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Explaining the Spoon theory of coping

Updated: Mar 19, 2021

Spoon theory is a metaphor often used to depict the amount of mental energy a person has available for daily tasks. When applied to Autistic people’s lives this theory is very useful. It can be used to break down larger problems (for example trouble coping with school or in the workplace) into bite sized instances throughout the day that add to the individual’s stress and diminish their coping energy. A spoon is used as a symbolic unit of mental or physical energy that autistic people possess. As the day goes on, we encounter various stressful situations and environments. For example social or sensory situations may cause us to feel stressed and thus use up some of our capacity to cope. When we apply ourselves to our daily tasks we may expend much more effort on them than our neurotypical peers. The effort of all of these tasks will expend our spoons. The more difficult a situation, the more spoons will be lost in each encounter. Another way of visualising this is to think of us each having an inbuilt battery. Neurodivergent people and Neurotypical people will have batteries of different types. Being neurodivergent, autistic people will generally have an internal battery that either holds less charge that other types, or they can burn through that charge at a much quicker rate. Once the charge on a battery reaches zero, then a person no longer has any mental energy left. In autistic people this state is known as burn out. It is not just a matter of feeling ‘drained’ as it were. It can be a state of overwhelming exhaustion that can preclude proper functioning for a long period afterwards. This means that the more drained we are, the longer it will take for us to recover. An autistic person will need time to themselves, to be in an environment where all demands upon them are removed. This could mean having time off of work or even to shut themselves away from family members and loved ones. It is therefore not only advantageous, but essential to have good practices of self-care, so that we can build into the day periods when we can recover our spoons and to get back some of the energy we need to cope. It is a good idea for Autistic people to plan their days, to foresee where problems may arise and to try to head-off difficult situations, so as not to push themselves too far, or they may burn out( ie run out of battery, or run out of spoons). As part of our self-care, we can look for activities, pastimes or experiences that we use to soothe ourselves and that make us feel better. This could be a sensory activity that regulates our senses. A good example might be walking in nature. The natural world is very soothing and is often a favourite for autistic people, as it does not make any demands, and it provides a peaceful, low stress environment. It is also beneficial to take part in a pleasurable hobby or to immerse ourselves in an interest that stimulates our mind. There are similarities in the restorative power this bestows upon us to the way that meditation and mindful relaxation acts to restore energy. This useful theory uses simple symbolism to break down what is often a much more complex situation. By allowing us to monitor our stress levels, in small increments this can be a very powerful tool to keep autistic lives in balance.

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