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  • Writer's pictureHannah's Hope

Cognitive Load.

AffectAutism is a site that was created to educate parents on the differences that children with autism have and how imperative it is that their caregivers don't try to change them, but implement practices and activities that help them grow, like DIR/Floortime. DIR stands for development (we all develop differently and at our own pace), individual differences (we all have individual differences that include sensory systems that help us explore the world, and relationship-based (we all flourish in safe and loving relationships). Floortime means following the individual child's interests and emotions as they relate to playful interactions that are child-led so that they can feel safe to play, grow, and learn. The site's mantra is "we chose play" which highlights the mindset in which they wish to inspire for children to be allowed to play at their own discretion. They posted an article on their blog that was written by D. Brown titled "The Impact of Cognitive Load on Relating, Communicating, and Thinking" to describe the ways in which children, specifically those with autism, can get overwhelmed and distressed and the ways in which is can be noticed and monitored. Collette Ryan is an infant mental health specialist, doctoral student, and a parent coach. When discussing cognitive load, she likes to use the Spoon Theory to describe the concept. The woman who birthed this theory came up with it when she was at a diner with a friend and was describing what's it like to live with a chronic illness. She says that it's like having ten spoons every day when she wakes up and if it's a really good day, it'll only take one spoon to get through a task, but if not, it may take her five spoons, so she has to budget her spoons to get through the day. If you relate this theory to children, it might take them three whole spoons just to attend class and sit still in their chair. They use so much energy just to do that one task and if they only start with ten and have to deal with all the sensory input that's coming in, they may eventually run out and have none left for learning. In order to help them preserve their energy, you have to accommodate their body, slow down, or use very few words when speaking or encouraging them to perform a task. The first thing to discuss is pacing. Different people have different processing speeds and different things can change their processing speeds. If they had to use a bunch of spoons for their morning shower, their processing speed may not be that fast for the rest of the day. Slowing down an action may help preserve their "spoons," and we want their brain energy to be spent on interaction and not on processing. Children may not process what we say instantly, so while you may jump ahead to the next thing, they may still be processing the sentence you said earlier, which may lead you to think they aren't paying attention. The next thing to discuss is what uses us energy. Collette uses the example of playing on the floor with your child. If you start playing at the child's level then stand up, your child may be using up energy to tilt their head up and look at you, which is not something we would typically assume is taking up a lot of energy. Just working against gravity increases the visual field and takes up "spoons" for processing; having somebody directly in front of you will save some of that energy for interaction. One thing to do is to have your child lay on their back, which will give the stability and sense of safety that they need to maintain their cognitive load. Even something as regulatory as digestion, may use up a "spoon" because not only does the child have to work to get the food now, they may also struggle to realize when it's time to go to the bathroom, which in turn might cause the child to feel aggressive or dysregulated. We should also discuss meaning making, which is simply processing the question, "Why am I doing this?" You may have to give your child a reason for doing a task because it may use some "spoons" for them to complete the action. Take going on a walk for example, you may see why it is important to just get up and get moving, but they need a reason to go outside, like checking the mailbox when there is a package on the way or letting the dog go to the bathroom. Developmental Psychologist Dr. Gordon Neufeld uses a technique in which you invite the child's protest up front. This means using phrases like, "I have to tell you something and you're not going to like it" or "We're going to do something, but you won't want to do it" may be the best way to face the challenge head on. This way you can get done what you want/need to and then return to the fun activity the child wishes to do after. Next, we are going to go over the topic of refilling your spoons. The most common ideas for refilling spoons are eating a good meal, taking nap, or a cold glass of water, and for some, it may be getting more sensory input. Sometimes, just following the child's lead is the best way to help them "refill their spoons" because this will typically tell you about the interest of the child; knowing the individual's cues and the relationship (emotional context) can be a good way to refill that depleted energy due to cognitive load. Next, let's go over developmental overload. When playing with your child, you are moving up and down the developmental ladder from regulation through engagement, interactions, shared problem-solving, imaginary play, and emotional/logical thinking. However, your child cannot go anywhere they haven't reached yet. Parents can so often get concerned with their child's progress that they accidentally expect their child to do things at a higher capacity than where they are at developmentally. The last thing to cover is play in development. "It's important that we provide, allow, and facilitate play." There are six capacities to play and those are: sensory play in the first two capacities (moving, light up, noise makers), functional play at capacities three and four (using a toy as it is intended), and symbolic play at capacities five and six (creating a story with an object). Throughout these stages of play, parents need to think about how they can support the child in going through development and conserving the spoons so that development can happen in the easiest way and they can move up the developmental ladder and achieve the learning that they may be concerned about. Specifically when talking about functional play, it is important to ask what is functional to that specific child. There's a fine line between following the child's lead and imposing a neurotypical definition of functional play; try not to make a neurodivergent child neurotypical. The job of a parent is to support the individual in their developmental capacities and how they are doing instead of how we want them to do it. Safety comes into play a lot in these situations, especially when we try to get children to do things our way. They will often go into a protection mode, so parents need to be able to attune to their child and know when they are uncomfortable. It will be helpful to take all of these topics into consideration when trying to have your child complete a task or do something that you know they are not going to be happy about. Stay in tune with your child's triggers and try to pick up on what their body is telling you with their actions to ensure that they are nor draining themselves and are given ample opportunities to refill their "spoons" each day.

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