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Splines Theory: A Spoons Metaphor for Autism

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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. . .

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 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?

Luna Lindsey (link: is an indie author of speculative fiction. Her blog covers many topics, including books, writing, feminism, humor, geek culture, political philosophy, weird photos, and random musings.


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