What Autistic Kids Can Teach Us About Decision Making


September is Autism Awareness Month, and from Amy Schumer’s husband to anti-vaxxers, autism is making headlines. Of course, as the conversation around autism continues into the mainstream consciousness, so grows basic awareness. More people seem to be in tune with the basics; for instance, the fact that autism is a spectrum

A Treatment Evolution  

Since the 1970s, the number of ASD diagnoses has increased rapidly—according to Center for Disease Control, autism affects 1 in 59 children, and autism is receiving more coverage in the news than ever. 

For decades, parents and teachers of autistic children would attempt to “cure” kids of abnormal behavior, employing everything from electroconvulsive shock in the 1930s to “holding” therapy in the 90s. The medical world has run the gamut trying to force autistic kids and adults into a “normal” way of life—often at the expense of the kids’ well-being.

The world is a little less barbaric these days. Ideally, children now living with ASD are helped rather than controlled, understood rather than judged, and increasingly sought after as a source for understanding the human condition. There is no right or wrong when it comes to how people’s brains function—only what people perceive to be right or wrong, and this idea has infiltrated the way we treat autism. But on a deeper level, it can infiltrate how we treat ourselves—especially when decision making for kids.

Decision Making for Kids

Sure, everyone’s experienced the classic “I can’t decide!” moments, but many ASD children experience major anxiety around simple decision-making and yes/no questions. For kids with ASD, the process can be overwhelming—that’s why teachers, caretakers and parents are specifically trained to help them through it. 

Interestingly, the inability to make decisions is also a core symptom of depression in adults. But if you look at the neurotypical process for decision making for kids, it’s not all that different from the process for ASD children—perhaps many of us, wherever we are in our lives, have just never been trained.

According to Concordia University in St. Paul, Minn., there are seven steps to the decision-making process

  • Identify the decision
  • Gather information
  • Identify alternatives
  • Weigh the evidence
  • Choose among alternatives
  • Take action
  • Review your decision

According to Living Autism, when providing ASD kids with choices, it may be useful to: 

  • provide additional time to reach a choice 
  • minimize irrelevant information 
  • present closed questions
  • offer encouragement and reassurance
  • address general issues around anxiety

The two processes vary a little, but the basic idea is the same: to consider every aspect of a situation and what it involves. In short, it encourages empathy. 

According to forbes, a business architect and one of the world’s top decision making for kids experts, working with autistic children has influenced every aspect of his life and career. 

“ You must adapt yourself into their world with empathy and precision in order to understand and communicate with them. However, this skill is tremendously powerful in business as well,” he said. “Most of my knowledge of 1:1 communication came from my work with the kids and with parents.”

Braun spent years working with ASD kids in the U.S., Europe and internationally. He said he found many of the techniques he learned practically useful when he coaches CEOs and employees in stress reduction and self-exploration. One of the key components of his work is emphasizing empathy and the idea that there is no right or wrong—all lessons learned from autistic children, he said. 

“It’s easy to be quick to judge a person if you’re not in their shoes,” Braun said.

“We’re all the same. We all have issues. Everyone is on the spectrum, there is no difference, there is no other.” 

Excellent decision making for kids requires precisely identifying the criteria that matter most in the decision you are making. The skills required to work with autistic children work beautifully to understand the criteria that make decisions, Braun said. 

Truly grasping this concept can bring positive effects to anyone living with or without ASDLiving Autism continues the thought:

“Understanding how adults with ASD experience decision-making is .. to help these individuals achieve greater self-understanding, self-advocacy and improved decision-making in lifespan activities such as employment and personal relationships.” 

This could also help people living with depression. Studies have shown that depressed people tend to make decisions based a negative bias than their non-depressed counterparts, or on short-term results rather than lifetime return

Perhaps following the formula for decision-making in ASD children could help alleviate the pressure of decision-making for those living with depression, as well as reinforce the notion of empathy for themselves and others. 

Looking to the future 

It’s not difficult to look around and see the greater need for empathy and understanding in our fast-paced culture. 

In a world where all of our children face the fallout of global warming and a growing population, the ability to make beneficial decisions not only for ourselves, but for the human race, is more crucial than ever. As today’s ASD kids grow up and step into the future, neurotypical folks will need to practice empathy, and above everything, love. 

Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP, summed it up best:

“Love is when you take the time to know someone who sees the world differently than you.” 

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