- Autistic people often experience burnout and fatigue.
- "Spoons theory" encourages people with autism to think of their energy in terms of a limited number of spoons.
- Conceiving of energy in this way can help autistic people stop themselves from taking on too much.
- Being realistic about their energy and deliberate in how they use it can help autistic people avoid fatigue.
Autistic people often report experiencing burnout and fatigue. Everyone only has so much energy to expend on work, family, socialising, housework, and interests as is, but autistic people often have less energy for many of these things than neurotypical people. (It's also important to note that autistic people might have more energy for certain things, particularly if they have restricted or special interests). It's often the "daily grind" stuff—particularly if it has the potential to overload the senses—that autistic people find most draining.
Christine Miserandino's1 "spoon theory" is often used to make sense of what it feels like to have a limited amount of energy and to have to make choices to avoid (or at least minimise) burnout and fatigue. She developed this metaphor to explain her chronic illness, but it was adopted by the autistic community to explain the similar energy limitations that autistic people face.
The spoon theory starts with the idea that people facing a chronic illness or other conditions (such as autism) start their day with a set amount of "spoons"; this is in contrast to others who may have a seemingly unlimited number of spoons. Every time you do something, you'll use one of your spoons. When you use it, it's gone; there aren't any more spoons in the drawer that you can use to replace it.
Of course, some things might use more spoons than others, and you can work out what uses more of your spoons. But the critical thing to remember is that you only have so many spoons to start off with. It's also important to remember that, when you're autistic, even things you enjoy will use a spoon, or more than one.
Swapping Spoons for Pebbles
Many of my clients and I prefer to think of the "spoons" as nice, smooth pebbles instead. I have a physical jar full of pebbles I've collected from the beach, so I can see them in real life as well as imagine them. Even better, I can take a pebble with me as a self-care reminder not to push myself beyond my allotted amount of pebbles. If being out for a coffee with a friend for an hour is going to use two pebbles, I make sure not to stay any longer or I'm not going to have enough pebbles to cover the rest of my day.
Whether you use spoons, pebbles, or something else entirely, the concept is the same; you have a limited amount of energy.
I find it helpful to think about how many pebbles I have for the entire week, too. While calculating an exact number can be tricky, the principle is intuitive: If I have a very busy day on Wednesday, I know I'll be starting off Thursday with fewer pebbles than usual; one night's sleep isn't enough for me to fully recover from a particularly packed day. Accordingly, I won't plan too much for Thursday.
Another way this might manifest in real life is that, if I'm teaching all day on Saturday, I won't see clients on Friday or Monday. If I have to attend a school parents' evening on Tuesday night, I won't meet a friend on Wednesday. When you get a general sense of how many pebbles you have for the day and for the week, you can be more realistic about the best way to use them.
Coping When You Have No Pebbles Left
What happens if you use all your pebbles? That's when you're more likely to be completely overwhelmed, have meltdowns, and reach a stage where you're so fatigued that you can't do much.
While it's tempting to keep pretending that you've got an endless supply of pebbles, doing so simply leads to a greater degree of fatigue and exhaustion. This fatigue may last longer and take greater effort to recover from than facing up to the fact that you only had so many pebbles to start off with.
When I explained this concept to my client Melina, she said that while it made sense to her, she found it depressing. "I don't want to have a limited bag of pebbles," she told me. "Why can't I have as many pebbles as everyone else? It's not fair that I need to consider conserving my energy—even when it comes to things I love, like spending time with my kids or seeing family and friends. Maybe it's true, but it's not fair."
She's right. It's not fair. Having any condition that limits your energy isn't fair, but it is a fact. And facing up to the facts allows you to deal with them.
Another client, Sheila, told me that learning to think about her energy in terms of pebbles made it much easier to plan. "I love pebbles anyway," she said. "I know you said that I could just imagine the pebbles if I wanted to, but I bought a selection of lovely smooth, coloured stones. And each day, I set out how many I have. Sometimes it's more or less, depending on how my week is going. Then I work out how many I will use, and I always keep a spare for whatever emergency might crop up. It really helps me stick to my guns about saying no and not taking on anything extra."
Preparation is Key
Preventing yourself from using up more than your allotted number of pebbles is key to avoiding or minimising burnout. But if you're feeling completely fatigued or burnt out, it's important to recognise what you need to replenish your energy.
This might include rest or reading a book. It might involve going for a walk alone. It might involve complete silence. There might be some responsibilities that you simply can't avoid and which intrude on your relaxation and restorative times, like parenting. If so, ditch the stuff you don't need so that you're not continuing to drain yourself even more of your energy.