Flexible thinking is the ability to change from following one mental path to complete a plan onto another path to achieve the same goal.
This skill might be needed when the first plan is blocked for some reason, or a better alternative is realized.
It is an executive function characteristic which helps especially with dealing with the unexpected. This description from Understood is helpful to explain
Imagine you’re driving somewhere, and discover that a street you were planning to turn onto is blocked off for construction. Your initial plan for reaching your destination obviously isn’t going to work. So you instantly come up with a new way to get there. That’s what flexible thinking is about—being able to quickly switch gears and find new approaches to solve problems.
Flexible thinking could be a challenge for the Navigator as he would be unable to mentally switch gears and find a new path to complete his plan.
He might have successfully mapped out the steps of a plan for himself, but anything that might disrupt that plan could cause stress, distress, and even meltdowns.
It could be challenging to even offer suggestions to him on how he might improve his plan, because as soon as he was asked to mentally look away from the path he had set for himself, it could all come crumbling apart for him.
We had to support him in the lesson that it was ok if a plan could not work, it was to back up and start again, and ok to map a new route to success.
Of course, when we wanted to learn about autism characteristics, we could turn to Star Trek, because there was almost always an episode on point.
The Star Trek: Voyager episode “Learning Curve” illustrates that even highly logical Vulcans can learn a valuable lesson in flexibility.
The premise of Voyager is of a Starfleet vessel that gets thrown across space, 75 years from earth, and has to make the journey back. The Starfleet crew are joined by a group of rebels who don’t want to be there, and haven’t been trained to be Starfleet officers.
Having been a teacher at Starfleet academy, Lieutenant Tuvok takes on the task of training the rebels. It doesn’t go well, and Tuvok is perplexed by his lack of success, as he explains to the character Neelix
I have taught literally thousands of cadets and I have never encountered these difficulties. My methods are sound and time-honored. I insist on strict adherence to rules and protocols. I never waver from that approach. I have always been successful in honing each cadet into a Starfleet officer.
At this point, Neelix shows Tuvok a plant, demonstrating how some of the stems were bendy, but others were not and would break when pushed too far.
Taking this example to heart, Tuvok used Neelix’s advice and went back to his training with a new approach. In other words, he used flexible thinking to solve his problem.
This was a good episode for us not only because it had a great example of what flexible could look like, but also because the Navigator liked seeing that even a being as highly intelligent and logical as a Vulcan could still learn a lesson in the value of flexibility.