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  • Writer's picturePatty Laushman

How Energy Accounting Can Improve Your Quality of Life

Updated: Jul 13

By Patty Laushman


Imagine a bank where, instead of money, the currency is energy. Every activity, task, interaction, or environmental change in life is associated with either an energy withdrawal or an energy deposit. Withdrawals cause energy to deplete, deposits cause energy to increase, and some transactions are more expensive or valuable energy-wise than others.


This metaphor illustrates the concept of "energy accounting," which revolves around the withdrawals and deposits of energy. Developed by autistic advocate Maja Toudal and popularized by clinical psychologist Dr. Tony Attwood, the concept can be an incredible tool for improving and optimizing an autistic individual’s quality of life.

A man with a laptop and increasingly larger stacks of coins leading up to a lightbulb representing energy accounting.

This is an important concept because autistic individuals often face challenges that demand an energy draw not experienced by more neurotypical people. Here are some examples:


  • Sensory sensitivities might mean that the hum of a fluorescent light or the texture of a shirt becomes an energy-draining experience.

  • Social interactions, executed effortlessly by neurotypicals, may require massive mental effort for someone with autism because of struggles to read nuanced social cues and meet the expectations of others.

  • Unexpected situations or environmental changes can be very stressful, which then further depletes energy reserves.

  • Cognitive demands, such as executive functioning challenges, can add to the daily toll.


Are you getting tired just thinking about this?


Like spoon theory, energy accounting isn't just about "counting" energy; it's about making each energy unit count for a better, balanced life. Active energy accounting can be the difference between you experiencing meltdowns, shutdowns, and burnout – or having a productive, fulfilling day. It can play a key role in improving overall well-being, enhancing mental health, ensuring that you have the energy needed for daily activities and meaningful social interactions, and even recovering from burnout.


Understanding Energy Usage in Autistic Individuals

Autism is a spectrum, so the experiences and challenges each autistic individual faces differ from one another; however, there are unique ways that autistic individuals tend to have to spend energy that more neurotypical people do not.


To understand why energy accounting is important, it’s essential to understand what these energy draws are. Let’s take a deeper dive into this.


Sensory Sensitivities and Their Impact on Energy

Super bright lights shining down on a stage.

For many autistic individuals, sensory experiences can be intense and overwhelming. Imagine being in a room where every light feels glaringly bright, each sound is amplified tenfold, or the tag on the back of your shirt feels like coarse sandpaper.


Sensory sensitivities can affect any of the five senses and even extend to your sense of balance as well as proprioception (body position) and interoception (internal bodily sensations).


These heightened sensitivities mean that simple, everyday environments can be massive energy drains for autistic individuals as they process and cope with extra sensory input.


The Mental Effort Behind Social Interactions

For autistic individuals, interpreting social cues may not come as instinctively as it might for neurotypicals. A casual conversation, which many take for granted, can be akin to a puzzle.

A dark-haired man wearing a black t-shirt shown two times side-by-side making different facial expressions.

Decoding facial expressions, modulating tone of voice, maintaining appropriate eye contact, and processing spoken words – all simultaneously – can demand a lot of mental effort, which results in rapid energy depletion.


Coping with Environmental Changes and Unexpected Situations

Routine and predictability are comforting for many autistic individuals. When faced with unexpected changes, whether they're as major as a change in their living situation or as minor as a sudden change in today’s plans, the resulting stress can be taxing. Adapting to these changes or even just anticipating potential changes can draw on their energy reserves.


Cognitive Load and Executive Functioning Challenges

Executive functions are high-level cognitive processes that govern tasks like planning, working memory, attention, and problem-solving. Some autistic individuals struggle in these areas, which makes tasks involving organization, transitioning between activities, or multitasking massively energy-consuming affairs.


The Benefits of Energy Accounting

With a limited supply of energy each day combined with a potentially much more expensive draw on that energy, being strategic with and planning how to use energy can have many benefits. Below are some of the benefits.


Preventing Meltdowns, Shutdowns, and Burnout

Meltdowns, shutdowns, and burnout are more than just bouts of emotional outbursts or inbursts or exhaustion; they're often the climax of prolonged energy imbalances. When an autistic individual consistently expends more energy than they can recover, it can lead to a state of burnout that’s marked by extreme fatigue, reduced functionality, and increased sensitivity.

A blonde-haired woman wearing a pale pink shirt superimposed over herself with multiple facial expressions indicating distress.

Meltdowns, on the other hand, can be sudden intense responses to overwhelming situations, which often result from an energy deficit. Shutdowns are similarly triggered. Effective energy accounting can help in foreseeing these situations and taking preventive actions.


It can also be an incredible tool in helping individuals recover from burnout. As soon as they start to feel a little better, most people overextend and try to catch up on all the things that have been slipping while they’ve been in recovery. This causes them to slip right back to the recovery starting line. By cautiously planning more activities and tasks that create energy deposits and ensuring the withdrawals of the day are not greater, autistic individuals can slowly and surely recover from autistic burnout.


Improving Overall Well-Being and Mental Health

Continuous energy drain without adequate rest can take a toll on anyone's mental health. For autistic individuals, the constant need to adapt to a world not designed for their unique neurology can compound this stress. By being aware of their energy levels and managing them effectively, they can reduce the strain on their mental health, which leads to a better quality of life.


Enhancing the Capacity for Daily Activities and Social Interactions

Keyboard sheet music sitting on a piano.

When energy is consciously accounted for and managed, it allows for a more efficient allocation to various activities throughout the day. This means that an autistic individual can prioritize participating in more activities of their choosing, for example, work, hobbies, or social interactions, without feeling drained prematurely and improving their overall quality of life.


Empowerment and Autonomy

Understanding one's energy patterns and actively managing them instills a sense of control. Autistic individuals, who might often feel at the mercy of external stimuli or societal expectations, can regain a sense of autonomy over their lives. They can make informed decisions about their activities, environments, and interactions to ensure they align with their energy capacities.


Building Resilience and Coping Strategies

Energy accounting is about not only understanding energy drains but also building strategies to cope with them. Over time, as individuals recognize patterns, they can develop resilience and strategies to either avoid certain drains or cope with them more effectively.


How to Implement Energy Accounting

The first step to implementing energy accounting is to figure out what creates withdrawals and deposits in your energy account and then assign them relative scores for how costly or beneficial they are.


Then you can use this information to map out how to use your energy throughout the day. When you see a whole bunch of energy-expensive withdrawals on your schedule, you can strategically plan activities that will bring your energy balance back up. And when you feel yourself being drained of energy, you can consciously look at your menu of deposits and figure out how work more of these into your day.


An example of how you can do this is below.


An example of an energy accounting t-chart with activities that produce withdrawals on the left and activities that produce deposits on the right.

Although it’s important to understand energy expenditure and its significance, the crux of energy accounting lies in knowing how to manage withdrawing and depositing energy. It's about implementing methods and strategies to monitor, manage, and maximize energy. Here are some key components that make up effective energy accounting for autistic individuals.


Awareness

A frustrated man sitting in front of his computer with his head in his hands.

Recognizing Personal Triggers and Energy Drains

Self-awareness is critical to effective energy accounting. It's important to identify what activities, environments, or interactions sap your energy. This could be specific sensory stimuli, certain social situations, or even particular cognitive tasks.


Regularly Checking in with Yourself

It's helpful to develop the habit of frequently assessing your energy levels throughout the day. This can help with recognizing when energy is running low and when interventions might be necessary. Remember, the goal is to not deplete your energy account and run out.


Prioritization


Deciding Which Activities Are Important and Which Are Not

Not all tasks and activities are equally important. By prioritizing, you can ensure you allocate your energy to what matters most to you and make sure there is enough energy in your energy account to pay for them.

A woman with long dark hair standing in front of a dark gray background holding up her hand in front of her in a "no" gesture.

Recognizing the Need to Sometimes Say “No”

Boundaries are essential. It's okay to decline certain activities or requests if you feel they might be too taxing on your energy reserves. Also, let others know they need to respect your need for personal space and allow you time to recharge in a calm, sensory-friendly environment.


Planning


Creating Routines and Schedules

Predictability can be comforting and can reduce energy spent on processing unexpected changes. Establishing daily or weekly routines can help preserve energy.


Incorporating Rest and Downtime

Just as important as activity is rest. Planning for regular breaks or downtime can help guarantee energy is recovered. We’ll get into this in more detail in a little bit.


Adaptation


Modifying Environments to Reduce Sensory Overload

This might involve wearing noise-canceling headphones in noisy environments to preserve precious energy, using dimmer switches for lights, or creating a sensory-friendly corner at home.

A woman in exercise clothes standing on a yoga mat doing a yoga pose.

Finding Tools and Coping Mechanisms to Manage Stress

This could range from grounding techniques, deep breathing exercises, finding a quiet space to relax, practicing mindfulness techniques, going for a walk, or even performing certain stimming behaviors that help restore energy.


Tactics for Implementing Energy Accounting

Recognizing the need for energy accounting is one thing; implementing it in daily life is another. Once you’ve made your list of withdrawals and deposits, here are some tactics you can use to help implement energy accounting.


Using Visual Aids


Calendars

Scheduling all your activities in a calendar can help you gain a visual representation of your demands and help you determine how much energy will be needed on a daily or weekly basis, which is critical to planning.


If you have a day or week with too many activities, look for things you can postpone or even cancel. If you have a lot to do, and there is not much flexibility around when it gets done, guard your energy carefully, and make plans for periodic deposits so you don’t run out.


Checklists

By listing daily tasks and marking them off as they're completed, individuals can not only track accomplishments but possibly gain a small deposit when seeing how much they’ve accomplished. They can also get clear about whether they have enough energy to complete the listed tasks and take appropriate action if not.

A person creating a checklist of items in a notebook.

These actions could include doing something that provides a deposit to increase the energy balance needed to complete the list. You could use this information to reset the expectations of others who are expecting completion of those tasks. Letting people know in advance that you will not be able to meet a deadline or attend an event goes a long way to maintaining trust in important relationships.


Building in Breaks


Rest Between Activities

Actively scheduling on your calendar rest or downtime in between tasks can help ensure you maintain energy throughout the day. Use the time for whatever best calms your system, and if you have enough time, try something that provides a deposit of energy. Depending on where you are and how much time you have, you can use the time listening to calming music, meditating, engaging with special interests or hobbies, or gaming.


Try to pick something from your accounting chart that will give the biggest deposit in the shortest amount of time within the context of where you are. Obviously, you can’t take off for a big hike while at work because you feel your energy depleting, but you could sit in your car, set a timer for 10 minutes, and listen to some music.


Rest Between Days

A woman in jeans and a white sweater resting and reading a book on her porch.

If you have a really busy day or a few in a row, make sure to build in rest between days. For example, you could make it a rule that you will only attend one evening event per week and then make sure the next day’s schedule is not too taxing energy-wise.


If you mostly work from home but have to go into the office occasionally and find this exhausting, try actively planning recovery tasks for the next day, tasks you need to get done that you either don’t find too taxing or are even fun for you and provide some energy deposits.


Rest Between Major Transitions

If your daily structure changes significantly, like going on vacation, even if you’ve been doing something fun, there has probably been a huge energy withdrawal. When transitioning back, you might want to schedule a day or two of high-deposit days to refill your energy account.


Creating Sensory-Friendly Environments


Tuning into what you need sensorily in your environments can help minimize energy withdrawals since sensory assaults can be so costly.


Headphones lying on a brown background.

Sensory Kits: Having a kit on hand with tools like noise-canceling headphones, fidget toys, or weighted blankets can help mitigate the cost of sensory-related withdrawals when you’re not able to perform an activity that provides an actual deposit.


Personalized Spaces: Creating a calming environment with soft lighting and quiet sounds can help. Designing spaces at home or at work, with sensory preferences in mind, such as using soft lighting or specific color palettes, can reduce inadvertent energy drains.


If you are in an environment where you don’t have a lot of control, like a work environment, have a plan for where you can go for a quick sensory holiday if you need one, even if only for 10 minutes.


Engaging in Grounding Activities or Using Sensory Tools


An autistic woman breathing deeply to ground herself.

Grounding Techniques

Activities like deep breathing, tactile engagement with objects like stress balls or fidget items, or focusing on one's surroundings can help center and restore energy.


Stimming

Many autistic individuals engage in repetitive movements or behaviors (stimming) as a way to self-regulate. Recognizing and allowing for beneficial stimming can be a powerful energy-restorative tool.


Seeking Feedback and Reflection


Journaling

Keeping a daily journal about energy levels, activities undertaken, and feelings can be a powerful way to identify patterns and triggers over time.


Feedback from Trusted Individuals

Sometimes, others who really get you can offer a valuable outside perspective on when you seem more drained or stressed, helping in refining energy accounting strategies.


Conclusion

Energy accounting, at its core, is about understanding, valuing, and optimally managing your energy resources. While every autistic person's experience with energy usage and recovery is unique, the underlying principle remains: by proactively managing energy, you can drastically improve your quality of life.


The strategies and tools discussed in this post serve as a foundation, but energy accounting is a continually evolving process, shaped by individual experiences, challenges, and growth. It's important for both autistic individuals and those supporting them to remain adaptable, learn from each other, and make necessary adjustments along the way.


In the end, the core message is clear: recognizing and respecting one's energy is an act of self-care and self-empowerment. Energy accounting isn't just about preventing burnout, meltdowns, and shutdowns, even though those are undeniably major benefits. It's about empowering autistic individuals to engage more fully in the activities they love, craft meaningful relationships, and thrive in various environments. By doing so, autistic individuals can harness their unique strengths, navigate challenges, and truly thrive in their day-to-day lives.


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