This is a re-blog of a post originally made on January 2, 2013. It has been slightly edited for grammar, clarity, and availability of external links, but not for content.
Autistic Inertia: An Overview
I was talking with my boyfriend yesterday about autistic inertia. I was describing how it affects me and bemoaning the fact that it’s so clearly a real thing that exists but I never see researchers or educators talking about it — just us Autistics. We know it exists, we know it’s a real thing, but it’s not in the official literature and no one is researching it.
After I described it a bit, my boyfriend remarked upon how similar it sounds to what people with Parkinson’s experience. Upon reflection, that didn’t surprise me too much since Parkinson’s is linked to dopamine and I’ve read autism research that talks about irregularities in dopamine and seratonin in the autistic brain. He did a little searching and found a study using Parkinson’s medications on autistic people that reported little improvement. But he also remarked that if the researchers weren’t specifically looking for improvement in autistic inertia, they may have missed some of the effects of the medication.
I promised my boyfriend that I would send him some links to things fellow Autistics have written about autistic inertia. At the same time, I realized it’s been a while since I updated my blog and so I thought I would just share the information here in case it’s helpful to more people than just myself and my amazing boyfriend who is always so willing to go out of his way to understand me better.
The first thing I ever read about autistic inertia was Anna Sullivan’s handout from her presentation at Autreat 2002: Inertia: From Theory to Praxis. Sullivan talks about the different manifestations of inertia and her descriptions make it clear that inertia is not one single thing. From what I can see, there are elements of executive dysfunction, of low energy/hypotonia, and of being out of touch with one’s body and emotions. And this is just the beginning, from what I can tell. One thing Sullivan doesn’t mention, though, is the idea that inertia is a difficulty in “changing gears.” You will see the professionals talking about “gear changing” issues sometimes and that’s a part of inertia, although not all of it.
Also, Sullivan doesn’t mention that inertia in autistics is not dissimilar to Newton’s inertia, in that not only do we have difficulty starting things if we’re stopped but we also have difficulty in stopping things if we’re started. As I told my boyfriend yesterday, when I start researching for a paper, I have a hard time stopping the research and starting the writing. So I will end up with enough research material for seven papers before I ever manage to make myself stop researching and start organizing my material and writing it out. It does mean that my papers tend to be really good since I know far more than I end up putting in writing. But it also means that it doesn’t matter how early I manage to start working on a paper, I will always be scrambling to finish it at the last minute.
Something very important that Sullivan points out is the unevenness of skill sets in autistics. That is, an autistic person might be able to do something easily one day but run up against severe inertia with the same task on another day. Autism isn’t something constant and steady-state but rather something variable, more like multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, or lupus. What we can do one day, we can’t do every day. What we can’t do one day, we might be able to do on another. This, in my experience, has been one of the hardest things for people around me to grasp. People seem to expect some sort of constancy and consistency in the people around them and I’m just not able to provide that steady, constant level of skill and ability. Some days I easily “pass” for non-autistic while other days I am quite obviously Autistic, no matter who you ask.
Sullivan ends with a suggested reading list. Since the article is older, one item on the list might be supplanted with a newer book. Sullivan lists “Punished by Rewards” by Alfie Kohn but I might recommend also reading (or reading instead) “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” by Daniel H. Pink.
Sullivan mentions a posting from Kalen and it’s really good so it should be on the to-read list as well: Inertia: by Kalen. Kalen writes about inertia from a more Newtonian perspective, including both getting stuck within a task as well as getting stuck trying to do a task. Kalen also mentions how disabling inertia can be in a person’s life. It was a relief for me to read someone else describing inertia that way because it has certainly prevented me from doing many things I really wanted to do and it’s hard not to feel lazy or inadequate about one’s own inertia without the proper understanding of what it really is and what it really means.
Kalen describes inertia as “a combination of attention shifting and motor planning difficulties” which definitely resonates with my experience. There are times when I am only able to act by willing my body to perform and just as many times when I cannot get my body to perform, no matter how much will I exert. When I lose the ability to speak, I can think about the sounds that I want to create. I can think about the ways my mouth and throat and lungs move when I generate those sounds. But I cannot will my body to speak. It is as baffling to me as it is to those around me, but I can think the words — I can even type the words — but I cannot speak the words when I am in a state of “speaking inertia.” Just as there are times when those around me feel I might never shut up, there are times when it seems I might never speak again.
Kalen offers a few suggestions for how to work with or around inertia, warning that not all suggestions will work for all people, nor will a suggestion that works sometimes for someone work every time or in every situation for that person.
Aspergia Jones writes about the idea that autistic “special interests” might actually be a form of inertia in her blog entry on her site, Letters from Aspergia. She talks about inertia as a sort of “stuckness” and mentions how much more we Autistics tend to get overtaken by “ear worms” — music stuck in the head. Or movies stuck in the head. Or anything stuck in the head. I have gotten stuck on a word or phrase and ended up repeating it over and over. In my opinion, yes, “stuckness” is inertia, whether it’s being stuck on a special interest or stuck on song lyrics or just stuck.
In the original version of this blog post, Aspergia Jones posted a comment:
Thanks for the link! You’re right, very very little is written about autistic inertia, even though it really is A Thing – personally, it can be more disabling than the social stuff. I think the research tends to concentrate on the things about autism that are a problem for or seem weird to neurotypical folk, like stimming and differences in social interaction. Things that affect us deeply but don’t affect those around us – like sensory/motor stuff and inertia – get a lot less press.
Although, just as with every other aspect of autism, it is easy to assume that all difficulties trace back to an autistic trait even when they don’t. On LiveJournal, ChaoticIdealism writes about Autistic Inertia & Sleep in a way that makes it clear to me that they are living with Non-24-Hour Sleep-Wake Disorder and assuming it’s actually a manifestation of autistic inertia. I can really relate to that since I originally thought that my own Non-24 Disorder was actually Autistic Burn-out. (That’s a whole different blog entry, but you can read about autistic burnout in Amanda Baggs’ excellent essay Help! I seem to be Getting More Autistic!)
Ali/Eliot writes about inertia and perseveration as two sides of the same coin in his blog entry, Stare Up at the Sky. He talks about how difficult it can be to make decisions — everything from big decisions like buying a new laptop to little decisions like what to eat for lunch. He talks a bit about how his partner, Kitty, does thing to make it easier for him to eat regularly and make other decisions.
This blog entry is no longer available. In the original post of this blog entry, Ali wrote a comment:
The post you’re referencing of mine is a couple of years old, and my thoughts haven’t drastically changed so much as refined a little. Inertia and choice paralysis (which isn’t a term I used in that entry but I think is self explanatory?) also happen for people who are perfectionists–and I’m that, too. The basis is entirely different, at least in me. Autistic inertia is most of what I listed in the post originally: needing external or internal prompting to begin or end a task (or part of a task), where task is a value-neutral word for any possible thing you could be doing. The perfectionist inertia is more about the choice paralysis: you can’t pick which option because one of them will be the wrong option or at least not optimal, so until you have all the data ever you’re stuck. I think my long example in the post about laptop purchasing is actually more related to perfectionism than to autism.
There’s overlap between the two, but thinking about them as separate things has helped me sort out what I can consciously change (the perfectionist stuff) and what I can’t or find very difficult to change (like remembering to eat if I’m distracted). And it’s been almost like there’s inertia about my inertia: when I can handle the perfectionist stuff, it makes it easier to brain together some of the physical inertia or get the song I’ve had stuck for over a week out of my head.
Andrea has a few tips on how to battle inertia in her blog entry Coping With the Inertia of Task Paralysis. But, as a commenter points out: “Great ideas, Andrea, but how the heck am I going to remember to do all that? I have a hard enough time remembering to remember and now I’m supposed to remember the reminders for remembering? Help! I’m trapped in an infinite regress!”
I’m sure there is much more out there on autistic inertia, but the above is a fair introduction to the topic. Please do discuss this in the comments! I really want to hear from anyone and everyone about inertia, whether it’s personal experiences or scientific (or even pseudo-scientific) theories. This is a topic that needs to be understood much better than it is and right now we are the ones hashing the ideas out. It’s up to us to figure out what’s going on and what to do about it.
Thanks for reading and I look forward to hearing from you all!
Thank you unstange mind for your blog. My son is currently suffering this in a very significant way, and your insight is helpful. He’s 15, diagnised with Asperger’s when he was 8 (so missed all the early funding) with an IQ somewhere around the 120 mark – bright kid! This year, he’s been at school maybe 15 half days (we’re just coming up for the end of the year in Australia) and has spent most of the last month in bed watching YouTube videos of people playing games and not even playing any of the games himself. We’re currently trialing some different anti-depression medication – he’s a super slow metaboliser of SSRIs so we have been significantly challenged to find anything he can take. But I am starting to realise that this is only a very small part of the issue. Some of the descriptions you provide around trying to optimise choices he has struggled with even in his early years (trying to find the ‘right’ name for the character he had to write a story about). The extent now is more catastrophic though – how to get him out of bed and functioning and being a part of this world and using that amazing brain of his to do whatever he wants. He’s lost 18kg in weight this year, and my focus at the moment is to try and get him outside a few times a week to stand in the sunshine, to play with the dogs and engage with me at least at some level. It’s hard as a carer to watch this degradation. I feel it’s more sever than what you are describing but would be keen to hear your thoughts.
Thank you again for writing!
My son is 26 yr old with autism, I understand some of inertia and how it applies to my son and student I work with at school. I just never heard of the term inertia. To the person who wrote about her son staying in bed, My son went through this for a period of time, but because of laying around and not getting out his vitamin D3 level dropped very low. I had him tested, and started using vitamin D3 and I also gave him Vitamin B12. It took awhile but his energy level increased. good luck!
Sarah, you are not alone. This is a very common problem for people on the spectrum and it’s not talked about enough. And as they get older it doesn’t get better. My daughter is 17 and my friend’s son is 28 both are unemployed and have little interest in finding work or hobbies. I don’t have much to say that is helpful as I am struggling with the same issue. I will say that diet has helped my daughter a lot in the past. She was doing much better when she was 100% gluten free, dairy free and very little sugar. As a teenager she’s fallen off and is not as strict as she should be and her health and mood shows it. My only advice would be 1. Really dive in deep while he’s young. Don’t get complacent or give up. You have a short window where you can have more control. 2. Really dive in deep as to what things may be causing his depression. There could be external factors that could lighten his load. For my daughter school was not a healthy place for her. I kept trying to work with the teachers but 7th grade was a year from hell. I finally removed her from school in March of that school year. Unfortunately, she had already suffered from post traumatic stress and still hasn’t fully recovered. Lots of love.. ❤️
Hi, Same experience with my 14 yo high functioning daughter. She’s now 15 and we’re about to embark on the new school year here in Canada and we’re alxious that she’ll miss another year at a critical point in her personal development.
I’m also very concerned about the dialogue that is emerging around developing a new tier of autism called Pathological Demand Avoidance, which sounds like inertia wth anxiety to me. With this crazy label I worry our kids will be “pathologized” when they need understanding of the complexity their brains. All of this seems to be geared toward the people who live with and support autism but not the people living with autism. Anyone have thoughts about this?
update: I just learned there is a Wikipedia page about autism/anxiety related inertia:
School refusal as a form of autistic inertia? Can we discuss this?
I’d like to dive into inertia obstructions. The autist’s inertia is a prized possession; once they gain traction – once their gear finally shifts into first – then this inertia is treasured as being elusive and hard-to-attain.
In my own life, if the smallest thing obstructs my momentum, this frustration builds. A keyboard button may get stuck and initiate hundreds of repeated commands, effectively blocking me from completing my task. Or I may achieve focus and then my boss diverts my precious inertia elsewhere, thus undoing it. Or I’ll finally get the momentum, and it’ll be put to stop by a slimy sales person masking themselves as someone important. This frustration builds and, if repeated, turns into a rage. There is a scuff-mark on my desk where I have slammed my fist over the years, not in an act of violence, but an act of protest at all of the obstructions that plague me each and every day. This is easily misunderstood by the onlooking neurotypical who sees your ‘childish’ behaviors as a sort of immature temper-tantrum and instigates a holier-than-though comment in passing about self discipline or control.
With your engines left in prized inertial momentum, amazing things happen, but this world we live in is so filled with obstructions at every corner and every turn. It’s a great source of frustration for the autist who simply wants to ‘go at their own pace’!
Surface level, the pace of an autist seems slow, full of thoughtful introspection and analysis. However, once “flow” or “inertia” or “drive” or “forward momentum” is allowed to flourish un-hindered, the autist is able to tap into the other areas of cognition and creativity in the background as their primary task continues unhindered. I feel this myself as a sort of exponential increase in dynamic brain energy (dynobrainergy!) where it builds and builds and builds and the autist becomes increasingly enlightened and their ‘crazy’ selves may express in such powerful ways – such as a procrastinatory work-break 8,000 word email in which 18 different tangents are tread and 6 powerful conclusions blossom.
We need these tangents and distractions only when they are initiated by self. Initiated by an external source, they obstruct the inertia and return the momentum-thirsty autist into a state of frustration.
I wrote this three months ago not realizing how relevant it would be in the coming months. Admittedly, I wrote it based on theories I had at the time regarding how Inertia applies to me personally. Those theories proved correct and true in my life.
Days after I wrote it, we got notice that our rent would increase 40%. My wife and (both atypical with different diagnoses) were thrust into mere chaos – any chances to follow my ideal inertia were swept from under me, and I was put into chronic survival mode.
Inertia has played out in my life in every single way as all that I knew as comfortable and safe was stripped away. I was falling apart – deep in the thick of burn out – and I needed something to cling to as a buoy in a storm.
I found Art. Writing and drawing. Mid-July, a story downloaded into my brain in a split second (as literal as this can happen!). I’ve started dozens of novella-type stories and finished none. But this one was different. It was raw and vulnerable and messy – it allowed me to shut off my pre-frontal cortex and let instinct and heart do the writing instead.
When I put logic, reasoning, and perfectionism in the backseat, I was able to access inertia at a whim. And that’s the point I am getting at. “Flow” and “Hyper-Focus” were commonplace for me during this very chaotic house-hunt and moving period (with work falling apart, bills past due, ER visits for our pet, wife’s health issues, my burn-out, laptops and cars and phones breaking, and more). My little 90 minute get-aways to the pub down the street to get lost in my writing … well, quite possibly saved my “life” – my securities (friends, marriage, job, etc).
Inertia isn’t just a tool, as I have found these past 3 months. It’s a coping mechanism. When we get lost in that state of Flow (which I call “Swell”) our brain processes and recovers in the background as we tend to our arts.
I have also found that Art takes many forms, and it’s quite possible we are by default Artists with extraordinary-yet-untapped potential. (Our “train of thought goes down many different tracks”.)
Inertia is a function of our brain that we absolutely need to let wander once in awhile, lest we wither!
Thank you for writing this. I’m 43 and only just diagnosed as an aspie 1.5 ish years ago. Until today I had never even heard the term autistic inertia…
I’m so overwhelmed… I can’t believe anyone actually has quantified and named what I’ve never been able to explain to people… I’m overwhelmed when I read your words… they describe me so much! …having spent a life thinking there was just something really wrong with me… to find other people who, could easily be describing me is… earth shattering. I can hardly breath.
….I have hours or days I can’t talk too!! …I hear the words clearly in my mind, but it’s like my mouth just won’t move… and I end up having to type to communicate…. I thought… I was just broken, or… some how refusing to talk consciously, yet that didn’t make sense since I was consciously trying to force myself to talk… I just never understood it all.
And all the times I WANT so badly to get up and do something… even a fun thing… and I just can’t seem to do it. Or when I try to go clean a mess and I see it all and I’m overwhelmed and I just… I freeze and can’t move and literally can’t figure out how to start the task, and then I panic and leave and just go back to bed… I’ve always thought I was… lazy or… I don’t know… I felt guilty and bad for it.
…to find out it’s… not my fault, and that it’s common umung “my people” is just… a tsunami of emotions that are good ones, but the feeling is so big it hurts. I have to go sob not for a while. …I hope you understand this, it’s not bad… it’s so wonderful it’s too much… which is good… but hurts… but is good…
I do understand. It’s such a relief to learn that the barriers we are up against are real and not just some signal of personal brokenness. Thank you for letting me know. Be well,