On Thursday morning my alarm clock went off at 6:30. Normally I would leap out of bed and greet the day, excited to go to work and ‘rock the casbah’ (which is Yenn-ese for doing good work and generally trying to change the world). However, on Thursday I lay in bed for as long as I possibly could, not wanting to get up. I went to work and did my thing but I wasn’t quite me. When I got home I lay in my papasan chair repeating ‘I am SO tired’ and questioning ‘Yennski Yenn, are you OK?’ These were not good signs. I identified that I was quite depressed and also quite overloaded.
Friday was marginally better and today about the same but my energy and enthusiasm is pretty much non-existent. I am forcing myself to write this post because I need something in the nature of an output to put in my weekly email which goes out on a Saturday!!
There is a theory called spoon theory which relates to energy levels and overload. Spoon theory is a metaphor that is used to describe the amount of mental or physical energy a person has available for daily activities and tasks. The theory was developed by Christine Miserandino as a way to express how it felt to have Lupus. A lot of people in the disability and mental health space apply spoon theory to their experiences. I think it is a good metaphor and I use it frequently in my advocacy work.
Autistic people can often benefit from this way of understanding navigating the world and managing escalation around meltdowns and shutdowns. If you imagine that an autistic person has ten ‘spoons’ for the day. They wake up and have not had enough sleep. That might have taken two or three spoons. Their cat vomits on the floor. Cleaning it up tales a spoon or two. Their child won’t get dressed for school and they have an argument about this. Another few spoons. For many of us we can be all out of spoons by before lunchtime. Then imagine that something really stressful happens – we make a mistake at work, we have to have a haircut or medical appointment. Even if we had a full complement of spoons these things would be very difficult but if you have no spoons left it is unbearable and can result in overload and meltdowns.
The good news is that spoons can be replenished. When I was overwhelmed on Thursday I replenished my spoons by talking to my mum on the phone and watching TV. While it didn’t totally fix the overload it definitely helped. Some ways of replenishing spoons can include soothing sensory experiences, engaging in passionate interests, spending time wth pets and other animals and doing something you enjoy. It can also help to have downtime. When I am getting overloaded I often tell myself to just stop and do nothing for a while.
Saying ‘no’ can be a great way of preserving spoons. Often we get overloaded because we have offered or agreed to do things which are stressful or overwhelming. It is OK to say no. My good friend and coauthor Dr Emma Goodall once gave me a little buzzer which says ‘NO!!!’ in a variety of ways when you press it. While this was meant partially as a joke it is actually really helpful. If I get asked to do too many things I just press on the buzzer and remind myself that it is OK to say no. I reflect that there are many other autism advocates who would love to do the thing which I don’t want to or don’t have the energy to.
Autistic people are particularly prone to burnout and overload. Spoon theory is a way we can understand this overload and avoid getting so overloaded we have meltdowns or burnout. And just as an amusing way to end this post, the spoons in the picture are mine and they are actually gold plated! I sometimes send people the picture and say ‘If you are low on spoons have some of mine. They are gold plated.’ And they are 🙂