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.

Inertia in physics

In physics, the term “inertia” is the tendency for an object to stay in the same state of motion (including no motion) unless something external changes it. 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.

15 Responses

  1. i see no subscribe by e.mail on your blog. i have Aspergers and m.e . my blog.http;// twittter.supersnopper Linkedin.AutismDad

    • It’s great to see this information getting out there.I recognise my son’s inertia-always have..sometimes I can almost witness his brain freeze or be so overwhelmed he is left momentarily suspended .He needs space and a moment of time to adjust until he can assimilate and order everything and then he’s back ‘online.’ Breaks my heart to watch that struggle and I gather as much information as I can to protect him from NTs and others who can’t grasp this.Thanks for writing this..I hope there’s more to come on the difficulty.Schools/teachers need this education to protect all Autistic children from being burned out by their lack of understanding.

  2. Im aspergers and resonate with this SO much. As if Id written it. Its terrible when it happens. Totally disabling and hard to describe to people other than “im absolutely so whacked out, i can’t do anything” and they say “oh we all get like that sometimes” and i think “not like people like me do, you dont…”

    • And me but I’m 62 and in my time, well my parents anyway there was a stigma if you were judged to have such a disability , there wasn’t a term for it other than ‘backward’, plus girls then were expected to be more capable and were given responsibilities of having to look after younger siblings and do the housework, my mother had the same problem but was in denial. You’re right, NT’s don’t understand why we have such difficulty doing what they find easy, why our houses are so disorganized, we get labelled as lazy or accused of procrastination.

  3. I’m nerotypical and I relate to this on a deep level so im probably going to have to do a bogus amount of research now.

  4. I am autistic and inertia was always a problem. I used to get really frustrated and anxious about it, but now I understand that it isn’t something I am able to control as it is a part of my autism. This article is really good at explaining the phenomena.

  5. Absolutely – the biggest problem is that I can’t stop what I’m doing to go to sleep and hence will just spiral round the clock because I don’t sleep until I pretty much literally pass out. On the other hand it was really great for the PhD – I would work pretty much non-stop for a few weeks with it all loaded into ‘RAM’ so I could work really fast. Then I’d lie in front of fantasy TV completely inert for several weeks – rinse, repeat. Incredibly effective way to do research. Of course once the PhD is over and professional life kicks in I had to move on, can’t do that discipline because of the inertia. So it pretty much shapes my life, both my strengths and weaknesses.

  6. This really explains what I think my autistic daughter must be going through. The next step must be to find out how to find the focus on something positive to help her live her best life.

  7. Inertia is the most obvious and problematic of my autistic traits. I was always an incredibly still child, who hardly blinked. I’m quite fearful of doing things and avoidant, and I find it difficult to be out there in the world doing things rather than withdrawn into myself. I’m not sure if it’s a ‘freeze response’. I’ve been labelled as lazy by my adoptive family and rejected by them – they cut off all contact with me and disinherited me. I have always had a hormone imbalance that means my body doesn’t convert food to energy properly. Only just found out this is common amon women with Autism.

    • A history of adverse events and trauma seems to be associated with higher incidence of (or more severe) inertia. It can also make it really complicated to work out what’s going on.

  8. Im googling autistic inertia from within a spell of autistic inertia. I have many tasks I need to do, some I’d even like to do, but cannot for the life of me begin to do them. Been cycling through them in my mind for hours now but been able to begin.

  9. So do you have hacks, workarounds, etc.? I already k ew my son and I dealt with this..Need solutions.

    • There are few things that help, unfortunately. The main things are around externalising initiative. By this, I mean making your life so that other things prompt you as much as possible. So in the context of my life, this means if someone wants my feedback on a document, I recommend they make an appointment to talk about it rather than waiting for me to get back to them. Just having someone around can make a big difference.

  10. Autistic inertia is how I originally ended up being identified at the age of 31 in 2002.

    I had been laid off July 2001, then found myself fighting kidney stones and an inner ear problem at the same time and while perhaps you could say I might have had situational depression (maybe?) I had a lot of time to think, and realized I had the pattern of long-term behavior that had no emotional component I could identify where I couldn’t stop or start readily.

    Logic told me this wasn’t useful and I needed to figure out how to get out of the low pattern, so I used my church’s family counseling service. Unbeknownst to me when I started, the clergy in charge had suggested I was on the spectrum to the psychologist and that’s how thing’s happened.

    Ok, so then I knew that was part of it… well, there was that! At least it made sense in it being something with a reasonable explanation outside of will power, but no solution was suggested.

    Well, a couple years later I had to leave that area for work, and I made the mistake of not getting a copy of the records, which were destroyed after 7 years. Currently my work environment pushes me into sensory overload without taking special measures, so decided it made sense to get assessed again. Even more important since I’ve recognized I’m dealing with autistic burnout.

    Got first, an added ADHD diagnosis (I suspected for a few years about that) and sure enough, still autistic assessed.

    As far as I can determine, I have No anxiety issues outside of the long-term stress of my profitable employer laying people off without what seems a logical reason, and those “adjustments” continue with no end promised.

    I do work that requires shifting between more than 10 customers for cases, which involves a lot of research type activity. I find myself regularly rabbit-holing and spending too much time on a case when I need to address each one with a little shorter time spent.

    So yes, it affects me that way at work.

    Walking home from the store, I noted one of my steps with leg movement got stuck in mid stride for a fraction of an second and I likely looked like I’m drunk if someone saw it.

    I’ve been suffering a month (I think it is) of severe insomnia. It’s very visible that I’m going too at unmasked.

  11. Autistic inertia explains so many of my difficulties. I eventually start something then go on without stopping until I am dropping of fatigue, hunger, thirst or all three.
    I get to a place and I sit or wander around aimlessly unable to move to next place or mode of transport. I cannot start an essay or report, but then I cannot stop until it is finished (finished is very difficult to define too).
    These days my dog demands that I get up, that I feed and walk him and that I go to bed, otherwise I have no idea how I would function.

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