Neurodivergent Spoons and Forks: 2 Theories to Explain Autism and Fatigue

Neurodivergent Spoons and Forks (On Autism and Fatigue)

Everybody has a different way of describing how they deal with fatigue, whether it be physical, emotional, or mental. Two models of fatigue that are popular in the autism community are the spoon theory and the fork theory. Neurodivergent spoons and forks for all!

Let's delve into how the spoon and fork theories apply to autism and exhaustion, and how they can help you become more self-aware to conserve more of your hard-won energy.

And, download your "Getting Unstuck Checklist" here!

🎧 Rather listen than read this post? This post is based off of Episode 5 of the Neurodiverging Podcast! Listen on Apple PodcastsGoogle Podcasts | Spotify

Neurodivergent Spoons and Forks - Autism and Fatigue

Today, I'd like to talk a little bit about some models of disability that are used pretty in the autism community and neurodivergent communities. Those are the Spoon Theory and the Fork Theory.

The spoon theory and fork theory are models of disability created by disabled folks, and then distributed throughout the community by word-of-mouth. Both theories touch on the issue of energy expenditure. Many disabled and neurodivergent people have to ration their energy in a way that most able-bodied and neurotypical people do not. 

Fatigue Is Common for People Who Are Disabled and Neurodivergent

One of the things that I notice whenever I talk to people with a chronic illness or disability is that everybody has a different way of describing how they deal with fatigue, whether it is physical, emotional, or mental.

Most anyone with a disability will notice a difference between the amount of energy they can access at any given moment, versus the amount of energy a neurotypical, able-bodied person will be able to access. A lot of us neurodivergent folks can't do everything all the time.

Some days are better and some days are worse, but our energy isn't as even keel, and often gets used up in tasks that neurotypical, able-bodied people don't find particularly draining.

But there are so many people with disabilities, and because disabilities differ in their manifestations, different communities have different terminology they prefer for this energy-cost phenomenon. There are even a good variety of terms present in the autism community.

However, the ones that I hear the most in my neck of the woods, that I think are particularly good for newbies, are references to either the Spoon Theory or the Fork Theory.

If you're interested in learning more about neurodiversity, autism, ADHD, or sensory processing challenges, here are some of my favorite books!

The Origins of Spoon Theory

Spoon Theory originated first, and then was built upon with the Fork Theory many years later. They are somewhat complimentary theories that approach energy usage from different directions. I think both can be very helpful depending on how your neuroatypicality or disability affects you.

So, let's get into spoon theory first.  Spoon theory was developed by Christine Miserandino around 2010. She originally wrote her story up on her blog some years ago, but that blog is now gone.

I did find a PDF of the original article sanctioned by the author here:

I strongly recommend going and reading her original story. It is 2 pages long and easily worth much more of your time than that. I also found a video of her reading the story at a conference here, if video is easier for you: 

Christine tells a story about how she was with her friend at a restaurant, trying to explain to them the struggle she had living with lupus. She gave her friend a bunch of spoons to hold and explained that each spoon represented a concrete amount of energy that a disabled person might have.

Once you use up the spoon by doing the task, it is gone, and you can't get it back. So, you must ration your spoons.

Christine says:

“Most people start the day with an unlimited amount of possibilities, and energy to do whatever they desire, especially young people. For the most part, they do not need to worry about the effects of their actions. So for my explanation, I used spoons to convey this point. I wanted something for [my friend] to actually hold, for me to then take away, since most people who get sick feel a “loss” of a life they once knew. If I was in control of taking away the spoons, then she would know what it feels like to have someone or something else, in this case Lupus, being in control."

So, every morning you wake up and know that you’re only going to be able to do a given number of things during the day, and that number of things will be usually much smaller than an able-bodied person's number of things.

Able-bodied people can be limited by time, unexpected events happening, unexpected short-term illnesses, etc., but they are not usually limited too much by access to energy.

autism and fatigue
Photo by Craig Adderley from Pexels

Spoon Theory and Autism

Now, the original Spoon Theory was used by Christina to talk about lupus, and it was very quickly adopted by the disability community at large, especially the chronic pain and chronic illness communities.

But, it's not hard to see how the Spoon Theory applies to some neurodivergences as well, perhaps especially autism. And it’s no surprise that nowadays, you hear it frequently used in most autistic circles, because the main points of Spoon Theory readily adapt to autistic circumstances.

Autistic people are probably used to the idea that we have to think much harder about a lot of things that are simple for neurotypical people, and so simple-looking tasks take us much longer and are much harder for us than they are for other people.

I talked in the last podcast episode about my reliance on scripts as a short-cut for frequently-used speech, so that I don’t have to use so many spoons creating unique, spontaneous speech when it’s not worth the energy.

And there are plenty of other examples - our autistic reliance or appreciation of our routines, safe environments, a special meal or two we can reliably get down during a difficult sensory day - these are all elements of autism that the Spoon Theory can help us explain.

Spoon Theory is also very helpful in thinking through how autistic problems like meltdown, shutdown, sensory overload, and other overwhelms can affect our energy into the future.

If you didn’t sleep well one night, you wake up with fewer spoons, which means you can’t access as much energy, which means you’re more likely to accidentally stress yourself into a meltdown, which means you’ll have even fewer spoons tomorrow, and so on. It can offer a valuable illustration of how tricky energy expenditure is for autistics to neurotypical people, who are used to waking up to a fresh new day, every day.

fork theory

Fork Theory

Now, let’s talk about fork theory, which is a supplemental to spoon theory. Jenrose, who lives with Ehlers-Danlos and several complications arising from it, first posted about this theory on their Tumblr account in 2018, where it then went viral. They attribute it to their husband, and subsequently wrote up a blog post about it on their personal blog here:

They write:

You know the phrase, 'Stick a fork in me, I’m done,' right? Well, Fork Theory is that one has a Fork Limit, that is, you can probably cope okay with one fork stuck in you, maybe two or three, but at some point you will lose it if one more fork happens.

A fork could range from being hungry or having to pee to getting a new bill or a new diagnosis of illness. There are lots of different sizes of forks, and volume vs. quantity means that the fork limit is not absolute. I might be able to deal with 20 tiny little escargot fork annoyances, such as a hangnail or slightly suboptimal pants, but not even one 'you poked my trigger on purpose because you think it’s fun to see me melt down' pitchfork."

This is super relevant for neurodivergent folk. Like, you might be able to deal with your feet being cold or a tag, but not both. Hubby describes the situation as 'It may seem weird that I just get up and leave the conversation to go to the bathroom, but you just dumped a new financial burden on me and I already had to pee, and going to the bathroom is the fork I can get rid of the fastest.'”

Fork Theory Gives the Power Back to Us

What I love about the fork theory is that, although it’s describing overwhelm and overload, it’s more hopeful and optimistic than the spoon theory. The spoon theory says, "Oh, whoops, you ran out of spoons, that sucks, you’ll just have to wait and be miserable until the next shipment comes in."

The framing is such that you have very little agency. You are sinking under this illness or condition and don’t really get to do anything that could help.

And of course there are cases, especially with chronic illness and chronic pain, when this is absolutely true, when you have very little personal agency and can’t just fix something that’s in your way.

But with autism, a lot of our struggles are based in the fact that society isn’t made with us in mind. It’s not that we can’t do things at all, it’s that we can’t do things in this specific social structure.

The fork theory, though, focuses on obstacles and then on the ways to remove them. The last fork trips you into “Done”, but that doesn’t mean there’s not some smaller fork that you’re still able to control and get rid of on your own.

The fork theory allows more agency for most folks, and I would argue that is particularly great for autistic people, because usually, our overwhelm is due to a lot of those smaller forks stuck in us at one time. 

Jenrose specifically calls out being hungry, being cold, having to use the bathroom, a clothing tag, or pants that don’t fit exactly the right way. I’ve definitely dealt with all of those things as forks in my own life, but the nice thing is, if you can manage to notice them (which I admit is tricky and takes practice at least with my autistic brain), you can manage to address them, and removing even one small fork can solve your overwhelm in one fell swoop on a lucky day.

And you know, this can be something like the lights are too bright, there's a weird smell in the room, someone is breathing too loudly, there are too many fans on, etc. Our adaptations, like getting headphones, turning off the lights, moving to different environments that are a little bit quieter, having routines that are adapted for our comfort and well-being, these are ways to remove forks from our lives and to decrease the likelihood that we're going to have overwhelm or sensory overload or a meltdown.

That's why I love the fork theory so much. It gives you some degree of agency. It's not saying, “Autistic person, you can control everything in your life all the time and make everything perfect.” But, the number of forks you have doesn't have to be the delineation between your best day and your absolutely worst day, because there are so many little forks. It's the range that really makes the difference for me. 

With spoons, you have everything kind of the same. There’s not a serving spoon and a teaspoon - all spoons are the same, so you're using up one chunk of energy every time you do anything and then the energy is gone and there’s no way to regain it. 

With fork theory, it’s much more about equilibrium. You are getting rid of all these tiny forks as fast as you can. There might still be a big pitchfork that you can’t control, and that sucks, and I'm not trying to say it doesn’t. But it does give you some some agency over what's causing all those little forks. It gives you a way to get in front of some of those obstacles and help yourself out a little bit more.

That's part of why I just love fork theory. I think it really improves upon spoon theory. They're both hugely important disability models, and valued within autistic communities and the chronic fatigue /chronic pain movements as well. So, I'm not trying to put down spoon theory, but the two theories together show different aspects of energy use, and ability to access and change your own well-being and I think they’re both important.

FREEBIE: Neurodiverging's 'Getting Unstuck Checklist'

So that is Spoon Theory and Fork Theory in a nutshell! I hope that gave you some things to think about when you're considering how you can can a maximize your own energy availability and  make your environment suit you as best you can. Thinking about what your problem is through the lens of Spoon Theory has really helped me a lot of cases improve my circumstances drastically and I really hope it can for you as well. 

NEURODIVERGING getting instuck check-in

FREEBIE: Remember how we were talking about how difficult it can be to identify the "little forks"? It is my experience that autistic folks have a lot more trouble than neurotypical folks telling when we're feeling hot, cold, itchy, hungry, thirsty, tired etc. I know I certainly do!

So, about 2 years ago, I made myself as checklist. I use it whenever I'm having a problem and I recognize I'm having a problem, but I can't specifically identify the problem. I can look at my checklist and I say, "Hey are any of these things occurring right now? If so, what's the intervention to address them?"

My family uses this checklist to help us figure out what we're feeling, and how we could help ourselves "remove a fork", that is, feel better! I hope the checklist will help you, too!

You can sign up for the Getting Unstuck checklist here!

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