I’m gonna be (500 miles)/The Autism Files: choice

Do you watch the American show ‘How I Met Your Mother’? If you don’t then you should because it’s the new ‘Friends’. It’s funny, light-hearted, silly, entertaining and easy to watch when you just need something to flop on the sofa to. In many ways it’s quite similar to ‘Friends’. There are a group of 5 friends living in New York who always go to the same bar below their block of flats. That’s pretty much all you need to know about it. But it’s clever because the whole show is about this guy- Ted- telling his kids the story of how he met their mother. Who he used to be before then and all the things that happened to him. It jumps back and forth in time quite a lot and I think they do it really rather well.

There’s one episode where Ted and his friend Marshall drive across the country in Marshall’s beat up old Fiero. As they set off Ted turns on the music and it’s The Proclaimers: I’m gonna be (500 miles). “This is an awesome song!” He says. Marshall then apologetically informs Ted that the tape player is stuck and it just plays that one song on repeat. They spend the next however many hours going through various stages of loving and hating that song.


We went to a wedding this weekend and I put our 101 Running Songs album (that has never, and will never be used for that purpose) in the car for some good tunes. About half way through the first CD we came across I’m gonna be (500 miles). One of us said it would be funny to ‘do a Ted and Marshall’ and listen to it on repeat for the rest of the journey. I said I thought I could do that without it getting boring and so we challenged ourselves to try it.

It didn’t get boring. I sang at the top of my voice every time round and even better is that now I know every single word. We listened to that song on repeat for an hour and a half and it was legend… wait for it… ary!

It got us thinking though about all the choice we have around us. I suppose that I often think about choices because it’s one of the main areas of support we work on with the individuals with Autism where I work. Making choices for them is hard because it involves so many steps.

You have to be able to understand what is available out of the things you want to chose from. It isn’t very effective to go into a butchers and ask for apples.

You have to be able to process what the choices actually are. If you go somewhere like Asia or Africa for the first time and you are taken to a market, you may well panic at the range of foods available that you have never seen before.

You must be able to somehow communicate exactly what it is you want otherwise you are likely to get very upset and frustrated if you are misunderstood or not understood at all. I think of that scene from Bridget Jones’ Diary: The Edge of Reason where she’s trying to buy a pregnancy test in Germany and winds up having to give large, embarrassing mimes to the whole pharmacy.

Making choices also involves knowing what’s appropriate, acceptable and suitable for you. Of course as we go through life we all make ‘bad’ or ‘uninformed’ or ‘regrettable’ choices, but most of the time we are able to go back over events and reason and rationalise what happened in order to learn from our mistakes.

All four of these choice making components can present enormous difficulty and confusion to people with Autism. Part of what we do is to make sure that choices are presented in a non complicated and appropriate way and to give the individuals means of communicating what it is that they want.

I wondered what life would be like if we didn’t have so many choices. What if we lived in a world where I’m gonna be (500 miles) was the only song available to listen to? What if we could only eat rice and chickpeas? What if we only had one outfit to wear? What if there was only one make and model of car, what if there was only one sport, one type of house, one style of sofa, one TV, one oven, one variety of apple…

I know that life would be pretty bland if all of this was true. But I think our society needs to be very careful about creating a world that’s too far in the opposite direction.

Often people talk about ‘reverse culture shock’ i.e. returning from a totally different place back to your origins is much more difficult for people to manage than the other way around. I lived for 7 months in Peru when I was 18 and I certainly found this to be the case. I love Peru, and I really loved their foods and cooking. I spent most of those months eating chicken and rice or fish and rice or potatoes and rice. It was great though, really tasty. I remember one time when I was back in England being taken out for a meal and absolutely freaking out looking at the menu. I started to panic because it was too much, too much variety, too much choice. How did I know if I wanted pork, or chicken, or lasagne, or risotto, or the other type of chicken, or steak, or the other type of chicken, or…. and how could I possibly choose whether I should have fries, boiled potatoes or salad with it??? In the end I had to get someone else to pick for me and it was a good few months before I learned to cope with that much choice in a restaurant again.

Don’t get me wrong, I think the freedom and range of choice we have in this country is great and a privilege that we shouldn’t take for granted. But just sometimes I think that life would be calmer without having to make decisions at every corner. What if you just went into a coffee shop and got coffee rather than having to decide between latte, skinny, non-fat, decaf, cappuccino, espresso, filter, iced, frappe……  And I think that even there we’re a little bit less hyper in Britain about it than in the States. When we were over there I was introduced to Dairy Queen. Wonderful, beautiful ice-cream shops. But oh, my goodness did I freak out in there. You have to decide what cone you want, then what shape you want, then whether you want it chocolate dipped, and if you wanted that white, milk or dark. Then you choose your ice-cream from about 2000 flavours including peanut butter and bubblegum. Then you choose the sauce, then the sprinkles and oh, did you want whipped cream on that? NO! By that point all I wanted was to sit in a dark room and eat a pringle sandwich!

Every so often I don’t think it would be such a bad thing to practice narrowing our choices to enable us to focus more time and energy on other things. I have a friend who splits her wardrobe up every 3 months or so. She only keeps 30 items out and puts the rest in the loft. I haven’t been able to bring myself to try it, but considering how long it can sometimes take me to decide what to wear on a morning maybe it wouldn’t be a bad thing to do.

And I would definitely recommend hitting that repeat button next time I’m gonna be (500 miles) comes on your CD player/mp3 player for the rest of the journey. It doesn’t get boring.


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