Understanding Indecision in Adults and Children with Autism

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A guide to understanding why Autistic individuals frequently display indecision when responding to questions and how to get the answers you need.

When confronted with a question, some individuals with autism seem to consistently respond with, "I don't know" or another, equally indecisive response.  “What do you want to do?”  “Where do you want to go?”  “What movie do you want to see?”  Sometimes it seems that no matter what question you ask, the autistic individual will always answer "I don't know".  Sometimes in these situations it is obvious that he/she actually does know the answer, but isn’t saying it. 

When individuals with autism say they "don't know", what they should really be saying is, "I can't process your question and answer it right now".  They are not incapable of knowing and they don't lack an opinion, they just aren't currently capable of digesting your request and giving an answer.

Reasons for the "I don't know" Response:

1. Stress.  Sometimes the autistic’s stress meter is so high that they can no longer receive information.  They are incapable of understanding your question and formulating a response.

2. Processing problems.  Certain questions or phrasings may take the autistic mind longer to process than that of neurotypical person’s.  Instead of getting scolded for taking too long to answer, some austics will respond with "I don't know" because it is fast, reliable, and provides some sort of answer that frequently satisfies the other person.


1. Time.  Give the autistic individual time to process your question.  Tell them, "You don't have to answer now, but I was wondering what you want for dinner tomorrow night.".  If the autistic is extremely stressed this may not work.  They may not be able to adequately process your question due to the stress induced shutting down of higher brain processing, but if they just need more time to come up with an answer, they will appreciate the chance to have time to consider.  However, you may have to prompt them again later if you want the question answered.

2. Give them options.  Instead of asking them a vague question like, "What do you want for dinner?"  ask them something concrete, "Do you want fish or chicken?"  The autistic person will have a much easier time choosing between the two.  If you still get an "I don't know", than choose something for them.  "How about chicken then?"  The autistic individual may then say, "No, I don't want chicken."  And you say, "Okay then, fish.".

Asking direct questions gives the autistic a chance to simplify the linguistic processing.  The autistic individual may know that he doesn't want chicken, but he may not know if he prefers chicken or fish.  It depends on the difficulty he/she is having with stress and/or processing language that day or how low he/she is on the autism spectrum.  The autistic individual is not trying to be difficult and he/she is not disregarding your question, the autistic is simply doing the best he/she can at that time.

1 comment

Coleman Robison
Posted on Sep 16, 2011