Autistic inertia is something that is widely talked about within the autistic community but hardly spoken about among professionals. Essentially, autistic inertia is the notion that when autistic people need to stop doing a task it can be difficult to restart and once we have started working on a task or project it can be really difficult to stop. It can also include difficulty doing something despite knowing how and genuinely wanting to do it, getting started on or completing a task without having a full understanding of the why behind the task, and difficulty with changing the area of focus.
Inertia can sometimes be the result of stress, exhaustion, or overload and where those struggles meet executive functioning is when it can become particularly tricky. In terms of executive functioning, autistic inertia most clearly plays into shifting focus, planning, initiating tasks, and regulating emotions.
From the outside, autistic inertia may seem to others like the person is being defiant, resistant, inconsiderate, or even lazy. It might seem that someone is resistant to complete necessary tasks simply because it’s too much to plan, start, and then finish the task. This isn’t because they are unable or are lazy, but because the execution and the steps getting there are just so overwhelming. This can especially be the case when an autistic person has taken a break or stopped for the day. It can be incredibly hard to start back on working on the task at hand.
Conversely, if an autistic person is engrossed in pursuing a passion, engaging in a hobby, or doing something else of interest, it can prove to be incredibly difficult for them to stop what they’re working on. Even if they are able to take a step back from what they’re doing, it might still be all they can think about. Autistic people can hyperfocus on things for hours, forgetting to eat, drink, go to the bathroom, or perform important tasks, if we’re engaged enough.
Both sides of the autistic inertia coin can prove to be difficult for different reasons. Obviously, if it’s really important for an autistic person to finish a task or complete a project, and they’re unable to initially start working or restart after taking a break, it can be quite time consuming and can lead to feelings of stress, self-blame, and inadequacy, to name a few. It can be so hard to know that you need to do something and literally be unable to do it.
On the other hand, if an autistic person is finding it difficult to stop a task, it can cut into obligations they may have to others or their environment, such as other tasks that need to be completed, attending important events, cleaning, etc.
Setting reminders and timers and other similar task-oriented supportive strategies have the potential to help in the case of autistic inertia, but it runs deeper than that. With autistic inertia, it’s just as much, if not more, about the steps leading up to the task as it is about the task itself.
Much like Newton’s first law, an object at rest tends to stay at rest, while an object in motion tends to stay in motion, unless changed by a force. A similar sentiment is true here as well. If an autistic person is able to plan out the steps they need to work up to and delve into a particular task, no matter how minute those steps may be, then the hope is they can keep that momentum going to see the task to completion. In this way, it’s the person’s attention and thinking that have inertia, rather than an object. In the case of inertia, autistic people either tend to either stay stagnant and unable to focus on a task until we are able to get started or we remain focused on a task until we are are stopped by another force.
Being able to write thoughts down and see them in a more tangible way, getting them out of oneself and onto paper can be a really helpful part of this process. Reducing stress by asking others for help in either completing certain tasks for you or helping you to break down the tasks into smaller steps may also be of benefit. Starting out by trying to complete an easier task first, having some company while you work (providing it doesn’t make you more overwhelmed), setting up rewards for yourself (I’m always a fan of dark chocolate), easing transitions (such as deciding to stop after two more pages), syncing up your transitions or tasks (such as deciding to start a load of laundry when you get up for a snack), and always listening to what your body and mind are telling you can all be some additional helpful ways of navigating inertia.
Taking the time to figure out what might work best for each person individually when they’re not experiencing a state of autistic inertia can be really helpful to plan for the next time they are experiencing autistic inertia. Everyone is different and it might depend on the individual task, but having a general plan in place is always a good idea.