Spoon Theory is quite commonly used in the disability, chronic illness, and autistic communities. Spoon Theory has proven to be a concise way to explain energy levels, and resulting levels of ability, on a particular day.
Spoon Theory originated from Christine Miserandino while she was at dinner with her friend, trying to explain her experience living with lupus. The entire story from Christine can be found here: https://butyoudontlooksick.com/articles/written-by-christine/the-spoon-theory/
Essentially, Christine handed her friend some spoons and she explained to her friend that the difference between people being sick and healthy is that healthy people don’t have to consciously consider every little action they take in their daily lives. They simply live.
She went on to say that, for chronically ill or disabled people, a finite number of spoons are given at the beginning of each day. Every task, regardless of how small, may take one of the spoons in your drawer. Tasks that many people often think of as one task are further broken down into even smaller tasks, each resulting in the loss of a spoon. For example, if you think of getting ready to go to an appointment, it’s not as simple as just getting up and going.
When you get out of bed, take a spoon.
When you take a shower, take a spoon.
When you get dressed, take a spoon.
When you brush your teeth, take a spoon.
The list goes on, and it doesn’t take long to come to the conclusion that your spoons need to be conserved if you have any hope of making it to the end of the day. As such, someone will likely often have to choose between tasks. For instance, are you going to brush your teeth or are you going to shower? Or are you going to go to the bank or save your energy to cook dinner?
While someone with lupus coined Spoon Theory, many people with various other types of chronic illness, as well as those of us in the disability and autistic communities have adopted Spoon Theory to reflect our experiences as well.
Much like with Christine’s experience, as autistic people, we tend to wake up each day with a finite number of spoons, and the events of the previous day often impact just how many spoons we wake up with. For instance, if we didn’t sleep well, experienced a shutdown or meltdown the day before, or if we are experiencing burnout, we might start the day with fewer spoons. As such, it can be imperative that we carefully plan out our day to maintain spoons.
As autistics, our spoons are not taken at the same rate as someone who is neurotypical or who has a diagnosis different from our own. We might have to relinquish multiple spoons for a single task, and have far fewer spoons left that we initially anticipated. An example of this might be taking a trip to the store. This might deplete three or four spoons (or more) because it not only takes energy to drive to the store and do the shopping, but the amount of sensory input involved can quickly take its toll. Due to this rapid depletion, autistic people often find ourselves with a spoon shortage, or even feeling as though we have negative spoons. This deficiency can quickly lead to meltdowns, shutdowns, autistic burnout, or illness.
Simply put, Spoon Theory gives us a way to not only gauge where our own energy levels lie, but it also gives us a way to concisely explain our energy levels to those around us. Very often in the autistic community, people will ask if someone else has enough spoons to help answer a question. If someone says that they’re “out of spoons” then those around them know that they’re unable to interact or do a task at the moment, and extraneous language that might take extra spoons from the person isn’t needed to explain this. It helps to provide a sense of concreteness to something that can otherwise be difficult to explain.
Information on a couple of offshoots from Spoon Theory (Beer Theory and Fork Theory) can be found here: https://community.autism.org.uk/f/adults-on-the-autistic-spectrum/17178/spoon-theory-for-grown-ups-a-new-analogy and http://jenrose.com/fork-theory/