Jenga Tower Theory of Capacity levels in Autism

Many years ago I came across spoon theory as a way to explain to others the available physical resources someone like me with a mostly unpredictable and invisible disability ( PsA) had. It was nice to have a metaphor that people could instantly relate to because enough people had heard of the concept.  The issue I had with spoon theory was that as an  Autistic it was much harder to define how much energy a task could take. One day it could be a minor amount and another day the amount would be colossal. There simply was not a standard scale of measure that was applicable to a spoon. In addition, the consequences of running out of spoons was that things just went undone. The consequences for an Autistic not having enough resources is incredibly slow mental processing speed followed by meltdown or shutdown, akin to emotional collapse. The difference in our ability to cope is unlike someone with a physical disability who would move more slowly or show some other signs of fatigue, our capability deficits are imperceptible from the outside.  A fellow autistic in a group I am in    ( Lisa Anne) proposed Jenga  Towers as more applicable to what happens in the course of a day of an autistic. I will try to do the analogy justice.

The blocks in the Jenga game are not all absolutely the same. The company deliberately makes minor difference in each block so that when stacked perfectly they will still have some blocks that can wiggle. The idea of the game is to start with a perfectly square stacked tower. Some include a box to help with stabilization. Players are to take turns delicately removing a block and placing it on top until the tower eventually falls over. Collapse can come at the hands of block removal or because the balancing act of having the weight and pressure over an increasingly unstable foundation passes the sustainability threshold. The last player to successfully remove a block without the tower collapsing wins.

Autistics might wake up and start the day with a perfectly complete and stable jenga tower (Considering the commonality of sleep issues this is not very often the case). Depending on emotional attitude and sensory issues ,getting ready for the day may only jostle a block or it might take a few away. Any abrupt or unexpected events might forcefully remove a block.  If you have played this game you know that even if the tower is stable , a particularly rough hand on block removal can set it wobbling or even tip it over. This is just like a rough or unexpected event in an  Autistics day. Some thought, experience, sensory impact,  just might be the one little imperceptible push that ends in a spectacular demolition or slow dissolve. The tower could be crumbled before the day even really gets underway.

Some of us learn to detect when our tower is wobbly and refuse to do anything that might jostle it more, others of us are not so lucky or capable. For me, if I meltdown early in a day I can sometimes recover enough to quickly rebuild a little bit of tower, but it is seldom stable. Sometimes I have to just take on the world without any structure or stability to rely on, just scattered blocks. At these times I might even  say “I am so scattered”. That simple statement hides the fact that I am going into situations that have expectations I am very unlikely to have the tools or mental capacity to handle.

I am getting better at recognizing when my tower is wobbly or I have taken out too many blocks too fast. I can make decisions to stop and not do things that I know will take too many blocks. I can search for ways to stabilize my wobbles or be extra gentle when I try to use a block. I can even plan for when I can collapse safely.

Luckily, unlike spoon theory where one runs out of spoons, autistics can find ways to add blocks back, or straighten out the stability of our Jenga tower.  If we take sensory breaks, or use self- regulation stimulatory behaviors or “stims” , if we lose ourselves in a special interest, or someone else takes over a concern about something that needs to get done.

I can picture my levels of stability so much easier with this analogy. I can say I just don’t have enough blocks for that or lets take this next thing slowly please because it will jostle my tower. I also relate to the term- I woke up kind of wobbly this morning.


[photo credit



Published by

Resilient Chameleon

Autism isn’t a way of life it is a way of being. The world runs on a mechanism of social interactions reflecting a shared construct. It’s a set of generally accepted and unspoken rules to help maintain order. Unfortunately this construct, although varying by culture, was created by those who have neurotypical brains. Within this structure the neurotypical majority has set the paradigm for those that do not share their neurology. To them “others” are seen as disordered because their values do not fit. It is time that everyone recognizes that autistic people are neither weird nor a threat. It’s time to show everyone who we really are and why our own needs and set of organizing principles are just as valid. We are not defective Neurotypicals we are beautifully wholly autistic.

One thought on “Jenga Tower Theory of Capacity levels in Autism”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s