Autism and Learning How Make Decisions from Two or More Options

In my job as a Learning Support Assistant I support many young adults that have various levels of autism. Like me, many of them find decision making hard. Some can only make a decision if there are two choices but never three or more. Two people, I have the pleasure of working with, will take at least five minutes to make a decision (even if there is a choice between two things) and they are both towards the higher end of the autistic spectrum. I am high functioning autistic and I still find decision making difficult but luckily, unlike some, I can make some decisions very quickly (based on past experience learnt from people without autism, using my own rules or using intuition). Other decisions take me a very long time: sometimes minutes, sometimes hours and sometimes days.

One example of a decision that should be simple but I found hard was in my first job after university. I was a college tutor and it was simply deciding how to reply to each colleague’s different greetings such as “Hi Shaun”, “All right Shaun”, “How’s it going” and “How are you today?”. I used to stand there and pause to think about how to answer this before finally coming up with an answer. Hi or hello was easy as I would just repeat the same thing back, but this “how are you” was hard. In the end I had to look it up on the internet to understand how to reply properly (even though I knew I should just know this, I didn’t). I would also observe how other people answered hoping for clues (as this is my default option when I am not sure how to do something) but the answers varied too much. Some people were naturally chatty so this was a great introduction to a massive conversation (where I am naturally quiet), others were busy so you could tell that they were brushing people off and some did not answer (it still drives me mad when people do not respond to someone saying hello, which happens to me frequently). In the end I concluded that people are not usually bothered about how you feel but they are being polite by asking you. The default answer is to say “fine” or “okay thanks” but for some reason saying the same thing each time is difficult for me. To get around this I vary it a bit with “not bad” or “I am okay thanks.” Even today I would really prefer to answer the question properly such as “I feeling upset as my son is teething and I am tired as I have been up all night helping him,” but manage to keep to social norms. This simple thing took a lot of practise and I would get my words mixed up sometimes at first but I am okay at it now.

There are still some things in my life that I find very difficult to choose. For example I decide what meals we will be having for the week and I write a shopping list based on this. The tasks of choosing seven meals will usually take me an hour and sometimes two hours. Then writing the shopping list will take a further hour. I could have the same meals each week, to make process easier, but my wife would not enjoy this and I like to try new things sometimes. It is a battle I face weekly but I will always do it.

When purchasing any item I often have to decide exactly what I am going to purchase before leaving the house otherwise making a decision would take too long. Luckily the internet helps me with this a great deal as almost every shop and supermarket lists the products and prices online. I will always go into a supermarket with a list but sometimes I will write something like “lunch”. When I make this mistake I will spend at least 15 minutes trying to work out what I want to buy. Even if I have decided beforehand, on the drive there, that I want a curry it will take me 15 minutes to look at all the different types of curries just to pick one that is right.

When choosing a hotel, caravan site, camp site or purchasing almost any product I will read a large number of reviews on the internet. It takes me a very long time to decide what to buy or where to stay but I nearly always make the right decision (which is a very big benefit). When I used to leave these things to chance I had to stay in many horrible bed and breakfasts, caravan sites and I purchased things that seemed to be good but were not worth the money. Sometimes a lot of the research goes to waste. For example we saved for almost a year to have a nice holiday abroad but in the end we decided to spend the money on the house instead. I spent about 100 hours researching different destinations, hotels, water parks, theme parks and discussing my ideas with my wife and eldest son to get to a point where it would be somewhere that was good for us all but in the end it was wasted effort.

There are many things that help me to make a decision or take the decision out of my hands. If it was not for some of these things I would not be able to lead a normal life as I would spend most of it trying to make a decision.  Things that help me are:

  • Having a large number of rules I use when I am in specific circumstances, such as:
    • Not go shopping without a list
    • Getting up at least one hour before leaving the house (e.g. to go to work)
    • Deciding what all the spare money is going to be spent on at least six months in advance
    • Only have a caffeinated drink once every two hours and a maximum of five a day (or I will get a caffeine rush which I hate)
    • If I have been given a choice with a yes or no and I am unsure I will often initially say no.
  • Always read product reviews for the things I plan to buy where possible. Which reduces the chance of disappointment if the product breaks or does not work as expected. Although I spend too much time reading reviews.
  • Prepare as many things as possible in advance to save having to make a decision later. Which includes
    • Washing, drying and ironing all of my clothes for work two days in advance
    • Knowing what I will be wearing each day
    • Making lunch the day before work
    • Making and using check lists for holiday packing
    • Deciding meals in advance
    • Reading reviews for visiting places for key information such as where to park and how much it is and what food outlet is available nearby if required.
  • Ask my wife for help and advice which I do on a daily basis
  • If it is a big decision I will always write down the pros and cons of each option and research as much as possible into it.
  • I have just started to toss a coin on decisions where I need to choose between two things and I can’t decide.  This has worked out well for me so far.


4 thoughts on “Autism and Learning How Make Decisions from Two or More Options

  • Avatar
    May 8, 2019 at 6:36 am

    I had to comment as I relate so so bad, whilst I’m not diagnosed me and my wife are almost certain I’m autistic and having 3 autistic children only helps to prove that to me, what I will say is be careful with the coin, I’ve spent the last ten years flicking a coin hundreds of times a day, it’s completely took over my life and I’m incapable of almost any decisions without it

    • Shaun - Site Admin
      May 8, 2019 at 6:45 pm

      Thanks for the advice about over using the coin trick. I try to use it for the smaller decisions that I struggle on. Probably once every couple of weeks. But I can see how this could gradually build up more and more.

      • Avatar
        October 12, 2019 at 5:06 pm

        May I ask a question? How does decision making work with bigger issues in life like marriage, theism verses atheism and the like?


        • Shaun - Site Admin
          October 12, 2019 at 8:41 pm

          The big decisions in life for me are sometimes very easy (like getting married) but other times incredibly hard (like what I’d like to do as a career). For the harder decisions I try to make small changes or gradual progress until I can figure it all out.

          There are times when I can’t come to a decision one way or the other, like religion, but I can personally live with the indecision in that respect.

          I am hoping to do another blog post on decision making soon, so this will hopefully give more insight into this topic 🙂


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