Energy accounting

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It’s a game changer for Leigh East’s family.

The single most important technique my family and I implemented following various neurodiversity diagnoses (including autism, ADHD and dyslexia) was Energy Accounting. This simple concept proved a game changer for each of us as individuals and for the family as a whole. 

The idea is to keep one’s energy levels as high as possible, while recognising there will be multiple drains every day which we need to counteract. By understanding our energy gains and drains, we can better manage our daily experiences.

The more tired we are, the shorter our tempers, the easier it is to make mistakes and the more quickly emotions can run out of control. This is true for everyone, neurodiverse or not. Our younger children could understand this too when they saw mummy and daddy also struggling. 

Energy accounting uses a scale to keep track of where each person’s energy level is at any moment in time and uses this to help predict how things might alter as our environment and interactions change. We can then choose which, if any, accommodations or strategies, we want to put in place to help manage this.

The scale must be personal and relevant to the individual. When we began thinking about this in our family, the common metaphor of a petrol gauge was not at all useful for our young children. Instead, we tried thermometers, a metaphor we had used when they were preschoolers, for other reasons. They quickly understood the higher the temperature marker, the better they felt, but marbles in a jar would have worked equally well. Bank accounts, slices of pie, a stash of spoons are other metaphors which people use.

The key activity when setting up this system is identifying specific activities, events, and people who move us in one direction or the other. This has proved different for each of us and has changed over time too. As we became more familiar with the system, it became easier and faster to make appropriate accommodations.

This idea of difference is important. In our house, for example, two of us are drained by social interaction, and the other two are generally invigorated by it. My sound sensitivity means I find many environments draining, no matter how much fun I might be having, but the other three are not affected by this at all. Two of us struggle with crowds, two do not. All four of us re-energised by spending time with our pets. My husband finds cooking relaxing. I can’t focus long enough to complete a meal without stress. So he’s the cook in our house. I am re-energised by a walk, even in the rain, but one of our teenagers always needs wheels—she can’t bear walking anywhere, but she does find the gym energising. Nothing could induce me to go to a gym.

Monitoring in this way did feel a little artificial at first, and it does take time to get used to. Eventually we stopped needing to think quite so literally, and now they are teenagers we rarely need to refer to the scales. We talk in broad terms of drains and gains in the moment. We all have quite a good grasp of what each other’s challenges are, and we can point out when someone is showing signs of becoming energy poor. The fact we have agreed to do this for each other reduces irritation and resentment when something is pointed out. In truth, these days we are all far more willing and able to signpost that our own levels are dropping before it is even pointed out. Our ADHD teenager still struggles with this as additional interoception difficulties have made this trickier to recognise the signs, but she too is getting there.

As a family initiative, Energy Accounting has proved a game changer. Don’t get me wrong, with three neurodiverse people in the house, it’s never going to be straightforward, but at least we all know and understand each other’s specific drains and gains. We all ask for accommodations when we need them, and everyone understands that it’s in everyone’s interest to support those accommodations. Long may it last.

Leigh East
Author: Leigh East

Leigh East
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Leigh East is an Autistic parent of two teenagers and a neurodiversity advocate through Autilistic.com.

Website: autilistic.com

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