Autism and The Difficultly of Making Simple Decisions – Part Two

Four years ago I wrote about Autism and Making Decisions. Since then it has become one of my most popular blog posts.  As decision making is such a difficulty for me, and other people with autism/Asperger, I have decided to give this topic an update.

How Decision Making is Hard for Me

Simple Everyday Decisions

Due to my autism/Asperger decision making is, and always will be, tough for me.  But I have many strategies I have built up over the years to overcome this.  I will share these at the end of this post.

One of my biggest areas of indecisiveness is food shopping.  I always believe you can spot a fellow Aspie if you see someone staring at the same shelf of similar products for several minutes.  This is me if I go shopping without a list.  On top of this I will often finally choose something, put it in my basket and walk away.  Then dwell on the choice and decide to change it.  So go back to the original aisle and shelf and swap it.  Other times I will walk away, have a longer think, then keep returning to the same section until I finally make a choice.  Often walking up and down the same aisle repeatedly.  It can take me 15 minutes to decide on which flavour of soup I want to buy.  There are many occasions when I am meant to quickly rush into a shop to buy several items of food, whilst my wife and kids stay in the car.  Although I try to be quick, it will still take me two or three times longer than most people, due to struggling to make decisions.  Often at the annoyance of those waiting for me.  

As well as buying food, buying new clothing is difficult for me.  I often envy how some people can walk into a clothes shop.  Then pick up several items of clothing, try it on and then purchase it all.  It can take me such a long time to decide on just one item.  Like many people with autism/Asperger’s once I find something I like, and it’s been fully tried and tested, I’ll buy that same item multiple times.  I will often mix it up a bit by buying a different colour J Most of my clothing has been repeatedly bought, once the old ones wear out, over the last several years.

Similarly to buying clothes, once I have bought them I have trouble deciding which clothes to wear each day.  I have a couple of autistic friends that get around this problem by simply buying the same colour and style of clothing repeatedly.  Then they only wear the same clothing each and every day.  They will only vary this on rare occasions such as a Christmas party in work’s time (so they have to attend).

Even something simple and enjoyable, such as going out for a family meal is fraught with difficult decision making.  First choosing where to go.  Then once we are there, deciding on a drink and finally choosing the food I want to eat from a menu with such a large selection.

Harder Decisions

The harder decisions in life include: finding a partner, having children, buying a house, going to university and choosing a career.

One of the hardest decisions I have ever faced in my life is choosing the right career.  I am in my early 40s and still have not come to a firm choice.  Even though I have got two degrees in computing and a PGCE teaching qualification. 

I’m currently a Learning Support Assistant (teacher’s aide), which has been a brilliant job whilst my boys were young.  As I decided a long time ago, I’d rather excel as a dad than do well in a career.  But my children are a bit older now, so I need to move my career forward (which I’ll update you on, in future blog posts).  

Choosing a career that I will be happy in and be able to manage, has been on my mind for the past decade.  I know I definitely need to keep pushing myself to achieve more, until there comes a time when I feel I am really struggling to handle it all.  If I don’t push myself to get a better a career, when in the back of my mind I know I can, it could easily lead to depression due to having a lower sense of self confidence and self-belief. 

There are things that hold me back, which could easily be related to my autism.  Such as not liking change, being risk aversive and being mindful that I am autistic so have self-protection mechanisms (mainly so I can reduce the chances of stress and getting depression).  But I know, after long deliberation, and working out all the pros and cons, now is the time to change.  So over the coming months I have got to be brave and really push for that change.  Even if it means completely changing my career.

What we can Learn from Others

One of the most famous people from the Gulf war was US commander Herbert Norman Schwarzkopf Jr (aka Stomin’ Norman).  He was famous for his decisiveness.  One of his infamous decisions came about when he was put in charge of a large team of military personnel.  They had been gathering intelligence for a sensitive mission for the previous 10 years. But after all this time it was still too difficult to know what to do for the best.  

After only a short amount of time of being in charge of the team, Stormin’ Norman walked into the room and made a decision on the best way to act.  The rest of the team were frantic (as of course everyone would be) as to how he could make such an important decision so quickly.  Without making the balanced and thought out decision, he should have made, by reading all of the documentation and evidence they had gathered.  

He told his new team that they were right, and he could never understand all of the intelligence they had gathered.  He went on to say that he knew this decision had been going backwards and forwards for a decade.  The best minds of the time could not choose the best way to act, so he has chosen for them.  He knew that if a decision had not been made after all this time it never would be.  Now was the time to act and to make the choice.  It did not matter if it was the right or wrong choice, what mattered was choosing.  This gave them the power and meant they could finally move forward.  He knew that even if it was the wrong choice they would be better off dealing with the difficulties as they arose, rather than spending more time on trying to decide.

This really strikes a chord with me in relation to autism/Asperger’s and making decisions.  I think most of our difficulties lie in the fact that we are scared we cannot cope if we make the wrong choice.  We are too self-critical and hate making mistakes and getting things wrong.  So much so we will beat ourselves up if we do, in ways such as intense self-reflection.  We have all made bad choices in the past, but for people like me with autism/Asperger’s we do not forget and let them go.  We hold on to these memories.  

We also hate other people criticising us, so avoid it at all costs.  But it is ok to make mistakes.  Everyone does.  It is often this indecisiveness that holds us back.  

I believe that none autistic people (neuro-typical) make more bad choices than us.  When I look at my own friends and family this is certainly the case.  But they also deal with the negative consequences of their actions much more easily than we do.  They know life moves on and that mistakes can, quite often, be easily rectified.  They will spend a tiny fraction on their lives make decisions whereas it take up a good portion of ours.  They learn from there negatives choices, whilst we are still trying to make the right choice.  No way is right or wrong, but I do believe that we can learn a lot from those who take more risks in life and make those quick choices.

My Hints and Tips

  • Before purchasing items from a shop (such as a supermarket or clothes shop) decide what to buy by looking online first and stick to your choice. 
  • When it comes to buying clothes it is worth having a shopping trip with the intension of only trying the clothes on. Take a few photographs and then ask other trusted people (such as your wife or maybe children) for their opinions at a later time.  They will always help you to make the correct choice.  It also gives you time to decide if you like the clothes or not.  If you do, you can purchase them online at a later date.
  • If you narrow a choice down to two or three options, and you still cannot decide, ask for help (from a partner, friend or parent) or flip a coin. 
  • Sometimes it is easier to keep things the same so you don’t have to choose.  For example: having the same breakfast each morning, having the same lunch (such as sandwiches with the same filling) or wearing the same clothes.  But occasionally this can become too bland and boring (even for us Aspies, who are the rare types of people that are happy to do this).  So it is worth mixing it up a bit.  I have always benefited from this change in the past. 
  • Don’t worry too much about making mistakes if you make the wrong choice.  You will learn more from the bad choices.  It will enable you to make a firmer decision next time, by eliminating the option you know will be bad.  
  • For things such as what meals to eat for the following week or what clothes to wear each day, a list is an excellent way to make the choice beforehand.  This can be done when there are no time pressures so you have enough time to make those difficult decisions.
  • Occasionally try new things, or make choices that take you out of your comfort zone.  You will often benefit greatly from this.  For example, I would always choose to eat lunch alone but one day I decided to face my fears and eat with my work colleagues.  It was difficult at first but became easier over time.  Now I prefer to eat with my friends and colleagues.
  • When you have got one of those giant, often life changing decisions, you can often make small steps in the right direction rather than one big change.  Being autistic means we struggle with even the smallest of change, let alone big change.  But gradual change is just about manageable.  For example, if you work part time but want to work full time gradually increase your hours over the course of a year or two rather than jumping to full time hours.  Rather than leaping into a new career, do a little bit of volunteering in the area first to know if you will like it or not.
  • Read online reviews, but don’t spend too long doing this and don’t believe everything that is written.  There are so many fake reviews these days that it is hard to tell what is real and what is made up.
  • There are times when you are very busy, have time limitations and you have a number of tasks that need to be completed.  Choosing which one to work on first can be difficult.  This is where prioritising is useful.  Think of the tasks that cannot be put off and those that can.  Only work on the ones that are the most important first.  You will find once they have been completed, your stress levels will reduce.  Making the non-essential tasks less stressful as you have taken that time pressure away.

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