Supporting churches to include people with Autism and Learning Disabilties

Autism and Spoon Theory

I originally wrote this for my autism blog ( but thought it would be good to share here too.  It can relate to children and adults with any kind of additional need that means that everyday activities take much more energy than most of us could imagine. Sunday services, midweek events and volunteering in church activities can be beyond people who have used up all their spoons during the day at school or work. 

Autism and Spoon Theory

My friend @AnnMemmott who blogs at first introduced me to the Spoon Theory in relation to autism. It was originally created by Christine Miserandino when asked about her chronic illness, (you can read the original post here ) but is a great way of helping us understand why school is such hard work for children with autism. @aspiemusings has also written a good post about how it relates to her as an autistic adult.

Let’s imagine that the social and intellectual energy a child has each day can be measured in spoons….

A child with autism can start the school day with a full drawer (which may be only half as full as a typical child) or with some of their spoons already used up in dealing with the demands of getting to school. Depending on various factors such as whether they slept, if mum remembered to say goodbye the right way, if their clothes are itching their skin, if their routine was changed, or any number of other seemingly incidental events…they may be starting the day with, say, only 5 spoons instead of 10.

Then they need to start using their spoons. Each set of instructions, each set of work demands, each social interaction may cost the child a spoon. If there are sensory sensations that are overwhelming, then another spoon is used up in regulating and keeping calm. If the child has to work in a group more than one spoon may be needed. Break times are not relaxing, another spoon or two is used up in coping with all the social interaction, noise and lack of structure. Some children manage to save a spoon by shutting off, taking the time to be alone, so that they can cope with the next set of lessons.

I hope you can see what might be happening…

So you have a child who seems okay in the morning but always seems to lose it in the afternoon. Or you have a child who won’t join in anything at break times and paces around the perimeter of the playground. Or parents ask you what you are doing to their child as they always have a meltdown as soon as they come out of school. And getting them to do homework is impossible.

You might assume you need more structure in the afternoons. You might assume you need to teach the child some social skills so they can make friends at break times. You might assume the parent isn’t disciplined enough. You might put all kinds of practical support in place, but it doesn’t really work.

Or it may just be that the child has used up all their spoons. They have no social or intellectual energy left. They might just be able to keep it together in the morning, but then are far too exhausted to carry on in the afternoon. They might even be able to keep it together through the day but cannot contain themselves in the safety and familiarity of their home. Some children even manage to borrow spoons from the next day but there will be a day when there are no spoons left to borrow and the child has a major meltdown.

We can help by recognising the limited amount of spoons a child with autism may have. We can help them conserve their spoons to last through the day and we can help them find ways of generating new spoons to add to their supply. Through:

• Giving the child calming sensory breaks which are timetabled and regular enough for them to be able to build up or conserve spoons throughout the day.

• Look at your environment and see where you can make it calmer and more accessible for the child with autism. Look at lighting, window coverings, displays, outside noise, pupil and furniture noise, and ask the child what makes it better for them.

• Break tasks and instructions into more manageable chunks and allow them time to do each one. It is better to do a few things well than many things not at all. (Or better to do a paragraph of good writing than two pages of nonsense.)

• Support organisation and don’t expect the child to do more than they can manage. Structure tasks for them whether through a list, visual schedule, practical equipment or a writing frame. Have the equipment nearby and don’t agonise over writing the date and LO if it is preventing them from getting on with the actual work task.

• Use a visual timetable with sensory breaks or calmer activities added. Or let the child add their own choices between lessons that need to be done.

• Let the child do activities related to their special interests. Writing or any work relating to their interests can keep the spoons stocked up. If the topic doesn’t lend itself to this, then time with their interests once the task is finished can help. Put a box of interest related things together so they have access to it once a piece of work is completed.

• Let them request ‘time out’ or a break. It is important for the child with autism to recognise when things are getting too much for them and request a break before frustration and overload leads them to communicate this in behaviours of concern.

• Let them have alone time at break times sometimes. If possible, give them alternative things to do, especially at lunch times. This could include playing with Lego with another child, doing a quiet job inside or being allowed on the computer for a while. Social interaction can be encouraged at other times when they have the spoons to cope with it.

• If the child is having a minimal spoon start to the day, increase the sensory breaks, reduce the social and work demands and expect that they will find it much harder to concentrate.

If you understand the child with autism and the child can trust you, they won’t take advantage of your adaptations, they will feel safe, understood and be able to cope with more challenges than maybe you thought possible. Maybe you should keep a couple of spoons on your desk with the child’s name on, and remove one when things are not going so well for them. Then think about how you would cope with just one spoon left and no way of buying any more…

Maybe you could suggest ways of supporting those with fewer spoons in your church or Sunday School? 



Your comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: