Primary Decomposition

Life in intersections

Decision making 101

This post was inspired by a line from amandaw’s post here, but is really only tangentially related to it if at all. All the same, read that post; it’s amazing and powerful and something that needs to be heard.

The line in question was was this: I don’t know what else to say but that the diagram showed the inner workings of a mind that works in a completely different way. It wasn’t nonsense. It had logic to it, but it was its own logic — not the logic most of you are used to using. It got me thinking about my experience as someone who’d say that her mind also works in a different way and her internal sense of logic is also somewhat off from what’s expected, even if not the way amandaw is talking about – and what the world has taught me about it.


A few weeks ago, I played a game of DnD with a friend.

Background for me and roleplaying games. As a teenager, I’d always really wanted to RP (this probably connected to my brother’s fondness for it and my hero-worship for him), but only found a group for a short while before I went off to university. My first year, I joined the university roleplaying society and had great hopes of actually being able to play properly and with people my own age. Unfortunately, it was there that I met the guy with whom I had my first (and hopefully last) sexual encounter, which was sufficiently traumatic that I spent the next four years avoiding him and anything to do with him. Including the society.

I hadn’t played since, and was as a result very much looking forward to this game.

It was torture.

You see, I had to make decisions.


This is what twenty-odd years of life with a mind that works differently has taught me:

Your own internal sense of logic is not valid. Decisions you make that are based on it are usually wrong – no, not even wrong, they’re *absurd*. If they are not, it was sheer luck that led you to an acceptable conclusion. Therefore, you cannot rely on your own instincts, arguments or thoughts when you need to make a decision. You must always base it on what other people, *normal* people, do and say. If you do not, expect to be mocked and attacked for it, expect people to shake their heads and tut about how you could do something so utterly stupid, have you no common sense?


I suppose you could describe this post as an argument against the concept of common sense.


I don’t actually remember very much of my childhood; I have a suspicion that my memory is unusually bad in some ways. One incident, however, stands out.

I am twelve, at school. I cycle to school every day. Today, there is a slight problem: I have forgotten my bicycle lock at home.

At first, it’s no issue – I run into a classmate who offers to lock my bike up with hers. After school, we both head down to the courtyard together; she unlocks our bikes and cycles off. I am about to follow – and then I remember. I have sports this afternoon, over at the public pool. But what do I do with my bicycle? I don’t have a lock. I can’t just leave it at the pool or the school without a lock.

Neither can I go inside the school to ask anyone what I should do; I’m not allowed to take the bicycle inside, and I can’t leave it unwatched.

I can’t just go home. That would be cutting class.

After having eliminated all other possibilities, I come to the logical conclusion: I should stay in the courtyard for the two hours of the sports lesson until the teacher comes back and then tell her what happened.

This is the main thing I remember: waiting and waiting and waiting in the summer heat; my watch battery ran out, so I didn’t know how long I’d been there, how long I still had to go. I remember my class coming back – finally! – surprised to see me there. I remember explaining what happened.

I don’t remember how they reacted, how my mother reacted when I told her, but I remember the feeling of pride at having made the right decision turn to utter humiliation as I slowly realised that – no, it hadn’t been right. It had been dreadfully wrong. There had been an obvious thing to do that I missed (what was it? I couldn’t figure it out). The decision I had made instead had been nothing short of absurd and laughable, and I deserved to be ridiculed for it.


I remember the feeling being very, very familiar. And I wonder what girl feels *proud* about finding (what she thinks is) a nonobjectionable course of action in a situation like that.

This was not an isolated incident.


(Talking about the incident some years later, my mother tells me that that was one of the moments where she wondered whether there was something seriously wrong with me. Another time, she mentions that before I started going to school and wowing teachers, she had suspected I was stupid; I am quite certain about what made her think that way.

I say that up until the age of fifteen, I was pretty much incapable of gathering people’s thoughts and intentions unless they stated them explicitly. Sometimes, I suspect that this is only partially accurate.)


This is what twenty-odd years of life with a mind that works differently has done to me:

If I am asked to make any decision where I am not familiar with The Correct Answer without getting the opportunity to double-check it with someone else, I panic.

For your information, this is not a good life skill.


Time has improved on the matter slightly: I can now often sense when I am in a situation where some of the things I am contemplating are sensible and some are obviously stupid.

Unfortunately, I still can’t tell which is which.

It is a horrible feeling: there you have options A and B. Doing one of them (which one?) will not garner notice (you will successfully pass), doing the other will mean you are ridiculed. You might ask for advice, but chances are that so much as telling someone that you are thinking about this instead of immediately choosing the obvious one (but which?) will expose you to ridicule.

Sometimes it gets worse: option B falls away, and only option A remains and instead of suspecting you now know that people will consider it to be ridiculous and obviously stupid although you don’t know how you know or why they would think so, and you know that there is a different, a *right* thing to do but you’ve eliminated everything else you can think of based on your own internal sense of logic and what do I do?


Another thing I am reminded of reading amandaw’s post: I am so profoundly grateful for my mother.

My mother appears to have come to terms with the fact that her daughter has a distinct deficit in certain areas of gesundem Menschenverstand, common sense. My mother is the one person I can ask anything, anything at all, even if I have the sensation of “I should know what to do about this but I don’t” gnawing at the back of my mind. My mother has learned to deal with her daughter checking anything and everything with her in biweekly telephone calls – should I respond to this thing with an e-mail? Is this okay to put into it? I am thinking of doing this with my friends, what do you think? Do you think I should arrange a meeting with this person for this reason?

As a result, I can avoid the freeze-in-panic reaction on all but very short-term decisions, which are not usually that important.

Avoiding the panic reaction on important decisions is crucial to being able to manage my life as well (ha!) as I do now.

Conclusion: I will probably never be able to live independently without this kind of help.


I used to enjoy roleplaying. I used to simply have my character do what I thought was best and have no worry at all that the decisions I was making were absurd. Then the worry crept in without me noticing.

I wasn’t always like this. I learned this, bit by bit, wrong decision after wrong decision. Or should I say – humiliation after humiliation, bad reaction after bad reaction, ridicule after ridicule.

This is what I learned in decision making 101: You do not have the capability to make reasonable decisions. Don’t try.

Thank you, world.


Gesunder Menschenverstand – “healthy human reason”. Common sense. Both my native language and English are very clear on the matter – this is something that is common to all humans. Not having it in its entirety is not an option.

Why? Why must we be so normative? Why the ridicule and humiliation the instant someone does something that doesn’t quite correspond to how we think their mind should work? Why the fuck is it that when I do something you think is absurd, instead of, oh, explaining to me why it is absurd you tell me that there is no excuse for not knowing this already and proceed to laugh at me for that?

Do you have any idea of what this does to people?


And, you know, on top of this? Even if I know which options are Right (TM), making a decision is still incredibly difficult.

This is how I can track how well I’m doing at a certain point in time: I go shopping.

(I usually go shopping once a day, as I have managed to train myself into going out to buy food from the corner shop in the evenings just before it closes. This is extremely important because it is very, very difficult for me to leave my room; in the year or so I lived away from home prior to managing this bit of routine I had gone without food for up to two days because I couldn’t get myself to go shopping. Now I will almost always get at least one meal a day and have pretty much banished the danger of accidentally starving myself to death, which is something of a relief.

Unfortunately, this means I have to get some form of ready meal, which usually winds up being frozen pizza – even the pizza lover that I am would be quite happy to not see another Dr. Oetker’s Ristorante for the next five years at this point in time. Believe me, I have things to say about society’s opinion that healthy eating is some sort of moral issue – but I digress.)

Whenever I go shopping with people, I am surprised at how efficient they are. What do we need? These three items, in these three aisles. So let’s go – aisle one, item one, aisle two, item two, aisle three, item three, we have everything we need, go to the check-out and leave. Wow, that was fast, my head’s spinning.

If I go shopping alone, I circle. Aisle one, item one, aisle two – well, there’s not really anything I need from aisle two but let’s just walk through it anyway and have a look at the cheeses, does this place sell quark, I’ve always wondered, aha it does I can make cheesecake sometime, now let’s get item three – but wait, item three was in aisle one so let’s go back there-

If I’m doing really well, that’s all.

If I’m not doing really well, I start becoming unsure. Do I want to have this for dinner? Or this? Or maybe this? No, wait, let’s go back to option one. Or, no, let’s get that instead. And how about Doritos – wait, no, let’s get a bar of chocolate instead… the circling, as well, grows more.

If I change my mind quickly and less than, oh, five times, that’s means I’m doing – well to average, maybe a little bad. If it’s more, or if I wind up staring at an item for a long time unable to make up my mind, things aren’t looking so good.

Worst case scenario: I’m stuck in the grocery store, either wandering around in circles or staring at a particular item, on the verge of tears because I’m utterly unable to make up my mind as to what to buy. This is Red Alert, Intervention Needed levels of bad (unfortunately, being at this stage also means I no longer have the ability to get help, but oh well.)

I’m reasonably sure this cannot be attributed to the above, but rather to the executive dysfunction part of an ASD, which is somewhat severe in my case. My point, however?

If I have an impairment in the area of making decisions, it would have been kind of society to teach me some things to make that easier, instead of giving me a neurosis about the matter on top of it.


And you know, I could go on about what it means to be taught to mistrust your own mind, your own thoughts, your own damn *reality* so much that you’re no longer capable of making a decision without outside reference, but this post has become long enough and I think what I’ve written should really speak for itself.

Pity about that common sense thing, really.


August 11, 2009 - Posted by | disability | ,

1 Comment »

  1. I’m near tears as I read these beautifully honest words, that are breathtaking in their courage in one sense, but in my own sense (which I think the author shares) just warmly familiar in the obviousness of full and uncensored truth.

    I’ve had many, many, many moments and hours “guarding my bicycle” as well – that is, having made the only and obvious choice that still SOME-@#$^!-how ends up being the WRONG decision!!

    I had. I have had. I did. I was. I do.

    The tears come from this, however: I will.

    I am likewise an asexual gay. How freakin’ weird is that! I don’t consider myself “on the spectrum” as I am of the opinion that Nonverbal Learning Disability, or at least one of at least 3 subtypes, does NOT include clinically significantly impaired social functioning. And anyway, if I am uncomfortable or “awkward” in a social (that is, temporily or “time critical”) situation, it is because of the aforementioned impaired functioning with even more basic a set of cognitive and/or executive skills than socializing. In other words, it is of secondary etiology and therefore, in my opinion, “doesn’t count”.

    Anyway – this is a moving and endearing account and I am grateful to it’s author.


    Comment by Stanley W. Shura | March 7, 2010 | Reply

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