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Executive Function and Choice Paralysis

By Nightingale121 · Jun 1, 2018 · ·
  1. I watched the following video recently and wanted to add some comments from my own experience.

    When I was a child I sometimes went to the grocery store with my grandmother. She wanted to be nice and asked me: "Would you like me to buy anything for you? What would you like?"
    I never chose anything. There were just too many options to consider, too many items to pick from. The thought of having to decide was worse than not getting any sort of candy or whatever and I always said that I didn't want anything.

    This kind of problem also applies to other situations for me until nowadays.

    For example, I usually order the same menu in a specific restaurant every time. This way I only have to make a decision once when I'm there for the first time. If I like what I have chosen, I'll just order the same the next time.
    I often look up a new restaurant on the internet before going there for the first time and have a look at their menu beforehand. This helps me to narrow things down. Otherwise, it would take me even longer to decide when I'm actually there. I'm often the last one to be ready for ordering in a new restaurant anyway.
    One has to keep in mind that the menu posted on the internet isn't always completely accurate though, at least from my experience. Only recently I had chosen something from the menu as it was shown on the restaurant's site, but then it wasn't on the actual menu. I guess they didn't update their site and the meal I had chosen was only cooked during a special seasonal event or something like this. I had an alternative in mind though, which was available.

    I agree with the person in the video about how routines help with doing things like cleaning the kitchen.
    I have routines for a lot of chores, but also other tasks. As he says it can be difficult to begin cleaning in the first place if there are so many options. But if I have a routine for cleaning the kitchen, I won't need to overthink it again and again.

    I also tend to cook the same few dishes all the time. Cooking includes many steps that have to be planned and done at the correct time, so that everything works out at the end as intended. Trying new recipes is quite exhausting for me for the reasons he mentioned in the cooking example.

    There are some more examples and explanations about executive function in the original Ask an Autistic video and I recommend to watch it too:

    At the end I'd like to focus on an aspect that is covered in more detail in the Ask an Autistic video, but not too much in the response video: That problems with executive function can be seen as laziness or not wanting do do something.
    It's not actually the same though and I think the following quote from the response video is related to this aspect too:
    "I wanna do something and I just can't do anything and finding out what I want to do is even a huge struggle because I still need to filter through these lists of a thousand of things that I might want to do to find the one thing that I do want to do and then act on it [...]."
    It is even about things I want to do, things that should be fun and not just "I'm too lazy to clean the kitchen.".

    I'm currently struggling with this in relation to my main interest, Sherlock Holmes, though it got better with the strategies I'll explain below.
    It doesn't seem like much at the beginning; it's only one character. But he is quite famous and so there are a lot of adaptions.
    My interest had started with the BBC show Sherlock. Afterwards I read the complete canon to understand the references.
    This was all still managable. There aren't too many episodes of the show and it is obvious where to start and what's next, just like it is with the canon, which I read in the order of publication.
    After I had finished the canon I wanted to broaden my horizion, partly because I read that Sherlock doesn't only include canon references but also references to other earlier adaptions.
    That's where my problems really began. Where should I even start? There are hundreds of episodes, movies etc.
    Should I start with the ones that were pointed out as obvious references, such as The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes? Should I start with an adaption that is well-known and often recommened, for example the Granada series with Jeremy Brett? But what's about more cross-references in some of these adaptions? I mean, it could be possible that others did the same like the producers of Sherlock before and so I would have to need to figure out these references as well.
    This last aspect lead to my final approach of managing the huge amount of available data. I am going forward in a rather chronological order now.
    I found a great list that gives me something to work with without being overwhelmed by the amount of possible choices. Following the list narrows everything down.

    From time to time I'm not sure if this actually the best approach and I get distracted, but being distracted by reading more about my interests is better than not being able to start with anything in the first place.
    Though task switching and transitions can be problems related to executive dysfunction as well, which makes stopping again once I have started difficult if there's no specific end for something I'm doing.
    That's why I plan tasks with a specific end before open-ended ones. It'll save me from even more problems if I know that I have finished cleaning the kitchen (a known routine with specific tasks to be finished one after another until I have done everything) before sitting down and researching an interest on the internet for an unspecific amount of time.


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  1. ragmanjin
    Man, it's still super eerie for me as a newly-realized aspie to see other people explaining such similar habits as mine. Habits nobody's ever understood or wanted to talk about.
    I got through all of the episodes of Sherlock and all of the canon except the last two stories, that's where I got overwhelmed and put it down. I don't have a real internet connection to get caught up on the episodes that have been released since or to start following up on any film-based references for the time being. I had gotten used to enjoying some Holmes at the end of the day every day for a while, and I guess I know that once I'm finished reading all the canon I'm going to want more but can't get my head around where to start or how without good internet or at least enough disposable income for a library card.
    And to Sabrina's comment, I totally agree. As a lactose-intolerant gluten-sensitive pescatarian in the city it was manageable, and let me slowly build up a good arsenal of healthy, delicious foods I was totally comfortable with. But that can work against you, too, if you ever find yourself stuck without many options, say penniless and squatting without a kitchen or plumbing in a tiny town with only the usual redneck fare. As the options here generally boil down to either "eat what's affordable/nostalgic and feel ill for days (and remember, deal with that without plumbing)" or "have a tea and figure it out tomorrow" I generally go through days-long shifts between slow starvation and terrible gut rot.
    Just something to think about I guess.
    Thank you for the brilliant and well-written article.
      Nightingale121 and Sabrina like this.
    1. Streetwise
      if you go to Internet archive.org which is the USA archive of all movies TV and books you can find a couple of episodes of Sherlock at typing BBC afterwards as there are thousands of references you can also buy episodes at Walmart Canada each season is $20 or guttenberg.org and you can download stories for free
      Nightingale121 likes this.
    2. Nightingale121
      I felt exactly the same when I first came across the topic and noticed this a lot (others explained things I experienced, but no one else seemed to understand).
    3. Nightingale121
      I also agree with Streetwise about having a look at archive.org and gutenberg.org. These sites are great resources, not only for Sherlock Holmes related stuff.

      I'm very glad that I don't have any health issues related to food, such as lactose intolerance, which would make this even more complicated as you described.
  2. Sabrina
    I think that all my internal rules (that might seem non-important or silly to other people) actually help me not to get dragged into an eternal pondering of what it’s best for me (because, like you, sometimes, or most of the time, I don't know what I want, but I don’t want people to know).

    For example, if I go to a restaurant, it’s “simple” because:

    1- I don’t eat red meat by choice (so all the dishes with read meat, discarded).
    2- I don’t eat fried food (idem, all fried food, discarded).
    3- I hate mayonaisse.
    4- I don’t eat dairy because I’m lactose intolerant.
    5-For dinner I only eat veggies at home, veggies and a protein when I’m not home.
    6-I avoid dishes with chile, although not completely.
    7- I avoid monosodium glutamate because it makes my heart raise.

    By now there might only be one to three dishes that qualify for me, so then, it’s easy to choose. Of course I DON’T SAY THIS PROCESS OUT LOUD, I behave like a grown up that just picked up what “I wanted”.
      Nightingale121 likes this.
  3. Streetwise
    I think that's why our interests seem to wain ,some people appear to have them for their whole lives -others change ,maybe it's how intensely you research it!
      Nightingale121 likes this.
    1. Nightingale121
      This is an interesting thought.

      I believe that it is indeed probable that different autism traits influence each other and also that one can be the root cause of several others, even if they don't seem to be connected at first glance.
    2. Nightingale121
      So the typical "narrow special interests" that stay with someone for a long time could be related to the topic of my blog post.
      They are a well defined, specific area to focus on; they are familiar and stay the same. This way they aren't a cause of feeling overwhelmed by too many choices, but comforting and predictable. So they can work as a fixed point in an ever changing, complex and sometimes overwhelming environment.
  4. IxchelAspie
    Thank you:)
      Nightingale121 likes this.
  5. Decameron
    I don't really agree that the problem is with executive function, that's just where the problem exhibits itself.

    Personally, I think it's an issue of the right parallel processing part of the brain overwhelming the serial processing left side of the brain. Most people with autism experience this as a runaway brain. In fact you could argue that autism is a problem of induction in the brain. Let me explain what I mean by that.

    If you apply a magnetic field through a copper coil to a piece of metal that metal will start to generate an internal current. But that's not the interesting bit. The fascinating part it if you keep the magnetic field the same but don't provide an outlet for the current, the particles/electrons spin out of control and start to heat up the metal. Here's a good demonstration of just that:

    Your brain works exactly the same way. If you give a normal brain a bit of information it starts to react and produce it's own electrical activity. You need that to process the information.

    However, if there is no outlet, no stopping mechanism, then that activity can get out of control. That's when an autistic person feels his or her brain is a runaway train or just endlessly going in circles. The autistic brain re-examining the original thought, upon which it generates new thoughts, which might be re-examined and so on.

    When your brain is that overwhelmed it simply doesn't have enough resources left to make a decision, because your executive function is desperately trying to figure out what internal signal to pay attention to.
      Nightingale121 likes this.
  6. Streetwise
    quote from Ecclesiastes 12:12 much study wearies the body
    I think this is the explanation for choice paralysis!study uses energy ,so when you come down to choosing you don't have enough energy anymore .
    1. Nightingale121
      I agree with you.
      Studying the choices and all the possible pros and cons for and against each option takes a lot of energy. The more options there are the more energy it takes obviously.
      If there are too many options one gets overwhelmed because it's too much and takes too much energy to study them and come to a conclusion of what to choose at the end. This leads to the choice paralysis due to being too overwhelmed.
  7. Forgotten Aspie
    Uhg! - February 2018 was my diagnosis - since then it has been a lot of research, rediscovery of traits, and trying to connects a LOT of dots that before, and even still, seem to have totally unconnected. Executive Functioning is one of those areas I am realizing I also have problems - I'm not at the same level as the first video but close. I can totally relate to there being so many choices you end up not making any. My life has become increasingly isolated because it is less stressful to do nothing. Routines are a way to cope with this. But it does not take much change to throw this off. Plus, I find that even with routines, I need a moment to "prapare" myself - Initiating things is stressful in itself..

    What confounds me more and more is how autistic I really am. How through self-deception, adaptation, and suppression, I've muddled through life for the last 59 years. It can be truly overwhelming at times. That said, finding I'm autistic has given me a sense of who I really am, and a sense of hope I've never had.
    1. Nightingale121
      I can totally relate to the statement "My life has become increasingly isolated because it is less stressful to do nothing". Though it has been worse in some ways before and seems to get a bit better again. Maybe being aware of a problem helps me to handle it better and make the best of it despite my known problems.
      I also agree with you about the problem with initiating things.