I'm A Vibes Kid: Choices Can Be Hard

autism neurodivergent parenting Apr 25, 2023

I’m A Vibes Kid: Choices are Hard

Choices are everywhere, every day.  And for autistic children, choices can be a moment of freedom and a moment of frustration all at once.

I have a prize box in my office and at the end of each session a child has a chance to grab a prize before they go. Prizes are not about if the session went well, it is just about giving them another tool to help manage themselves between sessions. There are fun things like bubbles, bouncy balls, fidgets, stuffed animals, and all kinds of “tools” that can help us manage difficult situations. 

Over the years, I noticed an interesting approach that many autistic students take when it comes time for the prize box.  They may repeatedly ask “what’s this?” as they  pick up and touch every prize in the box.  They have to test several prizes before choosing.  They have to test which bouncy ball is the bounciest.  Which squishy is the squishiest.  And all of this takes time.  What I learned is that this choice matters to them and making the right choice matters.  So I have learned to say, take your time, I know choosing a prize can be important. 

Choosing Causes Anxiety

I have also learned that choosing can cause anxiety.  A simple, “what do you want for dinner?” takes on a mental stress that can cause an autistic child to feel overwhelmed, to feel the pressure of the moment, and for their mind to go blank.  Vague choices that require thought can cause anxiety and dysregulation. 

We often ask vague questions like:

What do you want to wear today?

What do you want for breakfast?

What do you want for dinner?

What show do you want to watch?

All of these questions, while they seem harmless, can cause stress in the moment. 

Choice Equals Freedom

We know that some children also have behaviors when not given a choice.  Choice allows for personal freedom and the sense of overall control of my life.  This is key for autistic children.  When parents can give choice, we should.  Think about how many things you decided for your child from the moment they wake up until the moment they go to bed?  For us this can be frustrating if we have someone who makes decisions for us every moment of the day ex. Micromanagers.  We would exhibit disruptive behavior at some point and feel overwhelmed by the constant oversight for every step of our day.

Structured Choice

The idea of having a choice is not about manipulation. It is about empowering your child towards independence.  At some point as an adult they would be making these choices for themselves each day. 

“The essence of Structured Choice is to present an abundance of specific choice opportunities throughout the day.

  • Offer Structured Choice sets of between two and four choices.
  • Keeping choices simple and concrete is important.
  • To enhance understanding, limit your words and speak purposefully.
  • When possible, present objects, pictures, or gestures a child can see to help identify the choices. These visual supports will strengthen the child’s comprehension and responses will be quicker.
  • Structured Choices need to be relevant to the current, in-the-moment activity. Ask children what they want right now.
  • After presenting the choices, the child’s indicated preference must be honored immediately.” https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/honoring-empowering-autistic-children/

Choices Through the Years

We can help our children grow by giving them choices throughout their developmental years. 

  • Toddlers- choice which toys to play with, choice of foods
  • Elementary age- choice of which homework to do first, choice of activities to participate in
  • Teenagers- choice of bedtime, choice of free time activities
  • Young adult- choice of curfew, choice of participating in family events


Final Thought- Every Day Life

Think about it for a moment…Standardized State Testing is all multiple choice.  Choices!!! Often these tests have four answers to choose from on a test.  We know that autistic children struggle with  choices and this moment of choice can be overwhelming.  Do we think the accommodation of putting a child in another room for testing is the best accommodation when the test remains the same? How about we change the test to match what we know about autistic children and having too many choices. 

This is Autism Acceptance.

#Vibes Parenting….

Dr. Stacy


New Children’s Book on Autism: I’m A Vibes Kid on Amazon today.  A portion of each book sold helps support free social skills groups for children. www.drstacyhayneslpc.com/community

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