By guest writer Jackson McMahan
When it comes to explaining the fluctuating energy levels of autistic people, one metaphor tends to reign supreme: spoon theory. This theory, which we previously covered in this post, has gained recognition not just within the autism community but among those grappling with chronic illnesses, mental health disorders, and various disabilities. For autistic people, the concept of “spoons” helps explain how seemingly ordinary tasks can sometimes be incredibly daunting or draining.
In this blog post, we’ll explore how you, if you're on the autism spectrum, can successfully increase your “spoon count” to navigate the world more smoothly. We’ll start by diving into spoon theory’s history and explain why these “spoons” are often used as units representing energy. Afterward, we’ll cover common experiences that might drain an autistic person’s energy or “spoon supply,” why this occurs, techniques that can help conserve and even increase your “spoon count,” advice on how to navigate the world with a higher “spoon count,” and the importance of embracing your “spoon count.”
Understanding the Spoon Theory
The “Spoon theory” was first conceived by Christine Miserandino in 2003. In this article, Miserandino explained how she used the spoon theory as a way to explain the energy limitations that came from living with lupus, a chronic illness, to her friend at a diner.
The theory uses “spoons” as a visual and tangible metaphor for units of energy. Each daily activity, regardless of how trivial it may seem to a typically-functioning person, costs a certain number of “spoons.” Once all the day's spoons are used, one must rest and replenish their spoon supply.
Although the theory was originally designed to explain what it’s like to live with lupus, its relevance, and application have extended to other conditions, including neurodivergent ones like autism.
Spoon theory is particularly applicable to the autism community because autistic people often experience a unique set of challenges that can drain their energy faster than neurotypical people. Everyday tasks such as socializing, getting out of bed, or showering can be more taxing for autistic people, costing them more spoons.
This representation of spoons as energy units provides a tangible way for autistic people to conceptualize their energy levels and capacities. It helps them identify how various activities may consume their energy, plan their day accordingly, and communicate their energy levels and needs to others. By understanding spoon theory, it becomes easier to recognize one's limits and work within them to reduce the risk of energy depletion and burnout.
The Autistic Experience and Spoon Theory
Life for autistic people is often a complex interplay of unique sensory perceptions, social challenges, and cognitive differences. These experiences can significantly impact an autistic person’s energy levels or spoon count.
A key factor that frequently comes into play is the heightened sensory sensitivity common in many autistic people. Everyday stimuli like loud noises, bright lights, or certain textures, which might be tolerable or even unnoticeable to neurotypical people, can be overwhelming for autistic people. Navigating this constant sensory barrage can be exhausting, quickly draining an autistic person's spoon supply.
Likewise, social interactions often pose significant challenges for autistic people. The unwritten rules of socializing, which neurotypical people often understand instinctively, can be perplexing and exhausting for autistic people to decode. Tasks such as making small talk, maintaining eye contact, or interpreting nonverbal cues can take up a considerable number of “spoons.”
Autistic people also often need to invest additional spoons in coping with changes in routine or unexpected situations. Predictability provides comfort, and disruptions to the known pattern can lead to stress and anxiety, thus consuming more energy.
As these examples show, having autism can sometimes be exhausting. The complexities of sensory processing, social understanding, and adaptability often mean autistic people are spending energy on tasks that are effortless to their neurotypical peers. This is why it’s important to learn how to better manage your energy to avoid being tired all the time.
Techniques to Conserve and Increase Your Spoons
Just as a car needs regular refueling and maintenance to run smoothly, autistic people also require consistent self-care and strategic planning to conserve and increase their spoons.
Importance of Self Care
Ultimately, caring for your body is going to have one of the greatest impacts on your spoon level. We all know what we should be doing. It’s the doing that is sometimes hard. The positive impact of these strategies cannot be understated. If any of these are not up to par, this is the place to start.
Sleep and Rest
Sleep is a powerful "spoon replenisher". A regular sleep schedule, with sufficient and good quality sleep, can dramatically boost your energy levels. While sleep requirements vary by person, the general recommendation for adults is between seven to nine hours per night. If you find it challenging to get good sleep, consider seeking advice from a healthcare provider, who can help you explore possible solutions such as sleep hygiene practices or other therapies.
Eating a balanced diet also contributes significantly to maintaining your energy levels. Certain foods, especially those high in complex carbohydrates and proteins, can provide a slow and steady energy release. It's also important to stay hydrated throughout the day.
Regular exercise, even if it uses some spoons, often results in a net gain of energy. Physical activity stimulates the production of endorphins, the body's natural mood lifters, and promotes better sleep, thereby helping to replenish your spoons.
Find an exercise routine that you enjoy and that suits your lifestyle, as this will make it easier to maintain in the long run. Even just 15 minutes of movement can have a positive impact. Try to get outside and walk if nothing else is possible.
Emotional Self-Care and Mental Health Maintenance
Mindfulness practices like meditation or deep breathing can help conserve your spoons by reducing stress and anxiety, but they are not the only options.
Activities that bring your focus to the present moment and help you tune out unnecessary stressors and conserve energy can help a lot, too. Try drawing or gardening or belting out your favorite tunes in the car to see how it impacts you. Experimenting with this can be fun!
Seeking help from a neurodiversity-informed and affirming mental health professional can also help manage your spoon count. Ask questions before you agree to work with someone on While they don’t work for every autistic person, therapies such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), or somatic therapy may provide you with tools to handle stress and emotional upheaval more effectively.
Social Interaction Strategies
Understanding and Setting Boundaries
Recognizing your social energy limits and setting boundaries accordingly can prevent spoon depletion. It's okay to say no to social events when you're low on energy or to seek quiet spaces for a recharge during social settings or at work.
Letting others know about your energy limitations can help them understand and respect your needs. This might mean explaining the spoon theory to close friends, family, or even coworkers so they better understand your unique experiences and can support you in maintaining your energy balance.
With these self-care practices, emotional wellness techniques, and social strategies, you can conserve and even grow your spoon count. Then you will create the wonderful problem of figuring out what to do with your increased spoon count! Read on for tips for navigating the world with increased spoons.
Navigating the World with More Spoons
Now that we've explored ways to conserve and increase your spoon count, let's turn our attention to how you can effectively use these extra spoons to navigate your daily life.
Using Spoons Wisely: Prioritizing and Planning
An essential part of maintaining a healthy spoon balance is learning to prioritize and plan. Understand which tasks are most crucial and which can be postponed or even delegated. Using a planner or digital calendar can help visually represent your spoons and how you plan to use them throughout the day. When planning, remember that it's okay to leave some tasks for tomorrow or ask for help when needed.
Advocating for Accommodations in the Workplace or School
Don't shy away from advocating for your needs at school or work. You have the right to ask for reasonable accommodations that can help conserve your spoons. This might involve requesting a quieter workspace, more flexible deadlines, the ability to work from home, or modifications in your school environment.
Dealing with Sensory Overload and Avoiding Meltdowns
Understanding your sensory triggers and developing strategies to cope with them can help prevent sensory overload and the resulting drain on your spoons. This might include wearing noise-canceling headphones in loud (or office) environments, carrying fidget toys to help with sensory regulation, or scheduling regular breaks during activities to avoid exhaustion.
You’ll want to have a plan for how to de-escalate in situations where you cannot control the environment. One thing Coach Patty works with clients on is creating a “recipe” that adults can keep in their phones with step-by-step instructions for calming their sensory systems before they end up in shutdown. They can easily pull it out in the moment and not have to think about the next steps.
When navigating the world with more spoons, remember that every autistic person is unique, and the strategies that work for one person might not work for another. It's about trial and error, learning from each experience, and adjusting your approach accordingly.
Embracing Your Unique Spoon Count
The journey of managing and increasing your spoon count is a personal one, marked by individual experiences, learnings, and adaptations. Each autistic person's spoon count is unique to them, shaped by their particular sensory sensitivities, social experiences, and coping mechanisms. It's important to recognize and embrace this uniqueness.
The Importance of Self-Acceptance and Understanding in the Autism Community
Self-acceptance is a crucial part of this journey. Understand that it's okay to have fewer spoons than others might on some days, or to need more spoons to complete certain tasks. This doesn't make you less capable; it simply means your energy works differently, and that's okay. By embracing your unique spoon count and how you use your spoons, you foster understanding and self-compassion.
The Journey of Finding Personal Strategies that Work Best
Finding strategies that work for you is a process of exploration and adaptation. What works for one person might not work for you, and vice versa. Be patient with yourself as you test different techniques, and celebrate each small victory when you find something that helps you conserve or increase your spoons.
Encouragement for Autistic People to Embrace Their Unique Spoon Count
To every autistic person embarking on this journey, remember: your experience is valid, your energy is precious, and your spoons are uniquely yours. Embrace your individual spoon count, use your spoons wisely, and continually strive to find ways to make your day-to-day life more comfortable and fulfilling.
Remember, being autistic means experiencing the world in a way that's unique and personal to you. Embracing your spoon count, understanding your limits, and discovering the tactics that work best for you is a journey, one that can lead to a better understanding of oneself and ultimately, a more fulfilling life.
The spoon theory offers a powerful framework to understand and explain the unique energy expenditure patterns of autistic people. As we've seen, many factors can impact an autistic person's spoon count including sensory sensitivities, social interactions, and changes in routine.
However, through self-care, emotional wellness techniques, social strategies, and effective planning, it's possible to conserve and increase one's spoon count. From there, spoons can be further conserved by using existing ones wisely, advocating for accommodations, and managing sensory overload to prevent meltdowns.
Each autistic person's journey to managing and increasing their spoons is unique and personal, requiring self-acceptance, patience, and resilience.
Navigating the world as an autistic person can be challenging, but with understanding, acceptance, and effective strategies, it's entirely possible to live a rewarding and successful life, on your terms and in your own unique way. Just keep exploring, keep learning, and remember -- you are more than capable. You've got this!