Monday, October 14, 2013

Splines Theory: A Spoons Metaphor for Autism

An incident occurred last week where my child unexpectedly needed a ride to school in the middle of my writing session. And it ruined my whole day. Why?

I knew it had to do with Aspergers, but I wanted to know more. Puzzling over this question, I went in search for the perfect metaphor to describe the experience.

I love the spoons metaphor for invisible disabilities. It describes a portion of my world, and it goes something like this: Every morning, most typical people wake up with infinite spoons. They don't even think of spoons as a resource because they almost never run out. They can easily choose to do this or that without risking much other than time consumption. Sure, they get tired by the end of a full day, but generally they have enough spoons to do all the normal things. It's a gift they take for granted.

Those with chronic pain or serious illness or certain types of mental illness, like depression, only get twelve or twenty spoons a day. Each activity, even small things like getting dressed or making breakfast, takes a spoon. Careful choices must be made about how the spoons are spent; otherwise, they will be gone before the day is through. Or worse. A bad spoon-management choice might leave them without spoons for several days.

There is no spoon. It's just a theory.
Which states aren't enough spoons.
The word "spoon" is actually quite weird, when you think about it.
Why is it called a spoon?
Oh, that's why.
It's still weird.
I'm already out of spoons. I wonder why?
Oh look, a butterfly!
For the origin of Spoon Theory, and why spoons and not some other eating utinsil, see Christine Miserandino's account on her blog, But You Don't Look Sick.

I relate to this analogy somewhat, but it fails to describe the intricate resource-management I must do as an aspie. I wake up with a random number of spoons. Why? Why do I mysteriously get a bunch of new spoons at unpredictable times? The process of getting ready for a new task seems to cost me "spoons", but that model doesn't reflect the intricacies of the gathering process itself. What about the frustration I feel when I fail to gather or get interrupted? How do I describe the sense that a dozen little things need doing before I can start a big thing, each costing a fractional "spoon"?

Spoon Theory didn't fit the all data for my experience, so I went in search of a Grand Unified Theory of Resources or Law of Conservation of Aspergers Energy that I could use to think about and describe my universe.

I found a few articles on inertia that help describe some aspects of life with Aspergers, like:

Inertia is a term I'd used years ago, long before my diagnosis. The idea is just like the law of motion. An object at rest tends to remain at rest, and an object in motion with a certain trajectory will tend to remain in motion, headed that direction, at that speed, until stopped or bumped off course by an outside force.

Inertia Theory perfectly describes my hyperfocus, or lack thereof, but it failed to describe outside forces I must apply to get up to speed. Or my frustration at outside-outside forces that stop me.

Last night, after doing a little light reading from Olga Bogdashina's book, "Communication Issues in Autism and Asperger Syndrome," eureka! I found it. The perfect metaphor, "Reticulating splines..."

I'm a huge gamer, and in the 90s I loved old school Maxis games. You know, SimCity, SimEarth, SimAnt. Back then, games took forever to load, especially on my old 386. While games loaded or maps generated, many companies showed useful information, like "Decompressing graphics files...", "Loading sounds..."

Maxis wanted to be funny, so their load screens repeated random nonsensical phrases that sounded Really Important™. Some of them flashed by so quickly you couldn't read them. One remained on the screen the longest, while a voice read it aloud: "Reticulating splines..."

Reticulating Splines...
Seems legit.
Maxis has carried on this fine tradition for decades, and while games now load lickity-split, they ensure you have just enough time to see "Reticulating splines..." flash past. For tradition's sake. Other software drops this phrase in as an Easter egg, and everyone who knows the joke gives a chuckle.

Separately, "Reticulating" and "Spline" are real words, but put together they make no sense. Until now.

What does this have to do with Asperger's?

The single greatest resource hog during my day is what some call "shifting gears", or moving from one task to another. Skilled teachers of autistic kids know to give a child ample warning of an upcoming task and to explain the purpose of moving on. Anyone who's worked with autistic kids knows the reason for taking this extra step. It's to avoid meltdowns.

Even the gear metaphor is problematic, because it takes no energy or time or frustration or boredom to shift a real gear. It's just BAM, you're in first and now you're in second. And you're still driving, not suddenly riding an elephant. It totally fails to describe the struggle of wrapping up one task and beginning a new one. For a neurotypical, it's as simple as shifting a gear. For someone on the spectrum, it's something else.

I knew from the get-go that my search for the perfect metaphor would center around this question: "Why does it take so long for me to get started?" The answer is wrapped up in other autistic tendencies: hyperfocus, special interests, distractibility, and "getting stuck".

Bogdashina describes how the autistic brain processes sensory information differently than neurotypical brains. NTs tend to take in sensory data all at once, summarizing, and comfortably filling in gaps with assumptions. As a result, NTs leave alot of things out, and in return for this compression, they get a speed boost.

According to Bogdashina, autists on the severe end of the spectrum cannot sense objects as part of a whole. A face breaks up into "mouth", "nose", "eye", "eye". A person then is "hand", "arm", "ear", "face", "hair". A room is instead a "wall", "wall", "table leg", "table top", "plate", "chair", "floor". Sounds and other senses take on the same fragmentation, and it's difficult for the autist to lump them all together into "mother" or "dining room".

My experience is not so extreme. I can see a person, a face, a room, a coffee shop, as a "whole thing", though sometimes details jump out at me like the eyes on a cartoon character, causing distraction (but it's also a superpower of observation).

Yet there is an aspect of sensory fragmentation I can relate to, and that's in memory storage and in my understandings of concepts.

Take a concept. For instance, one of my special interests, cults and mind control. I can can perceive the concept as a whole, but not without all its parts. Mind control is a network in my brain of all the thousands of things I've read about over the years, and my own experiences, and my views on how it appears in religion, politics, public schools, and the media. Everything I've ever linked to mind control is in there in this massive file, stored by words, principles, feelings, and synesthetic colors. The topic of "mind control" is not complete without all those bits.

Right now, I'm knee-deep in mind control, because that's the writing project I'm working on. If I were to switch to another project, say editing Emerald City Iron, which is a novel about fairies, I'd be knee-deep in fairies, with mind control long forgotten. I need room in my brain to unpack all the details about fairies and my characters and writing fiction. I'd no longer have room for the topic "mind control" and the task "non-fiction writing". The files would have to be stored away.

In order to really understand fairies and fiction editing again, I'd need to get back into that space, open up the whole file with all the parts. And doing that requires a resource which is nothing like a spoon or inertia. It's more like opening a big game on my old, slow 386. Hence:

Reticulating splines. . .<hourglass>

Screenshot of my brain reticulating splines.
Yes, this artist managed to capture it.
Credit: Jon Storm
It makes sense that a complex topic or project, like mind control or fairies, would take a long time to shift into. That would be difficult for anyone. But what is harder to describe is how the little things, things NTs take for granted, can be just as difficult to shift into.

Reticulate means to "make a net or network of". A spline is a number of things, including: "a. Any of a series of projections on a shaft that fit into slots on a corresponding shaft, enabling both to rotate together. b. The groove or slot for such a projection."

When I switch tasks, I am making a network of all the projections and grooves and slots and shafts and strips of metal and curve-drawing tools and geometrical maths used to draw up the task. I am loading and linking together all the details in my brain that are connected to the project at hand. And that's going to take time, whether that project is making a phone call, disciplining the dog, or writing a novel.

It doesn't just take time. It takes a bunch of energy and processing resources. It isn't fun at all. My brain has to work really, really hard. So when something interrupts me, and demands I dump the loaded program to load up a new program, I get very frustrated. When I've got lots of annoying little errands to do outside the scope of my main project, I lose splines and spoons. The more do this in a day, the more frustration builds.

For instance, if I need to make a phone call about a bill, I need to gather the phone number, collect all the data about the bill, and get into the frame of mind to make the call. For me, that requires gathering lots of little pieces, and on my hardware, it's slow loading. On NT hardware, it might flash by, "Reticulating splines!" so fast you can't even see it. Yet because I have more splines, they take longer to reticulate.

This is why, when I made and took twenty phonecalls a day as part of my tech support job, talking on the phone was relatively easy. It didn't take a lot of spoons, because it wasn't reticulating many splines. The "talk on the phone solving technical problems" program was all loaded up. It stayed in memory for years.

These days, using the phone requires all kinds of splines. And when I need to reticulate that many splines, it ends up costing spoons.

Likewise when I ran Sapioscape, an online retail business, I ran to the post office every day, shipping 3-5 boxes at a time. I was efficient, and it was even a pretty fun. Sometimes I still miss those days.

Now, when I need to ship just one box? I procrastinate forever and the task seems impossible. Because I have to reticulate every single spline related to packaging a shipping and item. It's a rather complex task for me, because my memory has stored each step as a separate thing that I have to recompile.

Same goes for home improvement tasks. I loved remodeling my house. I couldn't wait to get home and build bedrooms in the basement, retrofit foundations for earthquakes. and landscape the yard. Now? Hanging a picture seems impossible. Because I have to remember where I keep the nails and how to use a hammer.

Computers can run multiple programs in background, and so can I, which is fortunate. I can keep one or two complex tasks, and several small items partially loaded into memory. So at the end of the day, I can reticulate splines on some smaller tasks and recreational activities (which also require splines), and switch back to the big project again the next day.

It's not entirely free of cost. I can't just Alt-Tab. A few splines get lost and have to be regenerated again in the morning. If I do too many side-tasks or have too many interruptions or too much time passes, loading up the main project begins to cost more and more.

Part of my spline-management system involves ridding myself of potential interruptions before I can start on my real work for the day. So I invest alot of initial spoons and splines into dealing with small tasks. I try to make sure Prince Ryuk of Pomerania (the dog) is happy. I feed myself and make tea. I deal with email and twitter. I cycle through my ritual of lighting candles and taking meds and turning on music. I let kids and other events interrupt me during this time, and work as fast as I can to get through this routine so I can get to my real work. Sometimes even then my brain isn't into gear, and maybe by that time, I'm hungry again or out of tea. I stare at the blank page a few moments, and I'm back to checking twitter or fiddling with things on my desk.

Somedays, I can reticulate my splines within an hour, and I have an amazingly productive writing day. Other days, it takes many hours. With each passing moment, the frustration builds. I fear I won't be productive, that I'm wasting time, that my book will never be written. It's just like waiting for your favorite game to load on an old, slow 386. You're eager to get started, but those damn splines are still reticulating.

This is why my child needing a ride to school ruined my productivity for the day. It had taken me about three hours to prep for writing. (I was coming off a full week non-productivity due to other life tasks that needed attention, so I required additional spline reticulation.) The door slid open just fifteen minutes after I had finally gotten started putting words to page. I was the only one who could drive said child to school.

I thought I'd be able to get her there and home without issue. But no. I lost all the splines on the drive back. And I got angry. I had an anger-meltdown in the car. I screamed at the top of my lungs and smacked the steering wheel. I knew the day was wasted.

I wasn't angry at anyone in particular. Things happen. I was angry at the situation. And a little bit at myself for being this way.

I also knew that Spoon Theory wasn't going to be enough to describe what just happened.

I still have spoons. I have a limited number of social spoons, overstimulation spoons, working hard for too long spoons. There are some splines-to-spoon exchange rates -- reticulating splines can cost spoons, and if I don't get enough sleep, for example, I don't have enough spoons to reticulate many splines at all.

It's just that running out of spoons doesn't lead me to meltdown. Running out of splines can.

There is an upside to having a brain like mine. Once all those splines get reticulate, I have thousands of connected details available to me. That's not to say I have a photographic memory and can actually remember those details perfectly. But I know the parts that lead to the sum, and can look up things up from there. (Thank Google!) If one of the parts changes, I can make adjustments to the entire topic. If a new fact comes in that contradicts the old parts, I can take a look at the parts of the whole structure to quickly see where adjustments need to be made. I think of new ideas quickly because I kept all the bits stored away, not just the unalterable concept as a mushy whole.

It just means it takes a bit longer to load. Even the "easy" stuff like getting dressed or shopping for groceries or talking to humans. All these splines must be reticulated.

To summarize the three complex forces of Asperger's, I've come up with the Three Laws of Thermodynamic Autistic Motion, also known as "Spins, Spoons, and Splines".
  1. Inertial Mechanics, or "The Law of Spins": An autist in motion will remain in motion until acted upon by an outside force, like a barking dog or the need to pee.
  2. The Law of Conservation of Energy, or "Entropy of Spoons": Spoons can neither be created nor destroyed, only washed and placed back in the silverware drawer. It always takes more spoons to wash the spoons than there are total spoons, leading to entropy, and the eventual heat death of the universe and everyone in it.
  3. The Law of Reticulation of Splines: The load time of splines is directly proportional to the number of splines in storage times the distance (in time) since the splines were last loaded times the number of interrupts by other spline-reticulating processes. As implied by the Second Law of Autism, spline reticulation requires energy in the form of spoons, splines, spins, and anger management classes. Moore's Law does not apply.

What do you think about this model? If you're autistic, or know someone who is, does it seem to fit?


  1. This explains so much. Thank you!

    1. Yes!!!! This. I feel like you've just handed me a treasure map of self understanding.

      This explains why i know a million things about sustainability but if you ask me about it while i'm shopping for face paints, i know nothing (and might throw something at you).

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. For me both strength & weakness is reconstructing explicitly from first principles and details, where others might run on autopilot or intuition or social proof. Knowing what vs. knowing how. There are times when this is a better (or at least usefully different) approach, and times when it is just ineffective.

    I think interruption and multitasking are high-cost for anyone of any neurology doing intellectual or creative work, perhaps what's more unique to an autism-type mind is that more kinds of task may be approached as focused intellectual work, and paid work is also likely to be this kind of task if it is one of our strengths.

    There's research on limited "spoons" for making decisions every day:
    Doing more by habit and autopilot makes it less exhausting to get through the day.

    "Introversion" has been described as "having energy drained by social interaction," think about one possible reason for that: do you have to do a lot of explicit thinking and decision-making and otherwise find the interaction difficult; or do you just kind of surf through it on instinct. The first will be much more tiring.

    Think about the importance of routine. Routine = more done by habit, less decision-making and explicit thinking. More spoons.

    Again I think it's true of any neurology that these explicit-thinking resources are limited, and perhaps it's just a matter of exactly which kinds of activities and skills people are gravitating to, and which ones they can do by habit, and which they have to handle via intellectual effort instead.

    1. Yes, I think I agree with you. It's not that we have fewer resources, it's that we spend more resources doing things. Talking on the phone costs me alot, because I have trouble hearing on the phone. I'm concentrating on maintaining proper etiquette. I'm trying to focus on all the details of what I'm trying to accomplish.

      Same with introversion. I've read that introverts ale longer to process, since blood flow thru the brain takes a longer path, through more centers. I means well-processed thoughts come out the other side, but after more time and energy is spent.

      My diagnosis has helped because I can let go of certain expectations of myself and certain ways I was self-conscious, which frees up alot of resources. I no longer have to concentrate on those splines. It makes social interaction more fun and less draining. Perhaps it would be helpful for autists to examine their lives to determine which splines they can let to of. Certainly not all the potentially useful ones, though. :) We need those to make awesome things.

    2. I tend to look at it as not just the quantity of spoons, but the quality of the spoons, as well. Some days I have few table settings worth of basic spoons, and I can do a semi average amount of things. Sometimes I only have one or two spoons, but they're big serving spoons, so I can allocate them to specific tasks. And other days I might have lots of spoons, but they're the balsa wood ones you get on kiddy cups of icecream, and they'll get me though the day, but barely, and I'll have splinters if I push them too hard.

    3. Yeah, that model makes sense, too. :)

  3. One of the things that I think is important to point out between aspies and NTs is that it is not that the aspie mind is slower than the NT mind when it comes to switching tasks; you aren't doing the same cognitive load. I liken it to NTs loading up a cliff notes version of something, where as the aspie has to load the entire novel. In some cases this extra information could be useful, but truth is society is optimized to work with the cliff notes version since most people are NTs. For example; something like calling about a bill, it is unlikely one would need to know the entire history of interaction over phones or interactions with bill services, so this ends up being paralyzing for an aspie, while simple and quick for an NT (and hard for them to understand why aspie's have difficulty with this).

    1. Yes, exactly is.

      I like your Cliff Notes analogy. That's a great alternative analogy for explaining it to people who don't relate well to computer analogies. I'll keep that one in mind for describing it to NTs.

    2. Robert, thanks! This is a good addition to Luna's post for the NTs (myself included) reading this! I have jumped from spoon theory, to Luna's reticulating splines to the Cliff Notes analogy. However, from my perspective, it looks like NTs often only need to load the synopsis of the novel for "simple" tasks.....not even the full Cliff Notes version. As the mother of an adult Aspie (and wife to a probable Aspie), I have been so frustrated by their need to "prep" for something as simple as making a phone call or answering an email or any number of "simple" tasks. It helps to look at it from the perspective of my loading a brief synopsis or, for things that are harder for me, Cliff Notes, while they are required to load the text in its entirety! I'm exhausted just thinking about it. Thanks to both of you for helping out a NT who just wants to understand.

  4. Consider the phrase 'reticulating splines' stolen. :) I really like the work you've done here, it makes a lot of sense and is a great analogy.

    I sometimes have a touch of this 'seeing all the individual parts before you can put them together into a whole' going on, usually only when I'm very tired or have bad sensory stuff going on. That's like a super slow reticulation of splines - for instance, instead of having this whole set of things rotating and having them click together as the parts that fit meet up, you have to move one, then the next, then the next. And while you're doing that, other stuff to process keeps piling up. If only life had a 'slow' button so I had time to catch up...

    1. Thanks, Jodie! :)

      Yes, I've noticed time dilation stuff too. Not that time is changing but my ability to perceive is messed up. One of the first things I noticed after my diagnosis, and realized I wasn't perceiving the same way as everyone else, I noticed that in high-stress social situations, it was like watching a video on fast-forward. It suddenly made sense why, in those situations, I feel anxiety and often don't know what to do or how to respond to people. Things are happening too quickly to understand.

      It's hard to say whether my brain is slowing down in those situations, or whether it is just taking in more information than is necessary. The effect is the same. Interestingly, I've not had that problem nearly as often since I started taking Celexa. So I feel much more competent in social situations, and therefore enjoy it more.

  5. This is just genius! 1) I loved playing Sims and I remember "reticulating splines." 2) I think some inertia is caused by the reticulation - sometimes after all that, I am too tired to sit down and complete the task. Or by then I've simply lost interest.

    1. Thanks!

      Yes, inertia is definitely part of it. Makes me tired just thinking about it.

  6. Amazing and wonderful break down! To others, I frequently refer to my slow processing times as the gyroscopic nature of my brain having trouble working with/in the linear approach to "normal" society.

    I think I like reticulating splines even better.

  7. Interesting read... My husband has Aspergers. I recognize some of this. As a partner you have to get used to a couple of things and sometimes you might even get into a discussion over it. What I recognized is the switching subjects and the (how I experience it) wanting to know everything beforehand.

    The latter wouldn't be a problem if it wasn't for the fact that when something goes wrong I will have to point out what was wrong and preferably every single other event in which this could occur. Which I can't, because life is life (of which I know is the stupidiest reason ever).

    And he has the extreme focus inwhich he is interested in a subject and wants to know everything about it, is completely obsessed about, until it looses his interest. So it's fun to read your explanation of that, because it really translates.

    What I have to say though, is that it makes some things in life easier. Such as making an appointment. Just state what you need and when, and that's what you will get. So I definitely don't see it as a problem. It's just something to get used to.

    1. Thanks for your comments! (Sorry for the slow response, I was traveling last week.)

      I'm so glad the post also helps NTs understand aspies. That's a huge personal goal of mine for the NTs in my life, and also in hopefully in that I can help others.

      Another thing we aspies tend to do (me in particular) is to take that thing I understand was wrong, and then apply that rule everywhere, even when it's inappropriate for some other subtle reason I don't understand. I tend to overgeneralize social rules. It used to drive my partner crazy, but now he understands me a bit better. :)

      It's so good that you understand that bluntness in what you want is very helpful to us. I would much rather a person state exactly what they need, be it in appointments as you say, or in emotional needs. Don't just say, "Help me feel important" or "Don't these things make you feel important?".. just say "Doing X makes me feel important. Please do more of that if you can." It's so comforting to hear those words, rather than convoluted ways of trying to get me to guess what is needed. ;)

  8. I'm lucky that it took only a few minutes of research to figure out that "Prince Ryuk of Pomerania" is most likely your canine companion.
    Many "spectranauts" would eventually find themselves with an impressive knowledge of Pomeranian history at the expense of ever finishing your article.

    1. Haha thanks for pointing that out. I've added a parenthetical phrase to help prevent such distractions in the future. :)

  9. Thanks very much for this. As parent of a newly diagnosed 6 yo, who really struggles with changing task amongst other things, this provides a very useful insight into what's going on that I can at least partially relate to. I hope the insight will help me to help him.

  10. Really enjoyed and profited from reading this! As a newly diagnosed 45-year-old and mother of slightly-less-newly diagnosed 7-year-old, I am still reeling from how much of my life Asperger's/autism explains. I had been stuck on why I take so long to get up to speed. Back in my 20s, when I was working on a PhD dissertation, I used to compare it to a space capsule (or whatever you call the re-entry thingy from a rocket) re-entering the earth's atmosphere...kind of a hellish process but then lovely once you are back in the atmosphere you need. Not a transition you'd want to do often because it's so costly. Now I'm struggling as I had to move to a new state for family reasons and need to get through a lot of paperwork to be able to work again. The inertia re working on that has been as bad or worse as I've ever experienced. Spoon shortages all the time. Painfully slow loading and updating of my knowledge base. Thanks for giving me language to talk about what is going on, so I can explain it to my spouse.

    1. Thank you! I'm so glad it could be of help. :)

  11. "Stuck gears" never worked as a metaphor for me but I've been using it because how else do you explain to NTs how LONG it takes you to move from Task A to Task B? This metaphor works for me to explain it to myself, but I will probably start with "stuck gears" and then, if they are receptive, move from that to "reticulating splines."

    1. Totally. I still use all the standard metaphors for shorthand, and then if I need to explain something more accurate, explain splines.

  12. This idea is so helpful. Thank you for making it words.

  13. I just came over from a different blog tracking the meaning of spoon theory and I was trying to understand it. Why spoons? And what do they represent? Then before really explaining spoons, you start in with reticulating splines. My frustration was building. The only thing worse than being uncomfortable with certain metaphors is being presented with metaphors that make no sense whatsoever.

    But I love you. Yes, it makes perfect sense and your laws are perfectly logical and I was crying with laughter by the time I finished, both in relief at understanding the spoons and splines and why they need reticulating, and pure unadulterated glee over your ability to describe my processing (and transition) difficulties so imaginatively. Thank you.

    1. Haha I'm glad you finally enjoyed it. :) It's difficult to write from my starting point, not knowing what the starting point is for other people. Trying to find a balance of not over-explaining something that some of my audience already knows, vs. leaving other people completely in the dark.

      The full story of "why spoons?" is at I linked to it above, but my blog doesn't underline links so you might have missed it. It's a total accident of fate why spoons were used as the unit of measurement. There just happened to be spoons nearby when the author tried to explain it to her friend. Some people prefer the term "tokens." But I prefer spoons because it's in wider usage, and the weird-uniqueness of the term gives it a firm context. Spoons aren't used to describe any other unit of measurement, whereas tokens ARE used this way in other contexts.. so if you're running out of energy at Chuck'E'Cheese, it might get a little confusing. "I've got to go; I'm out of tokens." Friend: "Don't worry, here's $5 to buy some more!"

      Anyway, I'm glad it eventually made sense to you. ^_^

  14. This is brilliant, and adds some flesh to the spoon theory for me. Thank you.

  15. This explains SO MUCH, both in terms of the experience of getting started on any given task, particularly complex ones, and also the disproportionate level of anger and frustration I feel over interruptions or a change of plans like giving a child a ride or not having a dinner ingredient on hand that I was sure was there and had planned around. I have had this exact same experience more times than I can count, especially when I had a regular 8-5 job and every spare moment I had was precious, and any other writing or creative pursuit had to fit around it. An hour to write isn't really an hour for us--it's an unknown time spent reticulating splines, followed by whatever time is left for the actual task, which is never enough to get it done. And then once the splines are reticulated, and we're enjoying our superpower of hyperfocus, there's the inevitable anger and frustration when the available time runs out or something else requires our attention.

    Now that I have more freedom to plan my own schedule, I'm going to try to optimize my days by minimizing the number of times I have to boot up and get those splines reticulating.

    Thanks for this excellent framework! It might be a game-changer for me.

    1. I'm glad you could relate. It really does make a big difference to keep this in mind and try to plan accordingly. And when I can't plan, it explains the frustration, which helps take the edge off. Makes self-validation easier, instead of comparing myself to neurotypicals, who always *seem* to have it more together. But they can't write a detailed analysis of any given topic, like I can. That's the trade-off I try to remember so I don't beat myself up. ^_^

  16. This is amazing, and so beautifully describes how it feels in my head. Thank you!

  17. I don't know if I agree with this. What you just described sounds like almost everyone I know, none of whom are autistic. I could relate to this and am not autistic.

    I think what is going on here is more of a matter of being introverted and artistic versus being extroverted and competitive. Extroverted people have no problem calling others and performing outgoing tasks that require a lot of energy. Introverts can only take so much per day or week, and we must prepare ourselves for every task and somehow build up the energy to handle situations that would otherwise be paralysing.

    I am intimidated by phone calls, especially interviews. I must spend hours reviewing before one just to make sure I know everything I can. I am meticulous and often do not have the energy or space for doing many tasks, but when I do find something that sets off the creative energy within me I dedicate a great deal of time to that outlet. I'm usually pretty obsessed with subjects for a few months before I put them down and 'incubate' until my next surge of energy.

    I am not depressed, autistic, or anything other than a human being who has her own way of doing things. I recently got into a theory called Human Design that gives you a unique body graph based on your time of birth, location, and so forth. I told me that I am a Manifestor and its explanation matched how I am so perfectly that I do not believe it is a coincidence.

    The truth is, some people just are made to be able to jump from task to task while others are made for honing in on every detail possible for accuracy and conciseness.

    1. Hi Le'tree! While I think splines theory does apply to some people who are not diagnosed autistic, it is not true that it applies to everyone. There are many people who have read this who did not relate to this style of thinking in their own lives.

      Your description of yourself could be a description of myself. I have phone anxiety, too (I found noise-canceling headphones helps quite a bit, as does an SSRI prescription). I am an introvert, too. I get very passionate about projects and hyperfocus on them at the cost of other things in my life.

      It's possible Splines Theory does apply to a broader group of people than just autists. Just like Spoons Theory was originally written by a woman with lupus, but it applies to many other people.

      One thing to keep in mind is that science hasn't caught up to any of this stuff. In my opinion, "autism" is a very rough box, a poorly defined one at that. I think HSP (highly-sensitive person) traits are VERY similar to Asperger traits, and I've seen much in common between autism and introversion as well. And I think that in the future, ADHD will be considered part of the autism spectrum.

      For now, all we have are these rough labels to use in describing how our brains work. So for now, I will continue to assert that Splines Theory primarily affects autists, BUT that others do relate. Many programmers (not diagnosed) have also related to this post.

      Is it that lots of people are on the spectrum and don't know it? It is it that Splines Theory is part of how many brains function, of which, autistic brains are only a subset? I don't know. Science doesn't know either. (And I am not a scientist, and Splines Theory is really more of a working model than a theory.)

      That said, you *might* consider the possibility that you are autistic, too. I wasn't diagnosed until age 38, because everything I'd read about autism up till that point didn't fit me *at all*. Problem was, 1) I'm a woman with autism, and women manifest autism differently than men, and 2) The criteria for autism was wrong from many years, and still is wrong but it's more accurate now than it was even just 5 years ago.

      In my case, knowing that I'm autistic gave me access to information about myself that opened up new worlds for me. It's like I finally have an operator's manual for my model of car, instead of trying to use the operator's manual I was given at birth, which is not only for the wrong kind of car, it's for a boat. :)

      I think once science gets autism figured out, we're going to find that a much higher percentage of the population is "autistic" (or at least has a similar brain structure to autists). Autistic brains seem to fill a very important role for humanity. I don't think we're a mistake. I think we're necessary. As you said, some people are made to hone in on details (and other intellectual feats), and autists excel at that.

    2. Realize that all scientific progress comes from people in the spectrum and without us the flatscans would still be living in caves

      Autism sacrifices versatility for power which leads to our marginalized status

      But hey we are on the rise, so maybe things will change

  18. I really appreciate this concept. I would like to add to it a little.

    For myself, I think I have some splines which are scheduled to reticulate on specific days. For example, my grocery run every Saturday. I think I also pre-reticulate some splines days or even weeks in advance if I am anticipating something.

    This really helps explain some of the meltdowns I experience when scheduled events get disrupted even if it is days or even weeks before hand.

    1. That is very perceptive, and I think you're right! I do know from personal experience that my routines are there so I don't have to think much about how to do them. And if stuff is misplaced so that it interrupts my routine, I get pretty upset. Because it isn't just a 5 minute interruption to find the thing, but much longer because I have to re-work how to do the whole task.

  19. aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa yes, this makes ALL THE SENSE, thank you SO MUCH

  20. Beyond helpful.
    I almost questioned my Aspergers at times because it felt like I shouldn't be able to completely forget another obsession and turn my focus to another one, the way I do. I feel like it's a lie when my mother proudly proclaims to someone that I learned "fluent" Tolkien elvish at age eleven, because if prompted to say something now I can't remember a single word. This covers perfectly the times when NT people sound like I'm somehow faking, "you made fifty phone calls yesterday, now you can't make one - because you did a few small tasks around the house?" which the spoon theory didn't properly explain. I never seemed to fit the Asperger stereotype I've been hit with so many times, and it's made me doubt my diagnosis. This article is brilliant. I didn't feel the spoons were enough when I read that (really good) article, but at the time I couldn't reticulate my splines to bring myself to more than a few feeble google searches before I got fatigued. Thank you so much for finding the "Spins, Spoons and Splines" theory. My mother, who has lived a good many more years than I with until now undiagnosed Aspergers, has tried to somehow explain the concept to me (in her own self-analysis she'd gotten as far as "there are like different folders I need to open and close") a lot of times. Often after apologising for exploding in my face when I interrupted her writing a letter to say the kitchen is on fire, or something similar. So this helps me in not taking as much offense to that, as well. And I'm sure she'll love the article.

  21. A friend just linked me this.

    Having been familiar with the concept of spoons for a long time, and not finding that it fit, I really appreciate this analogy. I'm someone who fell through the cracks and was only recently diagnosed. So, thank you for this.

  22. Just found this. Your explanation of your difficulty with making phone calls after having done telephone tech support was perfect. I used to do telephone tech support as well, but before that, and in the many years since, it's very difficult for me to just pick up the phone to order a pizza, let alone do anything more complicated — and it's exhausting. You've definitely given me some things to think about!

  23. Love this, definitely rings true.
    Posted to and tweeted on @torontojazzbrat

  24. Can't thank you enough.
    One thing, how do you survive?
    I'm out of work now with exhaustion and depression. The efficiency of my spline reticulation has decreased even further! I don't know what to do.

    1. Ethan, I also suffer from depression. And things like depression and anxiety (which autists are more likely to suffer from than allists) definitely reduce our ability to juggle splines.

      In my past, I was able to manage depression using CBT techniques. In that case, it was awesome. I could load up all the splines for say a complicated software troubleshooting issue at work, and with access to all those details, I could often solve problems others couldn't. You can learn more about CBT in David A. Burns' book, Feeling Good. Link:

      Now, tho, I'm dealing with PTSD (post-traumatic stress), and CBT isn't enough. You'll notice I haven't posted lately to this blog, and that's why. Lots of ideas, and unable to follow through on them. So for now, I'm treating the PTSD with meds and EMDR therapy. It's a long, hard road, but I am seeing improvements.

      If you continue to struggle against depression, I recommend finding a good therapist and a psychiatrist to look into medications. Unless you've tried this already... if you have, maybe look for a new/different therapist and/or psychiatrist that might fit your needs better. I always look for someone who listens to me and takes what I have to say into consideration.

      You might also consider that you may have a source of trauma that's causing the depression.. either in your past, or something (someone) that continues to traumatize you. I'm convinced that most mental health issues stem from trauma. And autists, we're more susceptible to trauma. We are more likely to be victimized by abuse and bullying, and taken advantage of because of our trusting natures, and we're less likely to "bounce back" from traumatizing events. These are subjects you can explore with the help of a good therapist.

      And if you like reading, right now I'm reading The Body Keeps the Score, all about trauma and the effects on the brain and body. Link:

    2. Thankyou, the book about the body keeping score very much stood out to me. The possibility of PTSD is one I've not looked into but can certainly see that it would apply in my case. Possibly even overlapping, over some years.
      It is very kind of you to take the time and energy to reply. You are doing great work here! Wishing you the best in your own recovery x

    3. Thanks, Ethan. I do what I can. Keep going!

  25. I'm not autistic, or Asperger, or at least I'm on the shallow end of the spectrum enough that I've never been diagnosed... But I have PTSD, which comes with depression and anxiety, and I constantly lose stuff, have some sensory issues, and am considered "gifted".... And this is exactly how my brain works!!! Thank you so much!! like yeah, reticulating my splines takes time and spoons. When the depression and/or anxiety are too bad, I cannot reticulate at all. I'm stuck in "leisure" tasks that do not require reticulating at all, like phone games, reading fiction, or Tumblr.

    I need to gather all of the info about a topic before I start writing a paper, and get in a non-triggering environment (sunlight, food, only people I know and I'm ok having a meltdown in front of, ...) because I know any writing will be an uphill battle of anxiety. My boyfriend doesn't udnerstand why it takes me so long to get started, and why I can't just "break it down into smaller writing sessions"... Because I'm trying to conserve the energy of reticulating all of my splines everytime! But I didn't know how to put that into words...

    Shopping at the supermarket is a truggle because if they don't have something that was on my list, or have something that I didn't expect, I have to start reticulating as I go, and I end up forgetting things along the way. It's like my brain only has two arms and I'm trying to hold onto all of the imput of the supermarket at the same time. While trying to go as fast as possible because the fluroescent light, loud music, and poeple, are sensory triggers.

    Anyway, thank you so much, this made me think a lot and allowed me to understand myself better and feel less bad about some of my disabilities :)

    1. I've got PTSD, too, so. I relate. Also, those on the autism spectrum are more likely to have PTSD, and to generalize our triggers.

  26. Thanks for this. I'm undiagnosed, but my son is on the spectrum, and the more I learn about him, the more I learn about myself. Your post really resonated with me, personally. I so related to your experience making a call about a bill. I talk on the phone for my job, and it doesn't require spoons, but bill phone calls and appointment scheduling--so many spoons. Thanks for sharing.

  27. After reading this I knew my husband would be able to identify with it. He read it and was very enthusiastic that he wasn't the only one! Oddly enough he wanted me to share his latest blog entry on Splines!

  28. Hello. Thank you for your article. My child is autist, but not an aspie. In fact, she may be the furthest opposite.
    She is extremely high on empathy and social skills while extremely low on executive functioning. That said, parts of your theories are still very enlightening, and will stay with me for a while while I ponder and digest and see what I can do differently to help Gaia use her spoons and splines more effectively.
    All the best,

    1. Hi Cathy! Actually, empathy is highly misunderstood in autists and aspies. I wrote something about that here:

      Also, girls and women express autism differently than boys. Here's a good 1 hour talk on these factors:

      Good luck to you and your daughter. :) You seem to be doing your best for her!

  29. This is very, very like how ADHD works, too. Thank you!

  30. Makes sense to me (though it took some spoons to engage with the concept...)
    I think a lot about momentum and inertia in relation to life (probably because I'm a Buddhist), and have come to see everything that makes me be me in terms of tendencies and habits, which are like flywheels.
    So when a big flywheel of "current activity" (which may also be "What I'm thinking about right now") needs slowing-stopping, it takes energy to do that quickly or at all, as there's not enough friction in the system for it to slow down and stop on its own. I often have to consciously withdraw energy/will from it and that takes energy. Same with getting a flywheel up to speed, of course, hence much of my executive dysfunction (and for mysterious reasons some flywheels seem to have the brake stuck On, so they're really hard to keep spun up).

  31. I read this post with interest. I started with reading the linked post on Spoon Theory, which I'd not heard of. Wonderful. Then, continued with the rest of your story. I'm in awe of your ability to find an analogy that helps NTs like me "get" how others operate.
    We humans tend to think our way of being/thinking is the only way. Not even because we're jerks--though some of us are, and most of us can be--but because we don't know what we don't know. You're post helps illuminate a hidden room in the human experience. A room I can now appreciate better because I understand its value and purpose more.
    I'm sorry for the times when life is hard for you, but grateful that you have the words to help others both empathize with you and support the journey forward.

  32. I can really relate to this article, except I'm not convinced I actually have the underlying condition. I experience a lot of dread of tasks that interrupt my flow, but when I actually overcome the resistance and actually do the thing that interrupts my flow, it never ends up being nearly as unpleasant as I imagine. It's more like, my deficiency is in the ability to make the decision to switch tasks, rather than the ability to actually switch tasks. Does that make any sense to anyone? For example: I have Parkinson's, and one big challenge I have is remembering to take my medications. So, I have an app on my phone to remind me to take them. But then I have to remember to activate the app. And then I have to remember that the alarm is important. When I DO remember that it is important to take my meds when the alarm goes off, it's no big deal and I really don't feel like I've lost any spoons or whatever. The challenge for me is keeping it on the radar. It feels more like a discipline issue. Which may be another aspect of this thing. I do remember times where I became angry when being interrupted, in fact almost exactly like the author describes in this piece. But what I decided for myself was the problem, was my emotional reaction to the interruption, and not the interruption itself. If I just calm down and approach it with a more accepting attitude, it seems like I recover much more quickly and am able to recall the "reticulated splines" without having to really start over.

  33. Wow just wow! This article just put together assumptions I had about my work habit and productivity. Amazing work!

  34. My husband actually breaks his spoons into spoons and forks. Spoons are mental energy and forks are physical energy. This actually explains my issues as well. I've never been diagnosed with autism, but it is something that my doctor and my husband have speculated at. This helped so much.

  35. "According to Bogdashina, autists on the severe end of the spectrum cannot sense objects as part of a whole. A face breaks up into "mouth", "nose", "eye", "eye". A person then is "hand", "arm", "ear", "face", "hair". A room is instead a "wall", "wall", "table leg", "table top", "plate", "chair", "floor". Sounds and other senses take on the same fragmentation, and it's difficult for the autist to lump them all together into "mother" or "dining room"."

    Really doubt that, personally. Many autistic people have a Block Design peak, especially if they've got verbal communication problems, and the Block Design test requires perceiving things as a coherent whole and then segmenting them according to equal-sized blocks regardless of the color contours ofor the pattern. People with Williams Syndrome, who do have problems like this (as evidenced by their tendency to draw exploded drawings), have a great deal of difficulty with the Block Design task.

    1. Bogdashina cites research, as well as offering quotes from autists who experience this to one degree or another. And I've experienced it to a lesser degree, on days when my senses get confused and I struggle to understand what I'm seeing & hearing, especially if there is motion and I am tired or overstimulated. All I can see are the shapes of the light, but not understand where or what they are, at least for several seconds.

      Are you on the spectrum?

      Perhaps the confusion is in how I phrased it.. I didn't mean to imply ALL autists on the severe end of the spectrum have this specific sensory issue, but that many do, and this is documented.

  36. I RELATE TO THIS SO WELL!!! Thank you so much for putting this into words!! It is definitely different than just spoons and definitely a very autistic experience. I was always curious as to why it was so difficult for me to switch tasks or recover from being interrupted. I love you mentioning even recreational activities taking splines (my friends never understand when I say I don’t have the energy to listen to music). And my routine is structured the same way for the same reasons!! Getting phone messages and notifications out of the way, email, taking care of the pets, and THEN the real work!! The metaphor of the game loading is so amazing. Thank you again for doing this!

    1. Thanks!

      haha yeah, music can take splines/spoons from me, too, especially high tempo music or anything with lyrics. Anything that demands my attention drains me when I'm low.

  37. I just found this. Nothing I've read so far explains me more than this. So thankful you "youngsters" have such great insight into our brains. Thank you.

  38. Beautifully written. I struggle so hard to understand (much less explain) why a 3 minute phone call doesn't cost me three minutes or why I have such long unproductive periods.

  39. This is wonderful! Thank you so much. I recognize myself and several friends, fellow engineering alumni and family members.

    This also reminds me (sort of) of the work on learning styles by professor Richard Felder & Co. His articles were pivotal for the beginning of my Accepting My Brain As It Is journey in the late 1990s. If you are interested, here is the short summary for students that changed my life:
    and here is a talk about how Felder et al. arrived at that summary (and much, much more -- they have been studying how engineering students learn since the 1980s and are still going strong)

    More personally:

    My son, who is an artist and writer, has described his train of creative or learning thought as an actual freight train -- long and heavy and therefore quite energy consuming to get going. It also has immense momentum re: direction and speed once underway, so is also quite energy consuming to turn or stop. That description was a revelation for me, both in understanding him and in understanding myself.

    I have sometimes spoken of my own thinking work as a heavy flywheel with considerable inertia, or as machine set-up time between different products in batch manucacturing.

    The analogy I have used most, however, is comparing a supercomputer that has 1-4 processors (my stereotype for an NT engineer's brain) to a grid computer made up of hundreds of Raspberry Pis (my brain). The way things were taught in my engineering college (the "program code") seemed to be optimized for people who could work through a series of well-enough-defined partial tasks at high speed without much bothering about the whole that those partials pertained to -- that would become clear for them when revising for the exam.

    I again cannot begin to learn / create / analyze anything without a properly internalized cognitive scaffolding*. This scaffolding I aliken to making sure that 75-95% of the Raspberry Pis representing my brain are fully loaded with relevant context and prerequisites information, after which the remaining 5-25% can very quickly and efficiently run the code = do the analysis of a large set of problems and suggest multiple solutions, especially if the problems are connected, as real-life usability and accessibility problems tend to be.

    I have emailed the link to this post to my NT-ish, introverted engineer husband and my two on-the-AS-spectrum adult children. I will also share it with some friends. Thank you again for this resource!

    * used here loosely as a pedagogical(ish) term, with apologies to the late Lev Vygotsky

  40. This explains my brain!!! I haven't read all the comments yet, I'll get to that, I just wanted to let you know there's another aspie who found your explanation these many years later and is currently sitting, open-mouthed, typing these words to thank you for such a clear explanation of what has been my lifelong experience. Medication has actually helped some of those splines reticulate a little faster, it's an amazing metaphor.

  41. I’m so grateful I came across this blog. It was written a long time ago so it looks like it’s the gift that keeps on giving. It’s such important insight. Thank you.

  42. Hey, this approach is very closely related to monotropism; I think you've independently hit on many of the same basic insights. As such I've added a link here to the Explanations page of the new site:

  43. This feels somehow related to what happens in my brain when there are sudden changes, new things to process and disorder in my environment. But not just related to preparing for tasks. It's like preparing to exist, or maintaining homeostasis. A death, a social event that's out of my routine, a new addition to the routine or too many things in the routine, a housekeeper not cleaning as well as last time, moving my things around or charging more than last time unexpectedly, a late bus, an app malfunction, a cancelled plan that I'd been budgeting spoons for and mentally had slotted into my brain's calendar of expected events, an appliance out of order, and it's like the splines it takes just to exist fr all discombobulated and I can't process and I'm all off kilter while my brain tries to adjust the splines. Maybe there's a batter word for it.