Decision-making while autistic

I just read a book called This Could Be Our Future, by Yancey Strickler. In it is described (and prescribed) an expanded view of self-interest for the purposes of making decisions in one’s life. His theory can be applied at the personal or organizational level and is intended to be used as a tool for living in alignment with one’s true values.

Allow me to back up… In economics, there is a concept called “utility,” which assigns value to goods and services and allows you to make choices based on whether something makes you better than you were before. For example, an apple might cost $1 and you decide you would really like an apple right now and you have a dollar, so you choose to exchange your dollar for that apple. You are then better off because that apple was worth more to you than the dollar was. Now imagine there’s a shortage of apples and now each apple costs $3. You might have $3, but you would rather spend it on a turkey sandwich than an apple. All of these transactions are economic choices and generally, if you think about it, all are designed to maximize happiness or utility in the short term. We are constantly making these decisions in our lives whether they’re made about how we spend our money or how we spend our time and whether they are things we consider carefully or very little to not at all. Utility maximization is a very selfish project and it is very oriented to the present moment, what is going to bring me the most benefit right now. One of the fundamental tenets of economics is that people generally make decisions based on their own self-interest, exchanging goods and services in such a way as to maximize their own utility. But this is not always and does not have to be true.

At its essence, the philosophy Strickler lays out, dubbed Bentoism (www.bentoism.com), is a framework by which you can make decisions with more than just the benefit to your current self in mind. He drew up a 2×2 grid with time on one scale and self-interest on the other. Utility maximization exists primarily in the lower left where decisions are made to benefit “NowMe.” But they don’t have to be! If we exercise and expand our thought process around decision-making, we can add “FutureMe,” “NowUs,” and “FutureUs” as equal considerations to “NowMe.”

This will be a foreign concept to a lot of us. We are innately tuned, in America anyway, to prioritize ourselves and possibly our own families when making decisions, but what if we were to consider the wellness of our future selves and our extended community in our decision-making? What if we included all humankind or all living things in our calculations? Many decisions we make about our consumption could be flipped by using this framework, if the result of the decision was bad for you in the long run (like choices about what we eat, whether or not we exercise or consumption habits around drugs or alcohol), we might, at least occasionally, decide to override our initial thoughts and abstain from those things we know are bad for us on a longer time scale. Similarly, if we consider the effects of our actions on others, now and in the future, we might make different decisions as well.

Now I’m really gonna blow your mind. Imagine there are people out there in the world who naturally apply this expanded view of self in the decision-making by default. People who regularly calculate what is best for the group, over the long term and prioritize what is good for the group over what might suit themselves in the moment. People who are ultimately just tuned differently. There are! I postulate that autistic people are these people, when our systems are operating at an optimal level. By this, I mean that whatever sensitivities we have are not being triggered and we are in a space of physical and emotional safety. We operate on a different wavelength which allows us to play out how our decisions affect others and think about the costs and benefits TO THE SYSTEM as we move through life.

This concept is so difficult for others to comprehend it is often unbelievable. That one would not be considering themselves as the primary beneficiary of the results of their own actions (or inactions) is mind-boggling to some. In fact, until I read Strickler’s book, learned about Bentoism and considered why I found this framework so important and valuable, it hadn’t even dawned on me that this was what I was doing. Now I want to shout it from the rooftops! Don’t get me wrong; there are plenty of actions I decide on that are imperfect or could have been better. I don’t always get it right. Sometimes I do not have accurate information about others’ wants/needs/desires or the true costs of my actions, but those effects are ALWAYS considered. I am always optimizing for the greater good, to lessen the burden of the results of my decisions on the system.

A great deal of the difficulty autistic people have in getting along in the world is due to the fact that we often do not feel safe psychologically (sometimes physically). When we are surrounded by others constantly making “NowMe” choices for themselves and doing so believing that all others are doing the same, it is not only difficult to communicate how/why you are different, but also how the decisions they are making are not great for the whole. Engaging in interactions such as this can lead to persistent misunderstandings, withdrawal of trust, verbal abuse and erosion of psychological safety in the group. I have started to question myself in situations where I simply can’t believe that these decisions were occurring around me… wasn’t anyone thinking about the whole group? What is going on? Why won’t they hear me? When an autistic person’s surroundings become hostile to their ideas, they may go mute (there’s no point in talking if others won’t listen), shutdown (making oneself smaller for a period of time to insulate from harm) or meltdown (seen as a tantrum by others, but indicating severe overwhelm when needs are not being met). We will withdraw from a system that does not actively want us to participate.

The best thing any organization can do is bring in at least one (more is even better) autistic person and to be as accommodating as possible. This will allow the autistic person to contribute all their natural high-level decision-making skills and leverage them for the benefit of the organization! If only this were more widely understood.

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