There are a lot of similarities between obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) that can make it hard to determine the appropriate type of therapeutic approach. Autism Spectrum Disorder encompasses a wide range of symptoms that often overlaps with signs of other neurodevelopmental disorders, learning disorders, or anxiety disorders. This means that teens on the spectrum may be more likely to diagnosed with other issues as well, but for some teens, being on the spectrum may offer a more accurate explanation. For example, rigid processing is a sign of both OCD and autism, although it is experienced differently depending on the root cause. 

What is Rigid Processing?

Rigid, inflexible thinking is a common characteristic of individuals with ASD, and therefore individuals may have trouble problem-solving or generating more than one solution to a problem. It is often referred to as “black-and-white” or “all-or-nothing” thinking, where people are prone to thinking in opposites and catastrophizing. 

This may explain why many teens on the spectrum :

  • Struggle adapting to changes in their routine as they thrive on consistency
  • Have trouble understanding social rules, as they tend to take things literally and struggle to anticipate how social rules may vary across different contexts
  • May come across as stubborn and resistant to change if they are having trouble picturing what that would look like
  • May feel increasingly anxious when asked to look at things differently and believe a new way of doing things would be “wrong” or “shameful.” 

While rigid processing can affect social interactions, it can also be a strength. This explains why many people with autism have a strong work ethic, appreciate structured schedules, and can be very goal-oriented. Rigid thinking helps them feel like they are in control when other things around them don’t feel the same way.

How does it relate to OCD?

Often, rigid thinking can lead to obsessive fears and restricted interests and routines, which are characteristic of both OCD and ASD. OCD’s compulsions can resemble the ‘insistence on sameness’ or repetitive behaviors many autistic people show. Compulsive behaviors, whether it looks like doing things a certain number of times or flapping one’s hands, are a form of self-soothing. However, the rigidity of needing to stick to them as part of a routine can cause more anxiety. While teens with autism often have multiple rituals that they follow when anxious, people with OCD cannot swap the specific rituals they need. People with OCD tend to follow the same routines regardless of how they’re feeling while repetitive rituals in autism are more common when they are experiencing anxiety or sensory overload.

Compared to people with autism who may struggle with many kinds of compulsive behaviors to varying degrees, people with OCD often struggle with specific fears that typically fall under one or multiple of the following categories:

  • Contamination and Washing
  • Doubts About Accidental Harm and Checking
  • Symmetry, Arranging, Counting, and Just Right OCD

Explaining the Overlap

Studies indicate that up to 84 percent of autistic people have some form of anxiety; as much as 17 percent may specifically have OCD. And an even larger proportion of people with OCD may also have undiagnosed autism, according to one 2017 study. 

Recognizing the overlap between autism and other disorders helps professionals take a more holistic approach to helping teens with autism succeed in multiple areas of their lives. As many teens on the spectrum struggle with articulating their thoughts, it can be difficult to identify how underlying issues, like anxiety and rigid processing, affect their experiences. Residential treatment centers, like Seven Stars, work with teens to help them practice cognitive flexibility and healthier coping mechanisms, using structured group activities and self-monitoring.

Seven Stars Can Help

Discover Seven Stars RTC is a small residential treatment program for young men and women ages 13-17 struggling with learning disorders and neurodevelopmental disorders, like ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and obsessive-compulsive tendencies. Our program, based on positive psychology, provides acute care stabilization, academic programs, adventure-based therapy, and skill building. These various programs and therapies help students to improve their confidence, self-awareness, and personal management. Seven Stars provides students with individualized access to the resources they need to transition to the real-world practicing healthier habits and self-control. We can help your family today!

For more information about rigid processing in teens with autism, contact us at 844-601-1167.