Choices, choices, choices...autistics can find them so hard to make

Choices, choices, choices...autistics can find them so hard to make

Choices - admittedly, drastically reduced during these days of lockdown! Life is usually full of choices though, from your waking moment performing daily life tasks to meet your most basic needs to more complex school/work situations & home again to bed at night. It's a constant cycle of choices being made, many of which we are unaware of or at least seem able to make with absolute confidence & ease, in nanoseconds sometimes too.

Not so with many autistics, here's how it can be & little hints at why although I've yet to read anything definitive on it (then again, I don't read much theory on autism)..."Of course, it's good that academics are researching the field (of autism), but often the gap between the theory and what's unravelling on your kitchen floor is too wide to bridge." David Mitchell, Ireland 2013.

As a parent, it has become really important for me to recognise & understand this difficulty with making choices/decisions about my son & to try not to react to these sometimes exasperating & difficult situations in my non-autistic way that often results in anger or frustration when actually, it's extremely hard, nigh on impossible for him at times, & he cannot & will not ever see it my way, not by choice, hah, by the fact that his brain is not able to, full stop. 

I do not need to write one word about the literal way in which autistics think that impacts so massively on their ability to make decisions, it's all here in this cute & funny video clip...just under 4mins for a 6yr old autistic to decide whether or not to eat a sweet! Adorable & so insightful.

I did not realise autistic & nonverbal Henry struggled with choices until he reached an age where you'd expect it, for something so simple, & suddenly it's staring you in the face, OMG, he cannot actually do this...As a young toddler, Henry used noises & gestures like hand pulling to the fridge or cupboards & I would lift him up if necessary & he would take out what he wanted.

By age 5 he was still being picked up & would not even point (that highly important developmental milestone for errr 14-month-olds having passed me by), pointing being way too abstract a concept for his brain. I asked if Henry wanted Bovril or honey on his toast & placed them in front of him. He could not do it, & went nuts, so I had to try one & if it was wrong, start the toast again. Eventually (age 7), he began to kiss the one he did not want & say "goodbye" or "goodnight" to it that signalled he had chosen the other one (Henry having figured out that the words 'goodbye' & 'goodnight' were used when people stopped talking/engaging & went away). 

We noticed that when using pens Henry would often go for the blue & as is typical, us idiot parents very quickly translated that as blue being his favourite colour & so plates & cups were bought in blue, as were most of his clothes. Oh my, still today choosing clothes from his cupboard is such an enormous struggle, so much so, that I get stressed when he grows & I need to change them, especially pyjamas. Changing from summer to winter clothes & back again....argh, also so hard. Some of this comes down to transitioning (one of Henry's biggest areas of difficulty) that frankly requires a whole other blog, or book! And then there's the sensory...

Don't get me wrong, there are indeed preferences & especially tastes Henry likes & dislikes, including clothes eg he loves stripy socks, that is all about the visual & the food is all about the sensory. The point is that the colour blue pen was not a choice & nor is it a favourite, even with the Bovril & the honey, not choices either. Henry was simply going on default ie I had a good result/reaction/feeling/taste/success when I used/had this one last time so, I will just repeat & go with it again so that I know what to expect, it takes the pressure of making a choice away, & usually pleases whoever is watching & impatiently waiting. 

This revelation for me came in the unexpected form of a wonderful 2nd book written by a young Japanese man who is nonverbal autistic & called Naoki Higashida. If you haven't read 'The reason I jump' that he wrote when he was 13 years old, please, please do it now, it only takes a couple of hours & is the most insightful book into why autistics think & behave the way they commonly do, & it's so uplifting too. Thank you, Naoki!

In his book, 'Fall down 7 times, get up 8' he addresses the issue of choice in chapter 32 titled "Have yourself a 'well done!' sticker" & this is what he has to say.

"...As soon as I'm told to select one (choose), my mind goes into a whirl, the same way it does when I can't express my thoughts or emotions. Because of this, I end up opting for the first one to catch my eye (literally)...From then on that particular choice becomes ingrained as a kind of default pattern. I can access this default pattern in the future and re-enact it...Following the beaten path of the fixed pattern is preferable by far to the stress of not knowing what choice I ought to be making - so, nine times out of ten, I take the easy way out."








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