The Jar Principle: On Over-Stimulation & Social Exhaustion3 min read

There is some­thing within the chronic ill­ness com­mu­nity known as the “Spoon Theory.”  In this analogy, the spoons stand for the amount of energy a person living with a chronic ill­ness (such as Fibromyalgia or Lupus) pos­sesses in a day. Each morning they start with a cer­tain number of spoons and have to choose how to best use them.

I have a sim­ilar analogy for what it’s like living as an autistic person coping with social exhaus­tion and over-stimulation. I call it the jar prin­ciple. I start each morning with an empty jar; that is, unless the past few days have been par­tic­u­larly stressful– then my jar starts par­tially full. The jar rep­re­sents my capacity for out­side input. I am at my best when my jar is below half full.

The jar rep­re­sents my capacity for out­side input. I am at my best when my jar is below half full.

Daily tasks fill up my jar with what I visu­alize as stones of varying sizes. An easy day at work adds a few small peb­bles. Taking my daughter to med­ical appoint­ments usu­ally con­tributes a mid-sized rock.  Unplanned events and stres­sors, such as needing to ven­ture into an over­crowded gro­cery store or having last-minute or unex­pected com­pany fills space with mas­sive and sharp geodes. The size of the stones tends to grow with each con­tri­bu­tion, espe­cially if I have not had ade­quate time to plan. My exec­u­tive func­tion decreases the fuller my jar becomes. On a low-impact day, I’m sure I seem like any­body else. I can enjoy social inter­ac­tion, multi-task, and process input with little dif­fi­culty. On a high-impact day, I begin to shut down. The fuller my jar becomes, the more fraz­zled and over­whelmed I am. Once I have reached my limit, I struggle with almost every pos­sible type of stim­u­la­tion.

Once I have reached my limit, I struggle with almost every pos­sible type of stim­u­la­tion.

Noises become thun­derous. Bright colors and flu­o­res­cent lights turn harsh. I become hyper aware of my clothes pressing against my skin. Physical con­tact feels like an assault. I find myself fighting the urge to scream at my daughter for hug­ging me, and I begin to lose the ability to com­mu­ni­cate effi­ciently.  When my jar over­flows, simply put, I melt down.  I require alone time in a dark, quiet room to re-acclimate and calm myself. Despite knowing it is not my fault, reaching this place is shameful and embar­rassing. It turns me into a lesser ver­sion of myself; it turns me into someone I do not like or enjoy being. So, I do every­thing I can to avoid over­filling my jar.

That means I say no to most impromptu invi­ta­tions.  Sometimes, I cancel plans, and I often leave events early.  This doesn’t mean I don’t want to have a social life– believe me, I do.  I want to be invited and included, and it means the world to me when I am.  I try my best to par­tic­i­pate and engage in the ways that I can.

I ask that you be patient with the neuro-divergent people in your life. Try to under­stand that they don’t expe­ri­ence the world the way you do, and they never will.  They don’t behave or interact the same as you, because they can’t– and that is okay.  Give them a beat to adjust to changes and respect that their needs and lim­i­ta­tions are dif­ferent than your own. Tell them it’s okay to say no when you extend an invite, ask them if they want an invite to events before sending one, give them advance notice before making plans, and ask them if there’s a sen­sory envi­ron­ment that’s tol­er­able for them.  Do what you can to help keep their jars empty, and enjoy that you have a friend who loves you without expecting you to carry their stones.

4 Comments

  1. I have fibromyalgia as well as autism, and I can tell you that they do not “play well together.” The chronic pain becomes one more thing adding rocks to the jar, and there’s no way to escape it. Too bad I can’t use one of my spoons to remove some of the rocks from my jar.

  2. Once in a while, if I shake the jar just right, the stones & peb­bles will rearrange them­selves, fit­ting together better. Score! Less brain raking to do.

  3. At times I get all of those symp­toms, espe­cially at the end of a day. It is good to know I am not alone in this. The hyper­sen­si­tivity to my clothes, sound and lights have been par­tic­u­larly inex­plic­able to me, when I have already tol­er­ated them for some hours. I have been diag­nosed with ADHD. There appear to be some sim­i­lar­i­ties with the brain wiring of the two. I would be inter­ested in any com­ments you have.

    1. Author

      I def­i­nitely notice these symp­toms the most later in the day. Usually when I’m done with work for the day I feel very over­stim­u­lated. Something that has helped me is sched­uling 30 min­utes of down­town when I get home I’m the evening to decom­press. It allows me to sort of re-set and make some room in my jar. I also try to be sure that I get a decent amount of sleep, which helps better pre­pare me to handle the next day.

      I don’t per­son­ally have ADHD, but I do know sev­eral people who do. There does seem to be a lot of cross over of symp­toms between ADHD and ASD, most likely because they are both a type of neur­di­ver­gency.

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