Tokens, or spoons, are a metaphor for the finite mental resources that a spectrumite has to deal with the day’s challenges. Run out of tokens, and you hit meltdown or shutdown.

Adults on the spectrum are often able to roughly gauge when they’re getting low on tokens and need to avoid any more challenges. Through experience, we recognize that fragile, feverish feeling that warns us we’re approaching our limit. We can also gauge when we’ve got plenty of tokens and are good for a lot of activity to come.

But here’s the trick. When something happens that drains us of tokens, the loss feels proportional to the amount of tokens we still have. The more tokens we have, the more insignificant a loss of tokens can feel. Even large losses of tokens are brushed off easily. But those tokens are still lost, and each loss hastens the point in the day when we run out of tokens and must either retreat or meltdown. When that point comes, we’ll wish we still had those tokens that we were so cavalier about losing earlier in the day.

So, the lesson to take home is this: defend your tokens, always. Even when you’re feeling good, take steps to defend your tokens. Use your earplugs, your stims, your coping mechanisms, while you’re still feeling well, in order to help stave off the time when you’re at your limit and at risk of melting down. Of course there may be reasons not to use those coping mechanisms at times; I wouldn’t stim in an interview for example. Still you can push back or avoid meltdowns by defending your tokens even at times when you don’t feel you need to.

To illustrate, let’s say that 50 is full of tokens for me. When I’m full up, it’s easy to ignore things that cost me just 2 or 4 tokens, e.g. a noisy coffee shop or having to sit still. When I’m full, that’s just a loss of 4 – 8%. When I’m running low, say 10 tokens, that same 4-token coffee shop noise is almost half my remaining tokens. In that instance, I feel every noise all the way to the bone. And those small token losses sneak up on you and add up quickly. I might think the coffee shop noise isn’t bothering me, and stay to enjoy my latte. An hour in that noise might suck away 20 or more of my 50 tokens without my realizing it. That puts a major damper on any other activities I had planned for the day, because I’ll be going into it with significantly fewer tokens than I thought I had.

If I had instead used my earplugs in the coffee shop, I might have lost only 5 or 10. A much more reasonable number. But to do that, I have to be on guard against token loss even when I’m feeling good. I have to put my earplugs in when I’m doing fine because I know I’ll be glad I did later.

So that’s today’s tip, defend your tokens when you’re feeling good so that you still have some left when you’d otherwise be feeling bad. A little proactive wariness can stretch your resources further and maybe head off a meltdown later in the day.

1 Comment

  • Jester Queen says:

    What this means in a practical way at our house is that I listen hard when my kids play. I can’t let them amp themselves up beyond a point that they can handle. It’s very clear to me as their Mom when they are heading up-up-up that cliff side, and I don’t know how many times a day I have to go tell them to “cool off”, “take a break gang”, or “settle down”. They both have a high hysterical quality to their laughter that precedes a crash, and they both crash HARD when they go too far!

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