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Spoon theory & capacity issues

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Danny Raede

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In 2003 a brilliant woman by the name of Christine Miserandino published an essay entitled “The Spoon Theory” which went on to change the way people think about mental and physical challenges. Here’s the short and sweet version:

“Spoons” is a metaphor, a code word, to describe and measure how much physical and emotional capacity each of us has to get through the day. Imagine you start the day bright and early with ten Spoons. You use up one Spoon getting out of bed and getting ready, then another four to five Spoons throughout the day at work. Maybe the commute home was particularly long and stressful so it used up three Spoons instead of the usual one. Then your last two to three Spoons get used up that evening making dinner, hanging out with the family, and working on a little project before going bed. At the end of the night, you collapse into bed just as you start to run out of steam. If you’re lucky, you might even end some days feeling really good, and with a Spoon or two to spare.

Make sense? Cool.

Now imagine that your Asperger’s child starts the day with five Spoons, instead of ten. They have to try to accomplish many of the same things you do with half the amount of internal resources. And let’s not forget that they might have additional things like sensory issues or social anxiety that will sap their Spoons even further. For you, taking a shower might be rather cheap in terms of its cost to your Spoons. For your Asperger’s child it might be a five-Spoon ordeal because of sensory issues (cold air, bright lights, weird textures, dry skin, just to name a few) and intense emotion, such as anxiety. They might even lose a Spoon just from the stress of thinking about taking a shower. And then another Spoon from the added stress of knowing they “shouldn’t” be this stressed about something as simple as taking a shower. It’s a vicious cycle.

When you extrapolate that simple idea to your child’s entire daily routine, then is it any wonder that they just look completely done when they come home after school? They might even have a meltdown! While it may only be the middle of the afternoon, they’re exhausted, their Spoons are gone, and they have nothing left to give.

Granted, they might be able to get one or two Spoons back by taking some time to decompress and take care of themselves, but that’s still not a lot when you’re only half-way through the day. They really need five Spoons to make it until bedtime, but they’re only able to recover one. As a result, they might find themselves trying to make the difficult choice between taking a shower or finishing one of their homework assignments because they’re fairly certain they don’t have enough Spoons to do both. If things get really tight, as they often do, they can always borrow from tomorrow’s Spoons by pushing themselves past their limit, but they’ll pay the price the next day and start with even fewer Spoons than usual. So you see, while your child’s leg may not be broken, there might still be some things that they just don’t have the capacity to do right now. And that’s okay.

By the way, I say “right now” because I sincerely believe that one can overcome many of the challenges associated with Asperger’s through knowledge, practice, and skill. Additionally, your child’s emotional capacity for stress will naturally increase as they get older and their brain develops. Yes, it’s important to recognize and understand your child’s limitations, and metaphorically speaking, understand how fast they are capable of running right now. However, please don’t make the mistake of believing that they will be running at that same speed for the rest of their life, or even for the rest of the year.

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Jessica Skilling

AE+

Posted

We deal with spoons a lot in our house.  I have a disabling form of Rheumatoid Arthritis and a Primary Immunodeficiency disorder. Treating one condition literally makes the other worse so I'm on a seesaw. My older son has Asperger's and depression.  My younger son has Combined ADHD and depression.  

We should own sock in spoons! 

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