The Jar Principle: On Over-Stimulation & Social Exhaustion

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.

Author: bneal89

Brittney is an Early Childhood Education & Development professional, as well as a gigging local musician. She lives with her husband and daughter in Lynchburg, Va.

One thought

  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.

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