Have you heard of spoon theory? The basics are that each of us has an internal cutlery drawer with only a finite set of spoons. Every activity is a ‘spoon spending’ activity, yet some activities spend spoons at a faster rate of spoon currency than others. It’s used now (relatively widely) within the neurodiverse community (and others living with chronic illness) to help to protect them from burnout and to promote understanding of individual needs. Originally penned to talk about living with a disability, it can be used to support kids with understanding and articulating what their personal limitations might be.
You can read more about spoon theory here. This blog/my angle is about how it has been revolutionary for us as parents of neurodivergent children and, for me as an educator/advisor for people involved with learners, how it has been a golden theory to support kids with additional needs.
The value of spoons
One of the problems with spoon theory is that the spending value of spoons is not quantifiable. It is different for everyone. The usefulness of it as a theory is to use it as an analogy/metaphor for personal otherwise-unquantifiable energy expenditure. Giving one’s energy reserves a name as well as clear imagery to anchor the ideas to means that it is accessible for kids.
Some examples of different contexts and how we’ve used it:
Me: I find driving overstimulating. As a consequence I can say that I’m ‘out of spoons’ when I arrive at my destination – especially when I have to travel long distances for work. This means I know my ‘spoon threshold’ and try not to plan any strenuous meetings as soon as I arrive after a long drive.
Our son: We recently went on a sailing boat trip as a family and underestimated the spoon expenditure of the experience for our son. Consequently the sand at the beach ‘felt like knives’ for him (overspending can mean heightened sensory input) and he could tell us that he was in ‘spoon overdraft’. We adjusted our week, supported him to get through the sailing and sand experience, and gave him a drawer-filling day the next day to relax and recalibrate/get some of his spoons back.
Sensory experiences: Some ordinary places can be big spoon spending places for those with sensory sensitivities. A quick trip to the supermarket for one person might be a ‘one spoon trip’, but for someone who has sound and light sensitivities, it can use up a large handful or even a whole drawer.
Wise spending: We are becoming more comfortable to say things like, ‘I don’t have the spoons for that’ to indicate that our spoons are currently needed for another upcoming spoon spend. It means we can support each other to conserve spoons and spend them wisely. Recently we took the kids bowling and to dinner at a busy buffet restaurant so knowing that this would be a high spoon spend we all took the day quietly in the lead up to it – conserving spoons to spend them wisely.
The spoon part is arbitrary
The fact that we talk of spoons (and not marbles in a bag or drops in a bucket) is really arbitrary. The main thing is that knowing about spoon theory gives kids a way to talk about the activities they find challenging without needing to justify everything. ‘I’m out of spoons’ is enough to communicate that the day has been exhausting, hyper-stimulating or exhausting. They can explain the way they are feeling with quick metaphorical clarity. They can indicate if they have a full drawer, a low supply or even an overdraft of spoons. It also means we can wait until there are more spoons in the drawer to talk about it.
The calculation of spoons
When planning activities we have to know the individuals involved. Which activities spend more spoons? Which ones might deplete the drawer? Just attending a busy, loud and crowded assembly might be a big spoon spend for some kids yet we can help them through it by using the language of spoon theory and finding a mutually agreed way to either avoid the big spend, reduce the spend with extra supports and accommodations or ‘spend and restore’ depending on the individual and the context.
Restocking the cutlery drawer
Every person is different. Just like knowing someone’s triggers or ‘big spend’ activities, it’s good to know how to restore the cutlery drawer. What works for one may not work for another, so knowing your kids and talking to them about it is the first step. Device time or down time can be a spoon restorer just like time in nature, time in water or other sensory-seeking things like quiet time with a weighted blanket might usefully restore the spoon drawer.
Planning with spoon theory
When I worked in a high school supporting high school students with self-management and task/work flow I used to give out 3, 2, 1 advice to manage things on their job list. Tackling three little things, two medium things and one big thing in a prep/homework session meant that they could make good progress and cross things off their list. It helped them to not feel overwhelmed.
What if spoons could be the same? Spend one serving spoon, two dessert spoons and three teaspoons? I feel like small spoon spending could lead up to medium spoon spending and maybe the big spoon can wait in the drawer for a big spend. The process of calculating the spend and knowing how to sustainably spend the spoons is where the gold sits. We can use spoon theory to predict our potential and manage our capability more easily.
Have you ever noticed how you spend your spoons?
The discovery of spoon theory for us as a family with neurodiverse family members has been so useful. It is a way to talk about burning out before burning out. It is a way to feel safe about spending our energy. It is a way to feel safe about preserving our energy. It has also improved our ability to communicate with each other because even just talking about it and ‘putting our spoons on the table’ puts another spoon into each of our drawers. We feel seen. We feel more understood. It is empowering not limiting.
Here’s to spoon theory – hooray for it being a helpful method of dishing out spoonfuls of understanding and increasing empathy for those in the world that need to protect and conserve their energy – because all it takes is a spoonful of empathy and the helpful metaphor of a spoon drawer.