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My Struggle With 'Chronic Indecisiveness' as Someone on the Autism Spectrum

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A few weeks ago, I walked into a Costco determined to buy a couple groceries. I was alone, and I usually go grocery shopping with my wife. Once I was inside and pushing a cart around, I began to remember why. Once I was out, my cart was completely empty and I walked away with nothing (except for that $2.69 pizza and drink).

All my life, I’ve struggled with decision-making. In fact, it’s probably one of my biggest struggles. I’ve come up with a phrase for it (and I’ve never heard anyone use it before), which is “chronic indecisiveness.” That’s the thing I experience when I’m at the grocery store frantically looking at my options and having a hard time choosing what I’d like to take or need to take. I try to weigh every outcome in my head. Do I really need this? Do I really want this? Is this affordable? How long would it be before I find a use for it or feel motivated enough to cook it?

I think the same thing when it comes to buying most things, especially clothes. At least with food, there are certain givens that make grocery shopping easy, especially if you have a plan going in (something I didn’t have during that stop at Costco). Clothes are very hard for me to choose. I may need jeans, but I’d like to know if I’ll be OK with everyone else seeing me with them on. Am I really willing to pay $29.99 for that pair? Is there possibly a sale for something very similar somewhere else?

When it comes to the things I do day to day outside of work, I struggle with making peace with how I choose to fill my time for a bit. It’s very hard for me to settle in and watch a show or play a video game, because I’m often wondering what else I can do. Is there a side project I can work on? When is the deadline?

There’s nothing wrong with weighing options and other variables when figuring out how you’re spending money, and there’s nothing wrong with weighing options and variables when it comes to how your time is spent. Most people do this, and they do it because they have to. The problem is that decision-making, for me, does not come naturally. It’s a difficult and sometimes even anxiety-inducing experience for me. Oftentimes what keeps me frozen in place and prevents me from making a final decision is the fear of post-decision regret I could have. I second-guess myself too often, and once in a while, I do regret my decisions in the end. Imagine if every decision you make, big or small, is second-guessed. That’s my experience.

Is the excessive struggle with decision-making a problem people on the autism spectrum have? According to a research article on the site Living Autism, it is (the segment below is condensed):

Decision-making is an important part of almost every aspect of life. However, several autobiographical accounts (e.g., Temple Grandin) suggest that making decisions can present significant problems for individuals with ASD.A recent study published in the journal Autism sought to extend this important area of research by comparing the “real-life” decision-making experiences of adults with and without ASD. The researchers hypothesized that compared with a neurotypical group, participants with ASD would report: (a) more frequent experiences of problems during decision-making (e.g. feeling exhausted), (b) greater difficulty with particular features of decisions (e.g. decisions that need to be made quickly), and (c) greater reliance on rational, avoidant, and dependent styles of decision-making. In addition, it was expected that participants with ASD would report interference from their condition when making decisions.The results indicated that compared with their neurotypical peers, the participants with ASD more frequently reported difficulties in decision making. Decisions that needed to be made quickly, or involved a change of routine, or talking to others, were experienced as particularly difficult, and the process of decision-making was reported to be exhausting, overwhelming, and anxiety-provoking. The participants with ASD reported significantly higher levels of anxiety and depression and were more likely to believe that their condition interfered with rather than enhanced the decision-making process. Not surprisingly, the participants with ASD were also more likely to report that they avoided decision-making.

Given my history of anxiety and depression, it’s not hard to believe that my inability to make decisions quickly and efficiently is connected to my place on the spectrum, and I too have the tendency to avoid decision-making altogether if it can be done. This has been a lifelong struggle for me. I wish I could say I’ve made significant progress in this area, but to say so would be, I feel, inaccurate. I like to weigh the pros and cons of decisions, but no matter how thorough my analysis is, sometimes I just fear factors that maybe I just don’t see.

Obviously, some things are easier to figure out than others when it comes to decision-making. Having a grocery list on you when you go to the store, for example, is certainly a great help (something my wife and I started doing after my Costco experience). According to the study, some solutions include:

(A) provide additional time to reach a choice, (b) minimize irrelevant information, (c) present closed questions, (d) offer encouragement and reassurance, and (e) address general issues around anxiety.

I’ve obviously always found it easier to go grocery shopping when my wife is there. One of her strengths is that she’s good at knowing exactly what we need before we go inside, so shopping with her is often brisk and painless. Even if you don’t have a spouse, ask a friend or family member to accompany you to the store if need be. Ask someone to help you weigh the pros and cons of certain decisions. Others will have a version of intuition that may not come as easily to you. If the pros outweigh the cons, and you realize that, make that choice quickly enough so that your mind doesn’t have the time to second-guess.

Not every decision we make is going to be perfect, and there will certainly be learning experiences at times. Don’t get stuck in a torturous cycle of “chronic indecisiveness.” It’s common for the outcome of biding time to be worse than the one that would’ve come had you made the choice you were unsure about.

Getty image by zhuweiyi49

Originally published: September 15, 2022
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