Developmental, Individual differences, Relationship-based (DIR) Expert Training Leader, Colette Ryan, is an infant mental health specialist, a doctoral student in  Fielding University’s Infant and Early Childhood Development program, and a parent coach in the International Council on Development and Learning (ICDL) DIR Home Program. This week we discuss cognitive load, which can be thought of as sensory overload, as discussed in the podcast with autistic self-advocate Emile Gouws. We can also discuss it as challenging at too high a developmental level, as seen in ‘We chose play‘, episode 5. We can discuss how children might struggle in a classroom to listen and look at the same time, as discussed by Occupational Therapist Maude Le Roux in this podcast.

The Impact of Cognitive Load on Relating, Communicating, and Thinking

by Affect Autism

Spoon Theory

Discussing cognitive load and brain energy can get overwhelming for many families, Colette says, so she likes to use Spoon Theory to describe what cognitive load is. It was developed by a woman who was at a diner with her roommate, Colette shares, and the woman with a chronic illness described how it’s like having 10 spoons each day when she wakes up. If it’s a really good day, she’ll use only 1 spoon for her shower. But if she wakes up not feeling well with a lot of pain, it might take 5 full spoons to take her shower. It only leaves her 5 more spoons to get through the rest of the day. She has to budget her spoons to get through the rest of the day.

If we think about this concept for our children, Colette continues, it might take our children 3 whole spoons just to attend and sit in a hard chair in the classroom. They’re using so much energy just to sit in the chair. If they only have 10 to start with, and they use a spoon to eat lunch, and a few spoons to attend to sensory input coming in, they eventually run out and have none left for learning. So we have to determine where we want to spend our spoons, as Colette discusses in the DIR 101 and DIR 201 classes she teaches. You may have to accommodate their body, slow down, or use very few words to preserve your client’s energy.


Colette says that we know many people have different processing speeds. Different things can change our processing speed. If it’s a day where you had to use 5 spoons for your morning shower, your processing speed might not be that fast that day. Colette gives an example of coming to visit me from upstate NY to Toronto at 100 mph versus going 60 mph. In the latter example, she can process the journey by taking in the sights better than if she was excessively speeding. So if we play catch with a child, they may catch the ball but not know how the ball got into their hand if they have a slower processing speed. If we roll the ball, though, Colette explains, now they can see the process of how the ball got there.

Slowing down the action helps preserve their spoons. We want their brain energy to be spent on interaction, not on processing, Colette continues. I gave the example of so many people having had Covid where they have flu-like symptoms and/or brain fog and have to perform at their job of helping customers online, for instance. They can’t do that in the same way they could at their ideal energy levels, so if we think about our children being in that predicament daily due to their sensory processing challenges, we can begin to imagine how slowing down helps them. Our children may not process what we say instantly, so while we are jumping ahead, they may still be processing the sentence you said a few sentences ago so we may think they aren’t paying attention.

I shared another example of learning to play the guitar and how we start by learning chords by playing very slowly. If someone teaching us was playing very quickly, it’s hard for us to follow as a beginner. Colette explains that we can break down even something like playing with Thomas the train. We have to have the word recall of Thomas, then remember the colour of the train, then the body positioning of how to play the best way, and how much language to use with my play partner, then the visuals of how to play with the train. There are so many spoons that go in to just playing for some individuals. If they use up too many spoons during the play, something will have to give. 

What uses up Energy

In Episode 6 of ‘We chose play‘, Colette coaches me through an old Floortime video where I am playing at my son’s level then stand up. Colette pointed out how much more energy my son was using just having to tilt his head up to look at me. It’s something many people don’t even think about. Just working against gravity increases the visual field and takes up so much more spoons for processing. Having somebody directly in front of you can preserve some spoons for the interaction, where we really want the spoons to be spent. A child in a small, quiet space, versus in a large space, versus with noise of kids in other classrooms, or in the same room, versus outside at recess with the addition of children running all around you all pushes up the cognitive load on a child.

I gave an example of how Occupational Therapist Maude Le Roux explained to me that at her clinic the first time my son was there, he lay on his back on the floor to take in everything. It may have been too much work to stand up and have to be aware of the surroundings in that way. The floor against his back gave him the stability and sense of safety he required to maintain his cognitive load. Colette says that position is obviously something that works for the child, so use that when playing with them by laying down beside them. In a school, Colette offers, sometimes we forget that digestion takes up a spoon. It’s not something that we can see, but after lunch, it’s something we have to keep in mind.

Sometimes at school I’ll get a report that my son was aggressive or a bit dysregulated and then within 30 minutes he’ll have a bowel movement. He has the interoception to know when he has to go to the washroom now, but he is not yet recognizing that feeling of onset that is making him more aggressive prior to the bowel movement. Another example I thought of is how warm and overheated my son gets in the summer. His face is all red and he’s very flushed. He might get more cranky. It could just be his body trying to regulate. These things affect all of us, but we sometimes take for granted what our children are still learning.

Meaning Making

Colette thinks about when parents say things to her like, “but it’s just a shirt” or, “but it’s just a car horn“, or, “but it’s just around the block”. We all have our own emotional yardstick. A walk for us might be easy for us, but for a child who doesn’t know why we’re going outside, it’s hard to process. Why am I doing this? That might take up many spoons for the child. I talked about how I’ve been trying to get my son to walk around the block with me daily to get us moving and how he will protest. So we started making it about going to check the mail at the corner when he was expected a package one time. Now he understands why we are going for our walk.

I also will use a technique that Developmental Psychologist Dr. Gordon Neufeld talks about where you invite the child’s protest up front. So I’ll say, “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,” before saying that we’re going for a walk. Then I can say that first we’ll go for our walk, and then we will return to do that fun activity they want to do. I won’t use a behavioural approach of threats where we go for our walk or else you can’t play your video game. Colette says that will only cause the child to go for the walk to get their video game, rather than going as part of the relationship we share. And I added that if the child still doesn’t comply, you’ll be dealing with a tantrum trying to take away that video game.

I also explained that I shared with my son that we need to move our bodies to stay healthy and be able to fight off a virus. Colette says that this works for my son because he has the cognitive ability to understand that, but some younger children might not. They might, though, understand that while they’re walking, they found pieces of a puzzle and find more. When they get home they can now put the puzzle together. Instead of going for a walk, we can say that we’re going on a hunt. Maybe we go hunt for 5 gray stones for our hunt box, or 6 sticks, for example. My son’s school will do treasure hunts at their school as well. Another example might be a walk to the park that children understand because they love to play at the park.

We need to know that our spoons are spent in another way than another person’s spoons are.

Colette Ryan, DIR Expert Training Leader

Refilling Your Spoons

Colette says that there are ways to refill our spoons. For some, it’s eating a good meal. For others, it might be a nap, or drinking a cold glass of water. For some, it might be getting more sensory input, whether it’s proprioceptive or vestibular input, if that’s what you need. Occupational Therapist Virginia Spielmann talked about Sensory Lifestyle and how we can meet our sensory needs. Sometimes following the child’s lead could free up spoons for our children. When he’s starting to do math, he might fidget and avoid it, but if we bring in his Mario Kart Hot Wheels, he was into it and happy to do the math activity.

Following the lead usually tells us about the interest of the individual, Colette says. Colette says that if someone is trying to change a carburetor of a car, she’s clueless. But if someone relates it to how a sewing machine works, then she can understand and relate to it. While this might be more a psychological example of cognitive load that differs from sensory overload, as described in the KultureCity podcast, these are both examples of cognitive load. Colette suggests that we don’t think about them as psychological but as emotional. We all learn in the context of relationships, and this context has emotional context to it. 

If we are at the hockey game where there are back-to-back goals and the noise is overwhelming, we can weather through that sensory overload much easier if we are with someone we trust and feel safe with, Colette asserts. Having a sense of agency and being able to say, “No is also a factor in our cognitive load. Anxiety is a great source of cognitive load. If you are forced to do something that you don’t want to do, the relationship piece is gone, and you have no energy or spoons left except to fight to get through what you don’t want to do. Colette also wanted to add that giggling may not mean that someone is enjoying themselves. So knowing the person’s cues, and the relationship can be a way of refilling our spoons.

Developmental Overload

In episode 5 of ‘We chose play‘, I share the video of our son playing with his father and Dr. Tippy consulting with us about why our son leaves the interaction. His Dad was playing with a construction vehicle in a symbolic way, but our son was still doing object play. When Dr. Tippy asked why our son left the interaction, I said he didn’t like it. Dr. Tippy stressed that it was more than that: we were coming in developmentally above where our son was capable of playing at on the Functional Emotional Developmental Capacities. When we play, we always are moving up and down the developmental ladder from regulation through engagement, interactions, to shared problem-solving, imaginary play, and emotional and logical thinking, but we can’t go where we haven’t reached yet.

Parents are so often concerned with academics and expect their children to be able to do so much at higher capacities than where they are at developmentally. Dr. Glovinsky gave the example of how many parents think play is about playing with the soldiers or the blocks, but that’s not play, he said. He gave an example of a child standing on a chair and so he guided the parent to make that the game where they played on the chair, under the chair, around the chair.

I described how I see this in the ICDL weekly parent support drop-in, where parents keen on Floortime and relatively new to Floortime, come in and describe their child as being much higher developmentally than the child is most of the time. If most of the time, the child isn’t engaged and in continuous back-and-forth circles of communication, then we’re not working symbolically with them, we’re building up those earlier capacities first. But if the parent is always coming in symbolically, the child will be in overload and be having meltdowns or at least be dysregulated.

The beauty of knowing Floortime and knowing development allows us to know what’s going to lead us to those academics that are so important to families. There’s a reason why individuals play. It’s through play that we learn executive functioning skills like planning, task initiation, time management. All of those things are the things we need in order to learn, and we learn them in play. 

Colette Ryan, DIR Expert Training Leader

Play in Development

It’s so important that we provide, allow, and facilitate play, Colette says. A child playing by themself is great to give us time to cook or do paperwork, but we want to see our kids be able to play with another person. Can our kids do pretend play with someone else? When we start playing, Colette continues, in the first two capacities, we use sensory play: things that move, light up, or make noise, for example (also including mouthing or banging toys, etc.).

Next they’ll do functional play at capacities 3 and 4, where a toy is used as it was intended. However, some children may have non-traditional functional play like my son’s object play that I discussed in the Little Scientist podcast, where he was experimenting with cause and effect as he dropped toys behind the bed. Colette said that is working on skills for executive function later on that he might use in a science class.

In capacities five and six when there is symbolic play, there’s now a story. The dinosaur is going on a hunt to find food at Capacity 5, and at Capacity 6 you can pretend the eyeglasses case is a dinosaur coming to get you: “Rawwr!” We need to think about how we can support the child in going through development, and conserving the spoons so development happens in the easiest way so they can move up the developmental ladder so that the learning that parents are so concerned about can happen.

I brought up the Executive Director of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN), Julia Bascom‘s recent blog about ‘functional play’ and how we need to be asking what’s functional to that child. It’s a fine line when we follow the child’s lead that we don’t impose a neurotypical definition of what’s ‘functional play‘. Parents may expect their children to play with toys they played with as children in the same way, where our kids do not. Colette said that’s another beauty of Floortime is not trying to make a neurodivergent child neurotypical. We play with what the child is interested in. Our job is supporting the individual in their developmental capacities in how they’re doing it and not how we want them to do it.

And if we were trying to get them to do it our way, it would use up so much of their cognitive load because it would be so uncomfortable, Colette reassures. Safety takes a lot of spoons and the child would go into protection mode. Part of that safety in our relationship is us being able to attune to the child and know when they’re not comfortable. Colette also stresses that ‘safety‘ doesn’t mean only, “I’m not going to run across the street in traffic” or put your finger in an electrical socket. Safety means feeling comfortable in a situation, such as being a really loud place, but feeling safe because you’re with me and I know you’ll help me through it.

This week’s PRACTICE TIP:

This week let’s think about ways in which we might be putting extra cognitive load on our children. Let’s figure out how to free up more spoons for them.

For example: If you have the TV on in the background everyday while your child is in the room, is that making it harder for them to focus, play, or think? Harder for them to respond to you? Harder for them to realize they have to go to the bathroom? What if we are forcing them to wear uncomfortable shoes, socks or maybe winter hats or mittens in the cold weather?

Thank you to Colette for finally distilling this idea of cognitive load that we’ve discussed so many times in various contexts, but never really named and examined. I hope that it made sense to you and helped you understand how to interact with your child in ways that preserve their spoons. If you found it useful and helpful, please do share it on Facebook or Twitter and feel free to share relevant experiences, questions, or comments in the Comments section below. Stay tuned for the next podcast in two weeks on gross and fine motor skills with Occupational Therapist and DIR Expert, Keith Landherr.

Until next week, here’s to choosing play and experiencing joy everyday!

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