Updated: Sep 13
By guest writer Jackson McMahan
Imagine an object at rest. Now, try to set it in motion. It's difficult isn't it? This difficulty of shifting from a state of inactivity to activity is at the core of what we term “inertia” in the world of physics. Interestingly, there is a similar concept in the realm of autism known as “autistic inertia.” This somewhat hidden feature of autism, often overshadowed by more visible symptoms, can significantly impact the quality of life of those affected.
Autistic inertia is influential enough to affect how autistic people approach even the simplest tasks by making the transition from one activity to another or even starting a new task a herculean feat. Then once they get going, they often have trouble stopping. They may think, “I’m just going to watch one more video,” then suddenly they look up and several hours have passed.
In this blog post, we will explore autistic inertia, describe its potential impacts on autistic individuals, and provide some strategies for coping with it. By gaining a more comprehensive understanding of autistic inertia, we can help create strategies for support, and broaden our collective understanding of the complexities of autism.
Unveiling Autistic Inertia
Autistic inertia is a term coined by the autism community to describe the difficulties that autistic people often face when trying to start, stop, or switch activities. Similar to how an object at rest tends to stay at rest, and an object in motion tends to stay in motion, people experiencing autistic inertia might find it hard to switch from one state to another.
This challenge extends beyond simple procrastination or reluctance. It's an innate struggle to shift gears and can apply to a wide range of activities, including simple daily tasks like getting out of bed, or transitioning between tasks at work or school. Autistic inertia can make it challenging for individuals to start or complete everyday tasks, such as personal hygiene, meal preparation, or household chores. This difficulty can lead to feelings of frustration, stress, and a sense of being overwhelmed.
It’s impossible to talk about autistic inertia without mentioning executive functioning challenges. Autistic inertia and executive functioning are closely related, as both concepts involve difficulty in cognitive processes and self-regulation. Executive functions refer to mental processes that enable individuals to plan, organize, initiate, and complete tasks.
Executive functioning challenges commonly seen in autism include difficulty with task initiation and task switching. These challenges can contribute to autistic inertia, making it difficult for individuals to overcome the inertia associated with starting or transitioning between tasks.
Some of the limited research available suggests that some autistic individuals may experience autistic inertia attributable in part to differences in motor control. There may be socio-emotional factors involved, or other mechanisms yet to be identified. The bottom line is that regardless of the causes, what some autistic people experience as “autistic inertia” can have a pervasive impact on their quality of life.
The Impacts of Autistic Inertia
In general, difficulties with initiating tasks can make it harder to manage time effectively and stay organized. This can result in missed deadlines, appointments, or other important responsibilities, leading to increased stress and anxiety.
Autistic inertia can hinder performance in the workplace or academic settings. Difficulties in initiating or switching tasks may lead to decreased productivity and difficulty meeting expectations. This can affect self-esteem and overall satisfaction with work or educational achievements. In the worst-case scenario, it can lead to a job loss or a lack of success in educational attainment.
Autistic adults may find it challenging to initiate or participate in social activities due to inertia. They may want to reach out to friends and know they need to maintain their important relationships, but they can't – or it just doesn't occur to them. This can limit opportunities for social connections, friendships, and community involvement, potentially leading to feelings of isolation or loneliness.
The experience of autistic inertia can contribute to mental health challenges such as depression, anxiety, or low self-esteem. Persistent difficulty initiating or completing tasks may lead to negative self-perceptions and a sense of being stuck or unable to achieve personal goals. It often leads to a sense of chronic frustration.
Finally, autistic inertia can negatively impact physical health. People who don't struggle to stop and start activities have a hard enough time engaging in regular exercise, maintaining a healthy diet, getting enough quality sleep, and following medical recommendations. Autistic inertia makes these tasks more challenging, which can lead to adverse physical health outcomes over time.
Strategies for Managing Autistic Inertia
Dealing with autistic inertia can be difficult, but several strategies can help if you struggle with this part of autism. It's important to remember that what works will vary from person to person, as autism and autistic inertia can manifest differently for everyone.
Figure Out What Problems are Leading to Your Inaction
A good starting point for managing autistic inertia is to figure out what problems are making it difficult for you to act. Difficulty initiating action can come from different factors such as motivational/emotional issues, organizational challenges, or mobility problems. The issues you notice determine how you should tailor your support strategies. For example, if motivational or emotional issues are affecting your ability to act, then address tasks that cause stress, anxiety, or aversion.
Perform Tasks in an Appropriate Environment
Our environment can sometimes affect our ability to complete tasks, so find or create an environment that facilitates productive behavior and designate it for completing tasks. For example, if you work better in quiet environments over loud ones, find a quiet place to complete your tasks. This strategy focuses on knowing what conditions lead to your most productive behavior and finding somewhere that consistently works for you.
Lower the Initial Hurdle
Sometimes the reason you can’t start a task is because the first step seems really difficult, if not impossible. Or maybe you can’t figure out what that first step is. In those cases, try finding ways to make starting that task easier. For example, you can try breaking the task into smaller steps and approach it using those smaller steps.
Reduce Physical, Social, and Mental Barriers
If something is creating a barrier between you and completing a task, address the barrier as soon as possible. The barrier in question can take many forms, like objects creating a mess, the number of steps a task takes, or deciding what to do next. Regardless of what barriers are blocking you, reduce or eliminate them so you can make completing tasks an easier process.
Find Your Motivators
Everyone has different motivators that encourage them to complete tasks. For example, wanting to take care of yourself motivates you to have a healthy lifestyle. Other people may be striving for additional independence. Others find that the sense of accomplishment they experience after completing something hard makes them feel so good about themselves that it reinforces doing it again. Discover what motivates you and apply it to tasks you must complete.
Find Ways to Maintain Continuity
Continuity, which in this case is the ability to work on a task without being interrupted, can be beneficial for autistic people. It allows them to continue working on tasks they prefer not to do. In the world of executive functioning, this is referred to as habit stacking, which is a useful tool for creating new habits by leveraging the things you already do with little effort.
Replace Negative Thoughts
If you keep thinking about how you’ll never complete this task, then chances are, that task will not be completed. Negative thoughts about our inability to act will reinforce those negative behaviors, so if you notice negative thoughts appearing in your head, try to replace them with positive thoughts. For example, instead of thinking about how you’ll never complete this task, think about how you will overcome this roadblock and complete it. Visualize what it will look like or try to feel in your body what it will feel like when you succeed. Keep your thoughts focused on what you can do rather than what you can’t, and that will encourage you to complete your tasks.
Minimize Pressure and Self-Imposed Expectations
To continue with mental challenges, excessive demands, pressure, and self-imposed deadlines can increase stress and exacerbate initiation impairment issues. Instead, find ways to reduce the pressure and self-imposed expectations. When you find what works for you, apply it whenever the pressure and expectations begin stressing you out again.
Ask Someone Else to Help You
If you find yourself stuck on something, then try reaching out to someone who can help. The help could take the form of them offering advice to you, working nearby to create a more supportive environment via body doubling, or performing the task with you. Whether it’s generating ideas for a paper, self-care, or doing housework, finding the right person to assist you can put you on the right track.
Seek Practical Assistance Over Conventional Tools
Research suggests conventional organization and memory tools, such as alarms and calendars, may be less effective for autistic people who struggle to start tasks. Because of that, it is more advisable to seek help from practical assistance, such as reaching out to friends or family, over those organization and memory tools, at least in the beginning.
In conclusion, autistic inertia, although lesser known, is a significant feature of autism that affects the lives of many autistic people. Its impact ranges from daily routines to social interaction and manifests when struggling to initiate tasks, transitioning between tasks, and knowing when to stop. While it can lead to feelings of frustration, overwhelm, and underperformance, there are effective strategies to manage this challenge.
By understanding and acknowledging the existence of autistic inertia, we are making a crucial step toward helping autistic people lead more fulfilling and productive lives. Figuring out what problems lead to inaction, providing an appropriate environment, lowering the initial hurdle, reducing barriers, and figuring out motivators are just some of the coping strategies that can be employed. By expanding our understanding of the complexities of autism and the hidden challenges like autistic inertia, we can be better equipped to provide meaningful support and interventions.
“No Way Out Except From External Intervention”: First-Hand Accounts of Autistic Inertia, Karen Leneh Bucke, et. al. Frontiers in Psychology. July 13, 2021.