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The emotional cutlery drawer of spoons, and the ‘social hangover’ (autism)

by | Nov 12, 2018 | News & Views | 7 comments

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.

Image showing three spoons, to show the spoon theory, in an autism context.

The spoon theory was developed by Christine Miserandino.

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.

Image showing 16 spoons, to show the spoon theory, in an autism context. (ASD ASC)

Sixteen spoons? Which lucky autistic individual has 16 spoons at their disposal?

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.

NB we don’t claim to be autism experts – we’re just sharing our own experiences and views.

Aspie-superpower days – why autists may be on an ‘autistic spectrum within a spectrum’? We look at the different ‘autistic’ days…





  1. Steve Pape

    Spoon theory:

    Sunday I overdo it, borrow a spoon from Monday.
    Monday, borrow two spoons from Tuesday …

    … Friday: Help! I have no spoons, finding the energy to feed myself is difficult.

    • Steve Pape

      Oops, forgot to say thanks for the blog.

    • admin

      Yes Steve that’s exactly how it goes isn’t it! If only we could all allocate Friday as cutlery drawer recalibration day. Thanks for commenting! x

  2. Cheryl

    I can totally relate to this article. It is a good idea to think of it as spoons. I will do this in the future so I can identify when I need quiet time to recover. I 40 years old, and it has only just come about that I may be autistic but I’m identifying with a lot of things. Thank you so much for writing this article as iv found it very interesting.

    • admin

      Thanks Cheryl! Yes the ‘lightbulb’ period is enlightening isn’t it… So many of us having this realisation in our middle years! The spoons theory is also useful to help explain our energy levels to our families too. Sending you many good wishes on your journey x

  3. Susan

    This makes no sense logically to me. Why not just use the analogy of a battery or a clock running down and needing time off to recharge or be wound up? Spoons have absolutely nothing to do with energy unless they are metal and used as conductors of electric currents (if that would even work, and probably would not be safe). I don’t get making up a new metaphor when there are already two perfectly appropriate metaphors in common parlance. Spoons are just confusing.

    • admin

      Hi Susan. Yes, it does seem odd – but it seems the author was in some kind of canteen when it came to mind, and she just used what was around her to explain her point! It was just a conversation with a friend that stuck, and it is quite widely used now. (We also like ‘the cup that overfloweth’!)



  1. Social hangovers: why I hide for two days after a dinner - Christine Lion - […] people will use the spoon theory to explain what autistic people are going through with social hangovers. It means…

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