My friend @AnnMemmott who blogs at http://www.annsautismblog.co.uk 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 http://www.butyoudontlooksick.com/articles/written-by-christine/the-spoon-theory/ ) 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. http://musingsofanaspie.com/2014/10/15/conserving-spoons/
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 time they have to organise themselves, follow a complex set of instructions or cope with change, and 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 a child who seems to be having frequent meltdowns some days but is fine on other days. 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 communication, organisation, sensory, 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. Some days there may be no spoons to deal with the things they usually seem okay with. 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 finding ways to add to their supply (not as easy as it sounds). Through:
- Giving the child calming sensory breaks which are timetabled and regular.
- Look at your environment and see where you can make it calmer and more accessible for the child with autism.
- Break tasks and instructions into more manageable chunks and allow them time to do each one.
- 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.
- Let the child do activities related to their special interests. If the topic doesn't lend itself to this, then allow them time with their interests once the task is finished.
- 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 or reach the point where they cannot cope and meltdown happens.
- Let them have alone time at break times sometimes. Or give them alternative things to do, especially at lunch times. Social interaction can be encouraged at other times when they have the spoons to cope with it.
- Make sure they are able to do homework and be as flexible as possible about it. Ask yourself if they really need to do it at that point. See if there is a way they can do something more interesting to them such as a project about their special interest.
- 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…
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