may have a specific routine for getting ready in the morning, which includes brushing their teeth, getting dressed, and eating breakfast in a particular order. This routine can help them to feel more organized and in control of their day, reducing anxiety and stress.

Black and white thinking can also help to simplify complex situations, making it easier for young adults to understand and navigate the world around them.

Also, special interests can be a positive aspect of this type of thinking, as they provide a sense of focus and purpose.

However, there are also problems with black and white thinking for those on the autistic spectrum. Black and white thinking can lead to a lack of flexibility in a child’s thought processes and a narrow world view, where they struggle to see important differences in people and situations.

Black and white thinking can also lead to a bad day or a negative experience being seen as a catastrophic event, ultimately affecting their mental health.

boy laughing

The Impact of Black and White Thinking on Social Interactions

Relationships with Neurotypical People

When you are an autistic person, black and white thinking can lead to misunderstandings and friction in your relationships with neurotypical people.

Due to their natural inclination for concrete, unambiguous perspectives, autistic children and young people may struggle to pick up on the subtleties and nuances in conversations or social situations. This might result in misinterpretations or disagreements with others.

My best advice here is to identify any social difficulties early on and support your child one by one. Wherever possible try to do this in a way which affirms neurodiversity and celebrates your child’s strengths, whilst helping them navigate life in a neurotypical-focused world.

For example, one teen girl I know navigates peer relationships by being very open and clear. She tells people, “I am autistic so please make sure you say exactly what you mean”. This refreshing approach is welcomed by her friends and they have learned to be clear and direct in their communication style.

Justice Sensitivity in Autism: Rooted in Black & White Thinking

As I mentioned at the beginning of the article, many autistic people have a strong sense of justice and this can be a wonderful thing. Autistic teens, for example, may be less likely to be swayed by peer pressure, and instead more likely to stand up for what they believe in.

In my experience, autism and “justice sensitivity” regularly go hand in hand. What I mean by this is that autistic children I meet in my clinic tend to be highly sensitive to fairness. They may feel outraged if someone pushes into the queue for lunch. They may expect all rules to be applied stringently and get cross with teachers or peers if they are not.

Justice sensitivity can therefore contribute to social interaction difficulties, if the child is unable to “let it go”. It can also contribute to a rollercoaster of emotions in everyday life.

On the other hand, justice sensitivity can enhance social interactions too. For example, it’s extremely common for autistic children who come to my clinic to be vehemently anti-bullying and to actively stand up for other children who are being bullied.

Black and White Thinking and Sudden Changes

Sudden changes to routines or plans can be particularly challenging when you are autistic.

Sudden changes combined with black and white thinking can create a complex response in autistic individuals. The brain may interpret sudden change as a threat to survival and trigger the fight or flight response.

The autistic brain often needs more time to adapt than the neurotypical brain.

To help your child manage sudden or unexpected changes, consider the following strategies:

TAKE THE QUIZ!

Black-and-White Thinking and Mental Health

Negative Thinking Patterns

Black-and-white thinking can have a significant impact on our mental health and can contribute to the development of a variety of mental health conditions.

If young people find themselves trapped in entrenched negative black and white thinking patterns, they may feel helpless and/ or hopeless.

Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety disorders can be exacerbated by black-and-white thinking.

When you view situations in absolutes, it becomes difficult to manage the complexities of everyday life. You may struggle to cope with uncertainties and experience heightened anxiety as a result.

For example, if a child hears a loud noise outside their house, they may immediately assume that something bad is happening and become anxious about their safety.

A boy looking worried. His dad has an arm around his shoulders.

Mood Swings & Black and White Thinking

Autistic children’s mental health can also be affected by mood swings associated with black-and-white thinking. This is incredibly common amongst the autistic young people who come to my clinic.

For example, if a young person is unable to complete a task perfectly, they swing from a brilliant mood into becoming extremely upset within a split second.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: Links With Black & White Thinking

Black-and-white thinking has been found to play a role in the development and maintenance of certain mental health disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Dichotomous thinking can fuel intrusive thoughts, obsessions and compulsions, as children may feel compelled to maintain strict order and control over their environment to reduce anxiety.

Understanding and Supporting Your Autistic Child With Black and White Thinking

Clear and Logical Information

Provide clear and logical information to your autistic child. Autistic individuals may struggle with ambiguity and often prefer straightforward explanations.

When presenting new concepts or situations, try breaking them down into smaller, manageable steps. This helps them better understand the situation and increases their self-awareness.

Remember to be patient and explain things using simple and concise language.

Navigating Social Media and Social Situations

Social media can be particularly challenging for your autistic child due to the abundance of information, opinions, and complex social interactions.

Encourage them to use social media in moderation and guide them in developing safe online habits.

When it comes to social situations online, you can gently coach your child to recognise different perspectives and the importance of considering others’ feelings.

The most important rule for them to learn however, is not to act on impulse, and always to think responses through before posting online. What might seem black and white to them, might seem complex and less clear to others.

Understanding From Adults

It is crucial for adults in your child’s life to have a comprehensive understanding of autism and black and white thinking.

Connect with autism services, support groups, and professionals to make sure you are confident in your understanding, and build a strong support network.

Encourage teachers, relatives, and other involved adults to learn more about autism and adapt their approach to better support your child.

Encouraging Flexible Thinking

Help your child develop flexible thinking whilst celebrating their uniqueness as an autistic person.

Remember, in many aspects of life black and white thinking can be an advantage.

  • Problem-solving tasks: Engage your child in activities that require creative thinking and developing alternative solutions.
  • Role-playing: This can help your child understand different perspectives and practise empathising with others.
  • Exposure to new experiences: Encourage your child to explore and embrace new hobbies, environments, and social settings, as long as these do not place too much stress on your child.

Supporting your autistic child with black and white thinking involves patience, understanding, and a collaborative approach.

Develop a strong support system, and strive to create a nurturing environment where your child can learn, grow, and thrive.

Case Study: 13-Year-Old Maura

Maura is a 13-year-old girl on the autistic spectrum who has a tendency towards black and white thinking. This way of thinking has been affecting her self-esteem and her friendships for a long time.

Maura feels like a failure if she doesn’t achieve something perfectly, so she very rarely tries new things. This has led to her having low self-esteem and feeling like she’s not good enough.

Maura can struggle with social situations, as she tends to see people as either good or bad. She falls out with friends regularly and labels them as “bad”, finding it very difficult to forgive a misdemeanor even if they have previously been a good friend to her. This can make it difficult for Maura and maintain friendships.

Maura’s parents and teachers recognized these challenges and worked together to support her.

Through a nurture group at school, they began by helping her to understand that it’s okay to make mistakes and that failure is a part of learning. They encouraged her to focus on the positive aspects of situations and to see the grey shades in between. They praised her for giving new activities a go. They “modelled” trying and failing.

For example, Maura’s dad would try a new cake recipe and point out his successes and failures from the recipe to Maura. He gradually managed to persuade Maura to try some simple cake recipes herself.

In friendships, teaching staff worked 1-1 with Maura to challenge her “one strike and you’re out” friendship rule. With open discussion and gentle challenging, Maura could understand that nobody is perfect in friendships and one slip-up doesn’t mean that another person cannot be a good friend overall.

She began to be a little more forgiving towards others when they engaged in gentle teasing or said something she didn’t agree with.

Over time, Maura’s self-esteem began to improve. She became more confident in her abilities. She also began to develop stronger friendships, as she learned to see people in a more nuanced way and to appreciate their positive qualities.

With the support of her parents and teachers, Maura was able to develop a more balanced way of thinking, which allowed her to navigate the challenges of adolescence with greater ease.

Throughout, Maura’s parents and teachers maintained an awareness that they wanted to provide gentle coaching and guidance, not change the essence of Maura as a person, with her many autistic strengths.

teen girl with dog close up

Interventions and Therapy For Black and White Thinking

In this section, I discuss various approaches that can be helpful for autistic young people who experience black and white thinking that is causing problems in their lives.

Parent Training and School Staff Training

One of the most crucial steps in supporting autistic children and teens is to train school staff to truly understand their cognitive patterns.

For example, if they are refusing to go into class, this is not a display of “poor behaviour”. Teachers must look under the surface to discover why.

Here are some possible reasons:

  • A different teacher (“I am only good at poetry with Mr Collins, so I won’t be able to do it.”)
  • A new topic (“I don’t like learning about the Romans because I don’t know anything about them.”)
  • Fear of failure (“Ms Donnelly said she expected us all to get 80% on the test this week. I won’t get 80% so it’s better not to try.”)

Work collaboratively with your child’s teachers, developing a positive framework in which they are always open to new knowledge about autism, and in particular about your child’s individual needs.

A girl looks upset. She is turned away from a boy sat on the same sofa.

Adapting the Environment

An adapted classroom environment can help autistic children who are affected by black and white thinking.

Adaptations include incorporating visual cues and structured routines to reduce anxiety and provide predictability.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a highly effective therapeutic intervention for addressing common cognitive distortions in autism, including black and white thinking.

In CBT, a therapist works with the child to help them recognise and gently challenge unhelpful thinking patterns, develop coping strategies, and promote flexible thinking.

CBT is suitable for children from around 9 years of age. Before this, they will not have the ability to identify and analyse their own thoughts.

Therapy can be offered by clinical psychologists or CBT therapists. It’s vital that your child’s therapist is experienced in autism and knows how to adapt CBT to meet their specific needs.

For example, they may use more visuals and diagrams if your child responds well to these.

Social Stories and Comic Strip Conversations

Social Stories and Comic Strip Conversations are visual and narrative tools that can help autistic young people understand complex social situations in a less black and white way.

They can be used to address black and white thinking by providing alternative perspectives and demonstrating the nuances in social interactions.

Key Take Aways: Black & White Thinking in Your Autistic Child

  1. Black and white thinking is a common trait in autistic people that can be a great thing. However, sometimes it can contribute to problems in their lives such as friendship difficulties.
  2. Autistic young people who engage in black and white thinking may have a strong sense of justice and fairness, and be able to make quick decisions.
  3. However, black and white thinking can also lead to difficulties in managing uncertainty and change or seeing the complexities of a situation, and can exacerbate anxiety and stress.
  4. To support autistic children who engage in black and white thinking, try to keep information clear and concrete. A structured environment will allow your child to feel safe and secure.
  5. If black and white thinking is causing a problem for your child, there are various approaches. Challenging black and white thinking through cognitive-behavioral therapy, for example, can help children develop a more nuanced understanding of the world. This may support them in social interactions and other important areas of their lives.
A girl smiling

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Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years. In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children.

Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.

Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.

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