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  • Writer's picturePatty Laushman

What is the Spoon Theory of Autism?

Updated: Nov 7, 2023

By Patty Laushman

The spoon theory is a metaphor used to explain the challenges faced by people with chronic illnesses or disabilities. The theory originated from an essay written by Christine Miserandino, titled "The Spoon Theory." In this essay, Miserandino compares the challenges faced by disabled people to the limited number of spoons a person with chronic illness has available to them each day.

Many silver spoons in a row, some bundled, on a blue cloth

Miserandino came up with the spoon analogy when she was out to lunch with a friend who was curious about what it was like to live with lupus, a chronic autoimmune disease. To help her friend understand, she grabbed a handful of spoons from the table and began assigning them activities she would need to do that day. These activities included taking a shower, getting dressed, and eating lunch.

By the end of their meal, she had used up all her spoons and still had more activities left to do. Her friend was able to see how even simple tasks can be a challenge when you have a chronic illness or disability.

The essay resonated with many people, both autistic and allistic. The metaphor of the spoon theory is often used to explain what it's like to live with autism. The spoon theory can also be applied to other disabilities, mental health issues, forms of marginalization, and other factors that can place an invisible burden on the people living with them.

Here, we'll take a closer look at what the spoon theory is and how it can be used to better understand autism.

How Does Spoon Theory Apply to Autism?

Woman (and her mirror reflection) fastening her outfit.

The spoon theory can be applied to autism in several ways. First, it can be used to explain how autistic people often have difficulty completing tasks that neurotypical people take for granted. For example, getting dressed in the morning may seem like a simple task for most people but for an autistic person, all the steps involved and decisions to be made can make it very challenging.

Second, it can also be used as a way of describing how autistic burnout happens

when an autistic person has expended all their energy trying to cope with demands that neurotypical people wouldn't find challenging.

Young man covering his face in a gesture of exhaustion.

Lastly, the spoon theory can be used as a way of explaining why some autistic people stim. Stimming is self-stimulatory behavior that helps an autistic person cope with overwhelming sensory input or emotions.

While stimming may look strange to neurotypical people, it's actually a coping mechanism that helps an autistic person regulate their emotions and stay calm in stressful situations. Essentially, it’s a way for people to cope when they’ve “run out of spoons.”

Spoon theory isn’t just used for those of us with autism, either. As described earlier, the term first arose to explain the experience of a person living with lupus, an autoimmune disease.

Recently, it has been used to help describe the experiences of people who are trans as well as communities of color.

The spoon theory can be used for practically any social situation. Some people require more spoons than others and it can help to both demystify and destigmatize what it might be like to be forced to ration your energy throughout the day.

When Are Spoons Used?

The theory is based on the metaphor of a limited number of spoons, which represents the amount of energy an individual has to expend on activities.

The spoon theory goes like this: Imagine that your day-to-day energy is represented by a number of spoons. Each task you do during the day uses up one of your spoons. For example, getting out of bed in the morning uses up one spoon, taking a shower uses up another, getting dressed uses up another, and so on. Once you're out of spoons, you're done for the day and need to rest.

How much energy, or how many spoons, you use on a task will vary depending on your unique preferences and strengths. Things that might take up spoons include:

  • Getting out the door in the morning

  • Commuting to work or school

  • Completing assignments

  • Managing your time

  • Talking with a friend

  • Reviewing notes

  • Participating in meetings

Person covering their face in a gesture of exhaustion.

Each task that requires energy uses up one spoon, and when an individual runs out of spoons, they are exhausted. For people with chronic illnesses or invisible disabilities, everyday tasks can use up all their spoons very quickly. This can lead to fatigue, anxiety, and depression.

The spoon theory can be applied to both physical and mental tasks, and it highlights the fact that many individuals are constantly running low on energy.

While the theory is helpful in understanding the challenges faced by autistic individuals, it is important to remember that everyone experiences fatigue differently.

What Causes Spoon Deficits?

There are many possible causes of spoon deficits, outside of the normal course of using them up with various activities, obligations, and emotional states throughout the day.

One reason may be that the person has too many demands placed on them throughout the day, demands that might be within the capability of a neurotypical person, but cause a neurodivergent person to run out of spoons. For example, they may have a job that requires them to be social all day or they may have young children who require constant care.

Another possibility is that the person has an underlying medical condition that causes fatigue, nausea, or pain such as POTS or Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. Spoon deficits can also be caused by mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.

How to Give (or Get) More Spoons

A hand with a pen creating a checklist.

The good news is that there are things you can do to help yourself or someone you know with autism get more spoons. Here are a few suggestions.

Make Sure You’re Not Taking on Too Much

It’s important to make sure that you’re not doing too much or taking on too much responsibility. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, it may be because you’re trying to do too much. Take a step back and reassess your priorities.

A woman taking deep breaths in front of a body of water.

Practice Building Your Emotional Capacity for Stress

Just like muscles, the more you use your emotional coping skills, the stronger they will become. Practice deep breathing exercises or meditation to help calm yourself in stressful situations.

Recognize Individual Strengths and Limitations

Everyone has different strengths and limitations. It’s important to know what yours are so that you can set realistic goals and expectations for yourself. Then advocate for what you need with others.

Engage in Regular Self-Care

Taking care of yourself is essential, especially if you’re dealing with a lot of stress. Make sure to schedule time for activities that make you happy and help you relax. This could be something as simple as reading a book or taking a walk.

A backpacker looking at a mountain in the distance.

Follow Your Passions

Doing what you love -- as often as you can do it -- is another great way to give yourself more "spoons". By taking the time to recharge and "fill your spoon drawer," you can have more energy to expend on other tasks that might be more draining or depleting.

Advocate for Yourself

Don’t be afraid to speak up for yourself if you need accommodations at work or school. If you feel like you can’t handle something, let someone know so that they can help you figure out a different way to do it or give you the support that you need.

Use the Spoon Theory to Understand Yourself, to Help Others Understand You Better, and To Take Charge

The spoon theory is a useful tool for understanding some of the challenges faced by autistic people on a daily basis.

While it's impossible to truly understand what it's like to live with autism without being on the spectrum yourself, the spoon theory provides insights into some of the difficulties faced by those on the autism spectrum.

If you know someone on the autism spectrum, try using the spoon theory next time you're curious about what it's like for them living with autism or another form of neurodiversity. If you are on the autism spectrum yourself, you can use this metaphor as a tool for communicating your needs and experiences to others.


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