Hi everyone! Thanks for being here with me, Danielle, to talk about two models for understanding and managing fatigue that are popular in both neurodivergent and disability circles. The first is Spoon Theory, and the second is Fork Theory. We’ll take a look at the ideas of each theory, as well as the benefits and limitations of each one. Both theories share a common purpose – to help folks with autism, chronic fatigue, and other conditions which can impact a person’s energy levels make the most of the resources they have. And, I have a free download for you to help you manage your own energy!
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Neurodivergent Spoons and Forks - Autism and Fatigue
Everyone has different ways of describing how they deal with fatigue, whether it’s physical, emotional, or mental. Many disabled and neurodivergent people have to ration their energy in a way that able-bodied and neurotypical people do not.
Two models of explaining fatigue and energy expenditure, the Spoon Theory and the Fork Theory, were created by disabled folks and distributed throughout their communities by word-of-mouth. These theories are applicable to the neurodivergent community – especially to autistics – as well. In this post, I’m going to give you an overview of both theories, talk about how they can apply to autism and neurodivergence, and which theory I prefer.
Disability, Neurodivergence, and Fatigue
One of the things I notice whenever I talk to people with a chronic illness, disability, or neurodivergence is how common fatigue is for people with one or more of those conditions. People may use different concepts or language to explain their fatigue, but fatigue itself is one of the underlying threads among people who are disabled, chronically ill, and/or neurodivergent.
Most people with a disability or chronic illness will notice a difference between the amount of energy they can access at any given moment, versus the amount of energy a neurotypical or able-bodied person can access. Similarly, a lot of us neurodivergent folks experience fluctuations in our energy levels that can make it (even more) challenging to keep up in a world built by and for neurotypical, able-bodied people. Tasks that a neurotypical, able-bodied person don’t find particularly draining will use up a lot of energy for a disabled or neurodivergent person.
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In part because disabilities manifest differently for different folks, communities use different terminology to describe this energy-cost phenomenon. The autistic community has a variety of helpful terms. The two that I think are particularly accessible, especially for people who may not have thought about it before, are the Spoon Theory and the Fork Theory.
Spoon Theory predates Fork Theory by about eight years, and the Fork Theory builds on the Spoon Theory. They are somewhat complimentary ideas that approach energy usage from different directions. I think both can be very helpful depending on how your neuroatypicality or disability affects you. Let’s take a look at the Spoon Theory first!
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The Origins of Spoon Theory
Spoon Theory was developed by Christine Miserandino in around 2010, and she initially wrote her story about the origin of Spoon Theory on her blog. Her blog is no longer available, but there is a PDF available of the original sanctioned by Miserandino. (See the Links and Additional Reading section below for this article and other interesting reads!) There’s also a video of the author reading the story at a conference, if video is easier for you:
I strongly recommend going and reading Christine’s story – it’s two pages long and worth much more of your time than that. To sum up, though, Christine tells about a time she was with a 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 a spoon is used up doing a task, it’s gone, and the person can’t get it back. So, the person must ration their spoons.
“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."
For a person with a chronic, disabling illness like lupus, this means that they wake up and know that they’re only going to be able to do a given number of things during the day. And, that number is likely to be much smaller than the number an able-bodied person can do in the same time period. Of course, able-bodied people can be limited by available time, unexpected events, unexpected short-term illnesses, and the like, but they are not usually limited too much by access to energy.
Spoon Theory for Neurodivergent People
As we’ve heard, Christine used the original Spoon Theory to talk about lupus, and it was quickly adopted by the disability community at large, especially the chronic pain and chronic illness communities.
It’s not a leap to see that the Spoon Theory applies to some neurodivergences as well, autism in particular. You’re likely to find Spoon Theory used frequently in autistic circles because the main points of Spoon Theory adapt well to autistic circumstances.
As an autistic person, I’ve noticed we are used to the idea that we have to pour more energy into thinking about things that are simple for neurotypical people. As a result, tasks that are simple for others take us much longer, are harder, and use significantly more energy than for other people. I talked in the previous podcast episode about my reliance on scripts as a short-cut for frequently-used speech, which reduce the number of spoons I have to use, instead of spending my energy creating unique, spontaneous speech that isn’t, overall, worth the energy expenditure.
There are plenty of other elements of autism that the Spoon Theory can help us explain. As autistic people, we often rely on routines, safe environments, a special meal or two that we can reliably eat during a difficult sensory day, and time and space to recharge. Spoon Theory can also help us think through how autistic issues like meltdown, shutdown, sensory overload, and other overwhelms can affect our future energy levels.
For example, if you don’t sleep well one night, you’ll wake up with fewer spoons the next day. Fewer spoons means you can’t access as much energy, and you’re therefore more likely to accidentally stress yourself into a meltdown, leading to even fewer spoons tomorrow. For autistic people looking for a way to explain the delicate balance of their energy expenditure to a neurotypical person, who is used to waking up to a fresh new day, every day, the Spoon Theory offers a way to do just that.
Now, let’s take a look at the Fork Theory, which is supplemental to the Spoon Theory.
Jenrose, who lives with Ehlers-Danlos and several complications arising from it, first posted about the Fork Theory on their Tumblr account in 2018, where it then went viral. Jenrose attributes it to their husband, and subsequently wrote up a post on their personal blog about it.
“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: Power to the People!
When I think about the Spoon Theory, I can’t help but hearing it as “Oh, whoops, you’re out of spoons. That sucks! You’ll just have to wait and be an exhausted unhappy puddle on the floor until your next shipment of spoons comes in. Who knows when that will be?” This framing seems to give you very little agency. You are sinking under this illness or condition, and don’t really get to do anything that could help.
Of course there are cases, especially with chronic illness and chronic pain, where this is absolutely true – you do 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 reality 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.
What I love about the Fork Theory is that, while it’s describing overwhelm and overload, it’s more hopeful and optimistic than the Spoon Theory. The Fork Theory focuses on obstacles, and then on the ways to remove them. The last pesky fork may trip you into “all done,” but that doesn’t mean there’s not some smaller fork you’re still able to control, and hopefully, get rid of on your own.
The Fork Theory allows more agency for most folks, and I would argue it is particularly great for autistic people. Our overwhelms and overloads are usually a result in a lot of those smaller forks stuck into us at one time.
Jenrose specifically calls out being hungry, cold, having to use the bathroom, an irritating clothing tag, and pants that don’t fit exactly right, as some of those forks. I’ve definitely dealt with all of these as forks in my own life. The nice thing is, if you can manage to notice them – which I admit is tricky and took practice for my autistic brain – you can have a chance of addressing them. Removing even one small fork can solve your overwhelm in one fell swoop on a lucky day.
There are plenty of other things that can act as forks for autistic folks, like the lights being too bright, a weird smell in the room, someone breathing too loudly, or too many fans on. We have adaptations such as headphones to reduce noise, turning off the lights, moving to another environment that is a bit quieter, and having routines that are built for our comfort and well-being. All of these adaptations remove forks from our lives and decrease the likelihood that we’re going to have sensory overload, overwhelm, or a meltdown.
Spoons? Forks? Your choice!
I’ve already said that I love the Fork Theory, and the sense of agency its perspective offers. However, neither the Fork Theory nor the Spoon Theory are saying, “Autistic Person, you can control everything in your life all the time and make everything perfect.” Nothing can.
Thinking about what my problem is through the lens of the Spoon Theory has helped me to improve my circumstances drastically many times. However, at the end of the day, the Spoon Theory feels more limited and limiting to me. All the spoons available to me are the same size; there are no serving spoons, teaspoons, or long-handled jelly spoons. The lack of variation makes it seem as if everything, no matter whether it’s getting out of bed, brushing my teeth, going grocery shopping, or going to the mall to get pants, takes the exact same amount of effort. Then, once all the spoons and energy are gone, there’s no way to regain it.
With the Fork Theory, it seems more about balance and achieving a state of equilibrium. I’m getting rid of all the tiny forks as fast as I can, which makes it just that little bit more possible to deal with the larger ones. There might still be a giant pitchfork I can’t remove, which is awful, and I can lose a lot of my energy to it. But I do have some agency over the little forks, and their causes. The Fork Theory gives us a way to get in front of some of the obstacles, help ourselves out a bit more, and maybe save our energy for when the pitchforks appear.
While I think that the Fork Theory improves upon the Spoon Theory, and works better for me, both models are incredibly important to the disability, chronic fatigue, chronic illness, and autistic communities. The two models together show different aspects of energy usage, and the how able we are to access and address our own well-being.
And that’s the Spoon Theory and the Fork Theory in a nutshell! I hope this gives you some things to think about when you’re considering how to maximize your own energy availability, and to make your environment suit you as best it can.
As always, if you have any questions or comments, send me an email!
Did you like this article? It's also available in the Neurodiverging Store as a downloadable, easy-to-read PDF, with a table of contents, bibliography, and a BONUS suggested reading list. Click here to learn more!
FREEBIE: Neurodiverging's 'Getting Unstuck Checklist'
Thanks for making it to the end! Remember how I was talking about how it can be difficult to identify the ‘little forks’? In my experience, 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!
About two years ago, I made myself a checklist. I use it whenever I recognize I’m having a problem and I can’t specifically identify it. I can look at my checklist and 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 can help ourselves ‘remove a fork,’ that is, feel better! I hope this checklist helps you, too!
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Links and Additional Reading
- Christine Miserandino’s Spoon Theory: https://cdn.totalcomputersusa.com/butyoudontlooksick.com/uploads/2010/02/BYDLS-TheSpoonTheory.pdf
- Neurodiverging Episode 4: “What is Echolalia?”
- Fork Theory: http://jenrose.com/fork-theory/
- I used the social model of disability when writing this article. Learn more about different models of disability here, and different models of neurodiversity here.
If you're interested in learning more about neurodiversity, autism, ADHD, or sensory processing challenges, here are some of my favorite books, check out my book list here!
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