I Can’t Decide! Helping Kids with Autism Make Decisions

Sometimes I just can’t decide!

Temple Grandin has shared that the process of making decisions is difficult and she, like many others, will avoid decision-making. Research supports Temple’s difficulty. Studies have shown that for folks with autism decision making is linked to anxiety and   decision-making-processes1 (1)exhaustion.

Exasperated teachers and parents describe children who won’t choose an activity, a character, or a topic for fear of getting it ‘wrong.’ Being asked to make decisions will result in crying, angry outbursts or defiance. It seems that no amount of reassurance will ease the apprehensive feelings that making decisions, even insignificant ones, create for some individuals with autism.

How can we help?

  • Start with narrowing the number of options available. Instead of offering four or five options, provide two possibilities for a treat, two topics to write about or two activities to play. Avoid wide open choices such as, “choose a topic.”
  • Visually show the choices to the individual using written words, the item or pictures of the option.
  • With the student, make a list of an assortment of choices that are made daily (clothes, breakfast, TV, attitude, words, shoes and so on). Include small insignificant choices and bigger more important choices in your list.
  • Together discuss the difference between BIG and SMALL decisions. How do we make each type of decision? Discuss which one of the two categories each decision would go under. This helps demonstrate the types of decisions and which ones require more thought and time.
  • Teach the individual how to flip a coin for small decisions. This is especially helpful when all else fails and the process is sucking the life out of the home or classroom).
  • Make the options plausible and avoid using punishment as an option (Turn off the computer now or go to bed is really NOT teaching any decision making skills).

A colleague reported that flipping a coin was a huge breakthrough after nothing else seemed to calm the student’s fears and tears over having to make choices. Flipping a coin works for quick decision making: choosing a writing topic, picking a character to write
about, milk or juice, Lego or Thomas™ and so on.

Be clear that if the individual does not make a choice, the teacher or parent WILL make the choice for him. Follow through is critical. No waffling allowed!

Teaching our children HOW to make choices and how to cope with the consequences of our decisions is a skill that will make a huge impact on their ability to adapt and function as an adult. We need to find a balance between overwhelming our youth with autism with decisions and making all of the choices for them.

Happy Decision Making!  😆




Copyright 2014Jennifer Krumins


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  1. MelanieK April 1, 2015 at 1:45 am - Reply

    My child seems to have expanded this to the point that she WANTS me to make the decisions for her. Sometimes the simplest choice gets bogged down in what-ifs, to the point that her life seems directionless. I can narrow choices, but at some point, shouldn’t she be able to grow into doing some of the narrowing herself? She is not a lazy child, but seems to always be waiting to be told what to do.

    • Jenn April 8, 2015 at 4:11 pm - Reply

      Hello Melanie! I assume your child has autism? If so, it really is VERY common to be quite indecisive! What age is your child? Like many skills that are challenging, it will take time and lots of practice until we see an individual begin to feel confident in making choices. The key, I believe, is to never give up trying. Our son is now 19 years old and he refers to himself as indecisive, but I reassure him because it has improved immensely over time! We actually had a family rule: “Never give up your power.” This meant that the phrase, “I don’t know” was equal to a bad word. We have to constantly model how we make decisions and I think that we need to show this with a quick drawing or visual so that the concept gets internalized. A program taht I use as a teacher, taht I really think helps kids is: Unstuck and On Target! An Executive Function Curriculum to Improve Flexibility for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Please check it out. The bottom line: DON”T GIVE UP. 🙂 🙂

  2. Erica McEntire May 8, 2015 at 4:24 pm - Reply

    I am grateful to have stumbled upon this advice. My son is currently in the other room crying because I asked him to choose what he wanted for lunch. I did so after he refused a couple options I gave him. My son has aspergers and I haven’t done enough learning to better help my son. Im learning one day at a time and at times feels overwhelming. Thank you for your suggestions. Im going to go offer two choices and have a coin in my pocket.

    • Jenn May 15, 2015 at 8:00 pm - Reply

      Hi Erica, I am so happy you found me! I know how brutal it can be to parent a child with Autism! Believe me, many days I just barely got through! The advice you gave yourself was perfect! One step at a time! AND learn all you can …but keep taking one step at a time. We can get too excited about everything we learn and want to put it into practice all at once. 🙂 Not good. Stay in touch and know that you are NOT alone on this journey!
      Warm wishes,

  3. Monique April 28, 2016 at 6:26 pm - Reply

    My son is 13 and seems to almost revel in his indecision. To choose a movie is a one hour affair finally ending when I choose for him. He’s gotten to the point where he can narrow down his choices to two, which is great. But then he goes back and forth until I stop him. He doesn’t want to flip a coin, as that seems to “flippant” of a process (pun intended). He understands that he can watch the other of the two movies another time (so there’s no “wrong decision”), but that doesn’t seem to matter. Like someone else said, my son wants me to take the decision out of his hands. Yes, he has Asperger’s. Any advice on how to help him past this? I’ve taken to letting him go back and forth for about a half hour and then I stop him. But its such a pattern at this point that I think we’re just reinforcing his habits!

    • Jenn July 11, 2016 at 7:43 pm - Reply

      Hi Monique, thanks so much for reaching out! Wow, I cannot imagine how frustrating this must be for you…and your son! As I read your post I couldn’t help but think that in many ways you did answer your own question. 🙁 Sorry to say that. Behaviour patterns are definitely reinforced when we give in….even after a LONG time. Even worse, is the pattern tends to be strengthed! That being said, I don’t like to give ‘curbside’ advice but, I will offer some possible next steps.
      Given that your son is 13 and probably quite logical, you may want to put it back on him to problem solve. At a completely neutral time (when he is rested and in a good mindset) inform him that he needs to learn how to make decisions. There are some decisions that you will NO LONGER be making for him. Then, together create a list about choices YOU (as a parent make) and decisions HE needs to make. If you create it together, make it visual and visible in the house, you will then point to it and walk away when a decision arises that is HIS. Personally, I have taken both choices away when our son refused to decide. This is obviously only meant for choices that he will care about losing.
      As long as you give in….you will most likely perpetuate the problem.
      PLEASE keep me posted! I would LOVE to hear back from you. I waould love to know how you finally reolved the problem. You WILL resolve it. 🙂
      Warm wishes,

  4. lisa Riley December 3, 2016 at 3:31 am - Reply

    I stumbled across this when trying to look for ideas for my sons (both autistic aged 3 and 4) and I’ve found when offering options they want both. For example..orange juice or blackcurrant..they want it mixed together or jam on toast they want red on one side and orange on the other..its OK sometimes doing that but that’s not always going to work lol!!

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