Spoon theory and autism

The Spoon Theory explains the amount of energy someone has, and how much energy an activity can use up or take away. It’s a helpful analogy for autistic people to use and helps explain why schools days can be so tough.

Have you wondered what it’s like for an autistic child to go through the day and how difficult some activities can be? Try talking through the spoons analogy with your child.

What is the Spoon Theory?

Spoon Theory is a helpful analogy to explain the amount of energy a person might have available throughout a day.

Imagine the amount of energy you have as a store of spoons. Some activities may take away spoons, and others may give back spoons of energy.

Activities that are challenging, provide sensory overload (noise, lights), boring, or frustrating may use up a lot of spoons of energy.

Other activities can give spoons of energy back. These may be calming activities, enjoyable and relaxing tasks or quiet times.

Spoons Theory: why autistic children struggle with school

We went through this task with our daughter, as she was having lots of trouble at school. It was a really insightful exercise, and demonstrated a couple of key points.

  1. Getting a good night’s sleep is really important. If she doesn’t get quality sleep then she starts to day with less spoons of energy. This depleted supply means she doesn’t have the reserves to be able to problem solve well, have emotional regulation, or respond well to setbacks.
  2. It’s exhausting just getting to school. Self-care is a reasonable drain on energy so the morning routine actually uses up quite a few spoons. Reflecting on this, it was worthwhile to try to squeeze an energy-giving activity like craft in before school.
  3. Managing the sensory inputs can dramatically alter the amount of energy a task takes, even when the task or lesson stays the same. Self-regulation breaks, use of noise cancelling headphones and sensory toys can make a boring lesson manageable.

Before even getting to school…

Eating breakfast – 1/2 to 1 spoon. Rather than giving energy, eating breakfast often takes energy. The sights and smells of food triggers sensory aversions and so can be an exhausting activity to eat. Also, she prefers to use her hands to eat rather than cutlery – the energy it takes to consider the extra steps of holding and using cutlery can make eating a tiring task.

Getting dressed – 1 to 2 spoons. Self care is an annoying chore when it would be much more comfortable to stay in pajamas all day.

Brushing teeth – 2 to 3 spoons. That’s a lot of energy use! There are a lot of sensory things going on when brushing teeth. There’s the taste of the toothpaste (spearmint- yuck!). Then there’s the feel of the toothbrush in the mouth with is uncomfortable.

At school…

Drama lesson – gives 1 to 3 spoons. Drama is an enjoyable lesson so it can actually give energy back.

Craft – gives 1 to 3 spoons. Craft activities are calming and number one on her self-regulation activity list.

H.A.S.S. – 3 to 5 spoons. H.A.S.S. lesson is with a different teacher, is sometimes just ‘boring worksheets’ and is not a topic that is intrinsically motivating or interesting. The boredom, transition/change of a new space, and the noisiness of the classroom means this lesson uses up a lot of energy.

H.A.S.S. with noise cancelling headphones – 1 to 2 spoons. This is where it gets interesting. While H.A.S.S. as a lesson uses up a lot of energy to deal with the negative emotions, change and sensory inputs, wearing noise cancelling headphones reduces the amount of energy it takes. Being able to have some control over sensory input means this is a less energy-intensive activity. This is good because it means there will be more energy available throughout the day. As the number of energy spoons run out, you feel more tired and may make poor decisions or respond in more emotional ways to small events (hint: meltdowns).

Getting a drink – gives 1/2 to 1 spoon. Going for a walk to get a cool drink is a quick recharge. This can save a lesson from being impossibly energy intensive.

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