How To Prevent Burnout In Autistic People and What Is Spoon Theory. A Clinical Psychology Podcast.



Surprisingly enough, given how common autism is and how it is a major area in clinical psychology, I am surprised that we have never really looked at the condition on the podcast before. That is all about to change as we focus on how to prevent burnout in autistic people by looking at the Spoons Theory and how it can help them. If you’re interested in clinical psychology and autism then this is a great episode for you.


Today’s episode of the podcast is sponsored by Developmental Psychology. Available from all major eBook retailers and you can order the paperback and hardback copies from Amazon, your local bookstore and local library, if you request it.


Introduction To Autism Burnout and Spoons Theory

As you probably know from your own life, everyone only has so much energy to use on work, socialising and their everyday life, but autistic people have a lot less energy for these sort of things than neurotypical people. As well as it is also extremely important to note that autistic people might have a lot more energy for certain things. For example, any of their special or restricted interests.


However, it tends to be the things that people call the “daily grind” things that has the potential to overload our senses and it is this that autistic people find the most draining.


Leading writer and speaker Christine Miserandino to come up with her Spoon Theory and this is most commonly used to explain what it feels like to have a limited amount of energy, and because of this a person has to make choices so they can hopefully avoid (or minimise) fatigue as well as burnout. Whilst she originally used this theory to explain her own chronic illness, it has been adopted by the autistic community to explain the similar energy limitations that autistic people constantly face.


What Is Spoon Theory?

The theory all starts with the idea that people who face a chronic illness or another condition, which in this case is autism, start their day with a set amount of energy, or in this case, spoons. As well as this is in direct contrast with other people without the condition who could have unlimited spoons and amounts of energy.


Following this after a person does something, they will use up one of their spoons and once you’re used up a spoon, it’s gone and there aren’t any more spoons to replace it.


Additionally, by doing certain tasks there is a chance a person might end up using more than one spoon for that task. For example, a person might have to load the dishwasher and uses up one spoon, but if a person has to write a psychology essay then that might use up two spoons. And I think this entire podcast audience can agree with me how painful some essays can be and we have all been drained after writing at least one essay.


The entire point of this theory is that a person only starts off with so many spoons and once they’re gone, they are gone. It’s important to note that even when autistic people do something they enjoy they will still use spoons.


A Possible Practical Implication and Swapping Spoons For Pebbles

Yet some clinical psychologists, mental health professionals and researchers like Claire Jack, Ph.D have decided to take this idea into the real world and replace spoons with something else. Instead some clients prefer to think about spoons as pebbles because the great thing about this idea is that you can literally have a jar full of pebbles in the therapy room with you. Then if you’re doing some psychoeducation with the client, you can literally show them how this theory works using the practical example of taking pebbles out of the jar.


Of course absolutely nothing on this podcast is ever official advice, but it is an interesting idea.


Additionally, it has the added self-care benefit of helping to remind us all not to push ourselves beyond what our bodies can cope with so we can hopefully avoid burnout.


What Happens When A Person Has No Pebbles Left?

When a person has used up all of their pebbles then a person is more likely to have meltdowns, feel overwhelmed and reach a stage when they’re too fatigued to do much of anything.


One of the reasons for this, and a bad habit that people do when they’re burnout, is to keep doing things that require a lot of energy and people basically pretend that they have an endless supply of pebbles. This only leads to greater exhaustion, fatigue and burnout. As well as the real risk here is that this fatigue might last longer and take the person greater effort to recover from compared to if they simply faced up to the fact that should have had a break earlier due to their lack of pebbles.


Personally, I do understand this section because there have been so many times when I have just pushed on doing things because I wanted to be productive. Then later on, I found myself even more fatigued and exhausted and this lasted into some of the next day. Therefore, I really have learnt the hard way that you need to listen to your body and when you’re exhausted, you need to stop or face the consequences.


Also, for people without these conditions like myself, we have unlimited (more or less) supplies of peddles or spoons, and it’s good to acknowledge that people with these conditions get frustrated that they have a limited supply. They don’t believe it’s fair, right or good that they have to consider conversing their energy.


So when we meet people with their conditions, we need to be mindful of what they can do, of course only after they tell us what they can’t do. We must never ever assume they cannot do something because of a condition without finding out if they can’t do it. Yet we also need to be mindful and help them accept that it’s okay that they only have so much energy and it isn’t something to be ashamed of.


Preparation Is Key And How To Replenish Pebbles

I truly believe that this goes for everyone listening or reading this podcast episode, but to prevent burnout, we need to prevent ourselves from using up our allocated amount of pebbles. Of course this will be very hard to do but it’s important.


Nonetheless, if we have already used up our pebbles and we are completely fatigued then we need to realise what do you need to do to replenish your energy.


This will be different for everyone. You might want to read a good book, take a walk, be complete silence or do something else entirely. And we all have things that we can’t avoid, like university, parenting or work, so in this case we probably should ditch the things we don’t need to do and stop these things from draining us even more.


Clinical Psychology Conclusion

I have to admit that this was a rather different episode from normal, but this was needed. I really wanted to do this episode because we needed to look at autism, how autistic people’s lack of energy for the everyday grind impacts them and most importantly how to help them. I’m sure there are listeners of the podcast with autistic family members, and if that’s you then I hope this helped. If not, then I hope you found it interesting, and you never know you might be able to apply this idea of spoons and pebbles and energy levels to your own life to prevent burnout.


I really hope you enjoyed today’s clinical psychology podcast episode.


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Clinical Psychology References

https://butyoudontlooksick.com/articles/written-by-christine/the-spoon-theory/


https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/women-autism-spectrum-disorder/202211/what-is-the-spoons-theory-autism


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