The recharge requirement: down time for autistic kids

One thing I notice with our autistic kids – they need more down time to recharge. Normal day to day social activities like school drain them and leave them in need of quiet. It’s not surprising when talking to them about ‘spoons of energy‘ and how much daily activities use up energy.

recharge with down time kid listening to music on couch

If only every weekend was a long weekend for more down time

I sometimes think it would be great for our autistic kids if every weekend was a long weekend. Two days of rest isn’t always enough. They need more down time to recharge. If we have a lot of social activities, parties, chores or running errands on a weekend, our kids are tired before Monday even starts.

We notice that on a weekend, or on holidays, we can manage one big or two small outings in a day. If we’re running errands, we can visit 2 or 3 shops but no more. Too much of loud, social settings and it’s game over.

Our kids will take more days off school than other kids. Mid term they just need an ‘autistic break’ to do nothing and have a quiet day at home because they don’t have the energy for school. When COVID hit and school was part time or learning from home, our kids actually enjoyed it more (no comment about mum 🙂 ). Some schools have recognised this and now offer part time face-to-face attendance to accommodate autistic children.

Accepting that our kids have small social batteries (or a small number of spoons) makes our lives more peaceful. Life is rearranged around the disabilities, rather than constantly struggling to push through more social activities with frustrated and grumpy children.

Social batteries that need recharging

I think of our kids as having social batteries. When they need to be social, pay attention, follow rules, fit in or mask, this depletes their battery. Some activities drain the battery faster – big noisy unstructured parties for example. Other activities might just be a slow steady drain, like school.

Some activities can recharge the battery, allowing more more social time after. Down time activities are recharging times. Down time might include quiet time in the family home (a familiar and controlled environment), screen time, reading, craft and drawing, or listening to music. If the social battery is completely drained, it can take more own down time to recover.

The big rocks model for recharge

Another model to think about energy levels is the big rock model. Imagine you have a jar and there are 5 rocks in there. This is how much energy you have for the day. Once all the rocks are ‘spent’ on activities, there is no more. So you’ll need to recharge through down time or sleep to put the rocks back in the jar.

If the kids didn’t get a good sleep, they may start with only 3 rocks for the day. Then you’ll know not to push them and say no to that after school playdate.

Say you have a birthday party scheduled on the weekend. That might use up all 5 rocks because it’s a long, loud and unstructured outdoor activity. You’ll know that the rest of the day will need to be down time. The grocery shopping will have to be without kids or at another time.

The rock model can also help you plan your week or days. You can schedule activities based on energy levels for maximum comfort and success.

As an adult, you might schedule high performance activities like public speaking, networking with strangers or job interviews early in the week or the morning when you’re less tired, rather than afternoons or Fridays. You might say no to evening events during the week so you can recharge with down time at home.

You may add rocks to the big jar as time goes on. Maybe you sleep better or develop strategies for coping better with social events. You may grow into a 10 rock jar which enables you to do more while staying in your comfort zone.

Politely saying no in order to recharge with down time

We put firm limits on playdate and party times – 2 hours is plenty right now. Then it’s home time. Explaining that our kids have social batteries and that they don’t have the energy for anything longer helps. it’s not that we don’t like our friends, it’s that we have small social batteries and need to be alone now.

Going any longer and there’s likely to be fights, emotionally heightened kids, the odd tantrum, and difficulty bringing kids back down to a regulated calm state. Ending while it’s good is a strategy to make sure everyone has a good time.

Big energy items

Each kid is going to be different. Our kids find these activities are exhausting and drain their batteries fast.

  • shopping – the loud noises, the crowds of people, the walking around, the boring things mum and dad want to look at, and the frustration of being told they can’t buy what they’re looking at. Shopping is an exhausting activity for our kids in addition to being a sensory overload. Sometimes our kids will tolerate shopping more if they are one-on-one with an adult because it’s almost like dedicated attention time for them. But mostly it’s just boring and too draining on the senses. Thank you online shopping.
  • parties and play dates – while our kids love their friends and having playdates, they are also draining. The need to compromise, remember social thinking, take turns, maintain emotional regulation, monitor others for their emotional state… It can be a real social challenge and a high energy activity to play nicely with a friend. Added to that is that parties are often loud, in new (not familiar) surroundings, with some strangers, different foods and strange toilets. All these things add up to being exhausting.
  • school – it takes lots of energy to maintain attention, be on your best behaviour, mask ‘annoying’ behaviours that aren’t considered acceptable, monitor the social dynamics in the room, keep up with the pace the teacher sets, deal with loud noises, annoying classmates and bright lights in the room. And we haven’t even gotten to lunch break yet, where it could be hot outside, too loud, unstructured and ripe for bullying. After school activities are mostly a no-no for us. Our kids just want to go home to a quiet, cool, familiar place and have down time.

What down time looks like for recharge

Down time for our children looks like

  • being indoors at home or in a familiar environment (like Granny’s house)
  • being in comfortable casual clothes
  • having low lighting
  • having quiet calming music or no music at all
  • having no one else around – either just immediate family or on their own
  • doing a preferred activity, which could range from drawing and craft through to gaming or reading
  • sometimes with a hot drink, or sometimes with a cold drink or frozen ice block.
  • having screen time to help regulate and entertain.
  • curling up in a cuddly oodie or quilt and hanging out in bed.

Think about the environment your child spends time in – does just being in that space use up spoons of energy and create sensory anxiety? Try an environmental audit of home or school because sometimes simple environmental changes can reduce anxiety and energy use in a space and make them more inviting for autistic children.

Recharge through play instead of structured activities

In the parenting book Raising Girls who Like Themselves by Kasey Edwards and Dr Christopher Scanlon, they talk about over-scheduled kids. Even neurotypical kids have a recharge requirement, and when they are booked into extracurricular activities every night then there’s no time for play. They suggest that if the activities are causing more stress and time that you’d like, perhaps allow time for play instead. Georgina Manning, director of Wellbeing for Kids, suggests that more time for play and recharging is best. A sense of calm, she says, creates space for creativity, play, conversation and rest. This helps children rest their brain, reflect, wind down and de-stress. So down time to recharge is essential for all kids, not just neurodivergent (although the amount of down time needed to recharge is likely higher in neurodivergent kids).

Conclusion: Down time to recharge

We’re fortunate to have a scattering of public holidays throughout the term that provide down time to recharge. Having mid term rests, mid week rests and weekends to recharge energy levels is important for our autistic kids. Sometimes this means having an ‘autistic mental health day’ off school – but this helps avoid longer term school refusal.

Being aware of energy levels, what activities are draining, and what’s possible to schedule in is important. It’s also much more peaceful in life to schedule large amounts of down time into weekends to support our autistic children in recharging their social batteries before the beginning of the next school week.

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