Spoon Theory

Originally an analogy that was invented by Christine Miserandino while she sat in a restaurant with a friend, Spoon Theory was quickly adopted by the autistic community. It was an on-the-spot explanation for her life living with Lupus, a chronic illness, by grabbing the closest things to hand: spoons.

You can read her personal account of it here https://butyoudontlooksick.com/articles/written-by-christine/the-spoon-theory/

Can we just take a minute here and appreciate her blog name. It’s a small dig at society, but well placed. The amount of times I’ve heard “But you don’t look autistic” is astounding. Well, friend, you don’t look like a judgemental arsehole, but here we are.

I think as a community we adopted Spoon Theory so eagerly because it finally gave us a way of explaining our daily lives, and just how much they were different despite their similarities to a neurotypicals (NT).

I see a lot of Tumblr-esque picture posts flying about the internet, one of which said something along the lines of “I need people to understand that just because something is easy to them, it may not be that easy to others.” A fairly nondescript phrase, and one you’d think was pretty obvious. But imagine if everything you did in life seemed to be more taxing to you than it did to others.

Anyone that’s played pretty much any video game ever will be accustomed to having to spend energy points to be able to do things. A common hack for these games is to have unlimited energy points so you can just keep going. Now view this in the context of everyday life. A NT person wakes up each day with an infinite or large amount of energy, or to stick with the theory, spoons. Each task they do that day expends an amount of spoons, but that’s okay, it’s a relatively small amount compared with their large reserve. Consider this now for someone who is neurodiverse (ND), an autistic for example. We wake up after having a good nights sleep and are feeling mentally sound, we have a medium sized spoon reserve. Still, every task that we accomplish has a higher spoon toll, it’s more effort for us to shower and eat breakfast than it is for ‘normal’ people. If we also then take into account that rarely do we wake up feeling rested or mentally sound then you can start to see why we’re all so god damn tired.

I always knew that it was taking me more effort to do things than it should, and that I spent far more time being exhausted than the people around me. What I didn’t know however was that this was because of how my spoons were being distributed between categories. In fact, I didn’t even know there were categories.

While doing some research around Spoon Theory I stumbled across this blog https://musingsofanaspie.com/2014/10/15/conserving-spoons/. She comes up with the concept of a spoon drawer, an inventory if you like, of the categories that our energy is distributed between. It can be broken down into something a little like this:

  • Social Spoons
  • Communication/Language Spoons
  • Physical Activity Spoons
  • Sensory Spoons
  • Executive Function Spoons

Each of us has a different distribution of spoons between these areas, I find that I have a relatively small amount allocated to social and sensory spoons. Not particularly life ending, I just have to spend time alone and recover once my spoons are depleted. But what happens when you run out of executive function spoons? Or communication spoons?

You lay in bed being utterly non-verbal and exhausted, that’s what.

This does however, explain why after being socially depleted and in mid shutdown, I can still knock out a full sized blog post. Two of my spoon categories might be empty, but I still have plenty in another.

Now, spoons can be shared between areas and you can hold spoons in reserve for another day. If you take it easy on Sunday, you might just have enough left over to get through Monday at work. However, this introduces a problem, called spoon leakage. If spoons can be shared, then they can also be stolen. Say I’m at work, and some rather annoying stage hands are using stupidly loud impact drivers all day. By the end of it not only do I not have any sensory spoons left, but they’ve also started to steal from my other spoons, meaning that by the time I get home I don’t have the energy to do anything.

Something I’ve not quite gotten the hang of yet is how to conserve my spoons so I spend less time feeling so drained. Physically limiting yourself isn’t particularly hard. The difficulty lies in mentally limiting yourself and not over-exerted so that you can still function as a human being.

This means that you have to accept that not everything you do is going to be perfect.

A Certain Kind Of Perspective

Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly.

G. K. Chesterton

A strange concept for anyone. Why bother doing something if you’re not going to do it properly and to the full extent of your abilities? It’s something that’s even harder to grasp as a perfectionist. My post ‘Routine Changes’ explains the need for Autistics to do things in a set way, and how not being able to do so is incredibly uncomfortable. You can see why attempting to do something poorly can be a struggle as well.

I’m going to do this thing and I’m going to do it right.

A terribly exhausting mentality to have, speaking from experience. It doesn’t always work when you’ve spent all day trying to fit in with society and end up using all your spoons.

I have such a problem with trying to eat regularly, simply because I don’t have the energy to do so. The irony is that by the time I get home from work I have enough executive function spoons to cook food, just not enough to eat it afterwards. I can cook, or I can eat, or clean the house. But only one of them.

The idea of “doing something poorly” is for anyone that’s struggling, either with mental health or just in general. You have to be honest with yourself and accept the fact that you’re not at peak performance all the time. You might not have the energy to shower and go outside and be productive, but you can get out of bed, clean your teeth and get some air for ten minutes. It could literally be life saving for you. If you’re struggling with depression or severe mental health issues getting out of your room and giving your body just the slightest bit of movement, sun, air, water, whatever, could possibly be the thing that will get you out of that momentary “dark place”.

Don’t base the quantity of your own mental progression on other people.

Don’t let everyone else’s extreme expectations make you think less of yourself.

Allow yourself to move through life at your own pace.

The entire concept depends on your perspective. If you’re hell-bent on doing everything perfect every single time then you’re not going to get anywhere. You might be doing it poorly, but doing it poorly is far better than not doing it at all.

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