Every night as part of his bed time routine, the Navigator would come to bed with me and we read together. Then we would snuggle. I would curl around him, like spoons in a drawer, and after he fell asleep Autism Dad carried him back to his own bed.

This spooning snuggle time was incredibly valuable to us. It relaxed him and made him feel safe in the dark. He frequently raised issues that were bothering him and we would talk about it together.

Sometimes, though, this routine did not work for him. After the light went out and I spooned him, he might start thrashing in the bed, throwing himself around. When I’d ask him to please stop, he’d shout “I can’t!”

At first I thought he needed to stim. We tried something we call the “Full Body Clench” where he tightens every muscle, holds it for five seconds, and then releases.

We tried Autistic Genius’ “Big Stim” and he rolled around on the floor, engaging his whole body in the stim. We tried having him jump on his mini-trampoline until he was tired.

Stimming didn’t help.

I realized that it was a kind of meltdown — he was experiencing overload meltdowns.

Our first step was determining where they were coming from. I asked him what he thought, and he didn’t know, so I started analyzing and theorizing.

I had noticed an increase in verbal stimming — singing and repeating the same joke or lines from videos over and over. He would whisper to himself, the same phrases again and again as he would fall asleep.

He had been working very hard at school, both academically as well as behaviorally, navigating new-to-him social situations.

He was also managing an increasing awareness of his own differences and how his behavior was different from other kids.

I thought that maybe all of the efforts he had been putting in each day at school were wearing him out. Screen time in the afternoon was serving as a pleasant distraction, but it was not helping to clear the stresses.

Once he relaxed at the end of day, ready to fall asleep, it would all come flooding back, resulting in the meltdowns.

When I first started researching Autism, I remember coming across something called the “Spoon Theory.”

The idea is this (paraphrasing Wikipedia):

Spoons are an intangible unit of measurement used to track how much a person can manage throughout a given day. Each activity “costs” a certain number of spoons, which will only slowly be replaced through rest or other activities that do not require spoons. People on the Autism spectrum report that running out of spoons results in meltdowns.

In other words, the things the Navigator did and managed during the day reduced and eventually emptied his available spoons.

This is an amazing and helpful visual from Musings of an Aspie that illustrates it beautifully:

Image credit: Cynthia Kim, Musings of an Aspie

While the Navigator’s “spoon drawer” might look different than this, as he grows older he will expend social spoons, executive function spoons, and behavior management spoons more and more.

Even the experience of my snuggling him might be too much by the end of the day, because he has no more sensory spoons to spend.

With a better understanding of the probable source of his meltdowns, we can help him learn to manage his “spoons” and include activities that “refill” his spoon drawer.

For more information on the Spoon Theory please read The Spoon Theory written by Christine Miserandinoand Splines Theory: A Spoons Metaphor for Autism by Luna Lindsey, as well as Conserving Spoons by Cynthia Kim at Musings of an Aspie.

Originally posted on Autism Mom October 2015.