Recently while working alongside an Occupational Therapist, I learned about something called ‘Spoon Theory’. This might sound like a fancy new way to sort cutlery, but it’s actually a tool that people with chronic illnesses use to measure the amount of energy daily tasks will take. The idea is that a person might start their day with 12 ‘spoons’ in the drawer, but having a chronic illness can cause fatigue that quickly uses up those spoons.
This is a little example of spoon theory, showing how each task uses up a certain amount of energy:
You might be wondering how does this relate to children who use alternative forms of communication (AAC)?! Well, have you ever worked with a child who seems to use their communication aid or book in bursts? At times they might seem eager to chat to those around them but after a period of time may become uncommunicative, disinterested or downright frustrated. Why? Maybe they’ve run out of spoons!
Using a communication aid involves a few more challenges than automatic speech. Looking at a screen or a book can be tiring; engaging motor skills and searching for a word can be time-consuming ; timing your response to a fast paced conversation can be an absolute nightmare! It seems fitting that aspects of spoon theory might apply to people who use AAC too.
I thought about how I could apply this to the children who I work with so I started by listing all of the elements involved in using an alternative form of communication… gradually this turned into something that I like to call Battery Theory!
Let’s say a child starts off with 12 bars of battery and each of the tasks below depletes a number of bars. Every child will be slightly different so this is just an example. One child might find the social side of communication easy, but become totally exhausted by constructing sentences. Another child might work the opposite way round; you may want to adapt the premise and apply it to a child who you work with. This is what my version looks like:
When a child has used their 12 bars, it’s likely that their ‘battery’ will be flat and they won’t be too enthusiastic about carrying on a conversation. It’s important that we begin to gauge how quickly a child may be ‘running on empty’…and perhaps more importantly, how we can a) help to conserve their battery, and b) boost their battery!
- Ensure access is the easiest means possible– Some children struggle with the fine motor skills required to access a communication aid. Instead, they might use fist pointing, a switch or perhaps eye-pointing. On a number of occasions I’ve had conversations with people who have said, “It’d be good if he could use his left hand as his physio target is to use that hand more”….But this is making communication so much more effortful, adding in an extra layer of difficulty! Always look for the easiest, least tiring access method! Some children may have multiple methods- e.g. they might use fist pointing when they have lots of energy and change to eye-pointing when they get tired.
- Ensure frequently used words and phrases are easy to access– I’m sure you’ve heard me mention core vocabulary before (those key words that are used again and again!)- These need to be readily accessible but also consider having a ‘Quick Chat’ page with frequently used stored phrases. You might want to include phrases that ‘buy time’ like “I have something to say” or “Give me a minute”.
- Motor planning– To prevent a time-consuming search for words, try to make sure that words that appear on multiple pages are always in the same location e.g. ‘more’ might be on the top right of each page. This helps the child to develop a motor plan so that retrieving a word becomes almost automatic!
- Allow time to practice new vocabulary or skills in 1:1 sessions or with a friend– Learning and using new skills can be tough, especially in a busy classroom environment. Setting aside some time to practice new skills in short bursts either on a 1:1 basis or with a friend can make it easier. Don’t expect a child to instantly use their new skills or vocabulary in conversations- it can take time to embed and become natural.
- Use a total communication approach e.g non verbal yes/no- Most of the children who I work with have multiple means of communication….and quite often, they will switch between these means within one interaction, depending on what’s easiest or how they feel. Try to find a non-verbal yes/no that the child can use for quick interactions (e.g when they are upset or tired). If a child has a high tech communication aid, always have a paper based back-up. Continuous screen use can be exhausting!!
- Provide Breaks- One thing that Spoon Theory has taught me is that if I want to replenish my spoons, I need to rest. This is exactly the same for Battery Theory! Think of it as ‘charging time’ and follow the child’s lead. Ask them if they want a break or build in ‘down time’ activities where the child can listen to music or read or book as a way of recharging!
I saw a quote recently that said, “Almost everything will work if you unplug it for a few minutes…including you”. I definitely think that’s good advice for both ourselves and the kids who we work with!