One of hardest difficulties to deal with when autistic can be the ‘social hangover’ – the after-effects of socialisation that deplete an autist’s energy. Let’s explore this concept further.
The spoon theory
Firstly, it’s important to realise that ALL autists use many, many ‘spoons’ or energy units when they socialise; and that includes socialisation with their family.
Not heard of the spoon theory? It was developed quite by chance by Christine Miserandino, who has lupus, and uses ‘spoons’ to explain how to ration one’s energy. The spoon theory, a kind of disability metaphor, states that a person with a reduction in energy levels (emotional or physical), starts the day with a certain number of spoons.
Each spoon represents a burst of energy; so showering, getting dressed etc requires small numbers of spoons, as does conversing with close friends and family at home. Some activities, for example, meeting a group of friends or colleagues, being interviewed, chatting in a public place, require lots of spoons (for an autist, or autistic individual).
Autistic communication and social interaction issues
Therefore, autists often find that, due to their autistic challenges – e.g. social communication and social interaction issues, as well as sensory challenges – great chunks of their energy may be used up more quickly than that of their neurotypical peers and family members.
And what happens when an autist socialises – even with friends or family that they love and enjoy spending time with? They use up lots of spoons!
The spoon theory in practice
Let’s take an average day for a busy working autist Mum, and let’s say she has 12 spoons of (mainly emotional) energy that day, which was Christine Miserandino’s original proposition.
Get up and complete the morning duties and the school run. Two spoons.
Do a few hours at her part time job. Four spoons.
Do the school run and complete the afternoon family duties. Two spoons.
Cook tea and manage the child’s bedtime regime. Two spoons.
Converse with her family. Two spoons.
That’s all her energy used up.
But what if something unexpected happens – e.g a phone call from a relative that was emotionally draining; a long chat at the school gates with a fellow parent; an impromptu talk with the teacher; or a neighbour wanting to chat? These require spoons, and our theoretical autist Mum has none left. In an ideal world, she would realise her spoon allocation had ‘run over’ that day, and would plan for a quieter day the next day, to recalibrate. Maybe using self care tools like headphone-time listening to music, reading a book, having a nap, or whatever works for her.
The social hangover
And what if our Mum wanted to arrange some social time with a friend or family? Dinner perhaps, a little shopping spree, time at the park with the kids, a trip to a local attraction? It’s likely this would use up a massive part of her daily spoon allowance.
(Especially as there’s very likely to be background music, extra lighting, or noisy chatter thrown into the sensory melting pot.)
So, she’d have to plan for both a low-spoon day on the day of the social visit, and probably the next day too, to recalibrate.
If her spoon-management wasn’t up to speed, our autist would likely suffer from a ‘social hangover’, whereby she’d need downtime from most conversation and interaction, and probably sensory stimulation, until she recovered. (Otherwise autistic shutdown may ensue.)
The emotional cutlery drawer is finite
So, it is important for friends and family members of autists (kids and adults alike) to realise that, no matter how much they may want to see you or converse with you, the autist’s energy bank (or emotional cutlery drawer!) is finite.
Days out, family parties, Christmas events, visiting relatives and the like can be exhausting for autists. It’s important to plan one’s social calendar carefully in relation to the rest of the week, to limit social hangovers.
And imagine what a social hangover is like for an autistic child, who maybe can’t grasp their emotional cutlery draw needs, or explain or understand why they’re mentally exhausted? Family members of autistic children ideally need to factor in enough down time, so the child doesn’t get too run down or spoon-deficient.
We’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter!
Please also read our ‘Aspie super power days blog, which details how autists may also be in a ‘spectrum within a spectrum’, e.g. with slow days, fast days and recovery days.