Autistic Inertia

This site is about autistic inertia. The main point is to provide updates and contact about my research on this subject, but I might also comment on other research I find. My personal blog is here: Wading Through Treacle. I started out putting my research stuff there, too, but I decided to separate them.

Inertia in physics

In physics, the term “inertia” is the tendency for an object to stay the way it is unless it is acted on by a force. This is commonly stated as:

  1. An object in motion tends to stay in motion unless stopped or changed by a force, and
  2. An object at rest tends to stay at rest unless changed (moved) by a force.

Autistic inertia

In this context it is not an object that has inertia, but a person’s attention, thinking, or movement. Autistic people tend to stay on one task (or no task at all) unless stopped (or started) by a major outside force or tremendous act of will. It applies both to getting started on a task or focus as well as stopping once engaged in something.

Autistic inertia may be related to other conditions that are part of autism or often accompany it, such as anxiety, executive dysfunction or catatonia. Some people experiencing inertia-type problems may prefer one of these terms to describe it.

What is autistic inertia like?

Inertia can affect very small movements, as well as broad areas. Someone with inertia may get “stuck” halfway through a movement such as pouring, causing them to spill. They also may get stuck in repetitive movements or thoughts. Inertia can be hyperfocus, such as a major topic of interest, or fixation on the fine details in the texture of an object.

Inertia can include difficulties with:

  • “getting going”, starting a task, getting one’s body in motion,
  • changing activity and/or focus,
  • adjusting movements to rapidly changing surroundings,
  • performing a task without full understanding of what needs to be done and why,
  • stopping attention on desired focus (i.e. attention itself is “in motion”),
  • starting and stopping movements,
  • changing subject of focus,
  • changing tasks,
  • doing something despite knowing how and wanting to.

How inertia affects life

Inertia can be one of the most disabling characteristics for an otherwise very able autistic person. Despite being intelligent and motivated, inertia can make it difficult to impossible to get anything done. It can even be the primary barrier to independent living. On the other hand, inertia can have benefits. The ability to hyper-focus allows one to work for extended periods of time – often work through the night and ongoing for several days. Topic-oriented inertia can lead to a great depth of understanding of a particular subject. When inertia is focused in the desired direction, it can be nearly unstoppable. If the disabling aspects can be accommodated or overcome, inertia can be a great asset.

I am working on gathering evidence that this is a real problem for autistic people. In the meantime, if this affects you or someone you know, try to be understanding. Blaming the autistic person will only make it even harder to do things. Acting as if the trouble is to do with voluntary control of movement usually works better than strategies which are supposed to motivate. Seeing the difficulties as disability related rather than a character flaw allows for a different and gentler and more supportive approach.

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