I don’t know who came up with token theory, but it’s a brilliant analogy for how we find many environments and situations draining and why they cause meltdowns. Every aspie (and possibly every non-aspie, but we don’t care about them right now) has a certain number of tokens at maximum. When we do things we’re uncomfortable with, we spend tokens to deal with it. When we run out of tokens, we can no longer cope, and we have a meltdown or have to get away from the situation any way we can. It can mean closing our eyes, shutting our ears, singing loudly to ourselves, or all of those things and more. Spending time doing things we are comfortable with (or obsessed with) allows us to regain tokens. We can even get to a point where we have hit our capacity and desire to do something draining for a little while.
Throughout my childhood and youth so far, I’ve developed a talent for social interactions. I use humor to put people at ease and appear to be the life of any party I go to, which is hardly any. I found, though, that when I would be alone again, I would find myself feeling very emotionally drained, and I didn’t understand why until I looked at it in light being an aspie with a set number of tokens. Social interaction can be fun, but it drains me very quickly. The same goes for any situation where I’m uncomfortable. Hunger, sleepiness, having to go to the bathroom, being confined, and frustration drain me quickly and impair my brain functions. I get agitated easily and lose my ability to do things like type and not bump into things. If I don’t have a chance to rest and regain my tokens, I become a very different person who isn’t easy to get along with.
Fortunately, I recover fairly quickly. A few hours on my computer playing games is generally enough to bring me back from the brink of a meltdown to full tokens again. I’m lucky enough to know what recharges me. Not all aspies understand how they tick enough to know what to do when they feel overwhelmed, and even I am not always aware of when my tokens are being drained until they are very very low. It’s a hard balance to maintain, but it’s a war we aspies fight every day of our lives.