What is autistic inertia?
Some autistic people find it hard to get started on tasks. We can also struggle to stop an activity once they get started or to switch between tasks.
It is a bit like a train. It is easy to keep a train going in one direction, but it is hard to go in a different direction and starting or stopping takes a long time and a lot of energy.
Inertia is the word used in physics to describe how an object stays the way it is unless something external acts on it. Autistic focus can be like that – staying on one task or staying doing nothing until something else changes it (or huge force of willpower). That’s why we call it autistic inertia.
Examples of inertia, as described by autistic people
- I am sitting on the sofa and not doing anything. My book is on the sofa next to me and I want to read it. But I just sit there as though I’m unable to move for several minutes. It is only when my sister walks in the room that I find myself picking up the book and starting to read.
- I am lying in bed scrolling through social media on my phone. I am desperate to go to the loo. But I just can’t stop what I’m doing or get up and make the short journey to the bathroom. It is only when I am about to wet the bed that I use all my willpower and set my body in motion.
- I am thirsty and need a glass of water so I go into the kitchen. There are no clean glasses which means I will have to wash one. I didn’t see this coming and hadn’t built it into my plan of action. So I just walk out of the kitchen and continue being thirsty.
- I want to do my homework so I don’t get in trouble. The table is full of stuff. I need to find a pen. I need to find my schoolbag. I can’t remember exactly what I need to do. It gets too complicated in my mind. I don’t know where to start. So I just keep on watching TV.
- I know that if I have a big assignment like an essay that I should do a little bit each week. I make a plan for doing some work on it every Tuesday, but when Tuesday comes I just can’t get started. The next Tuesday I have twice as much work, so it’s even harder to start. This goes on and on until I’ve only got one day left to write this huge assignment and I have to stay up all night writing it.
- Sometimes I get so interested in something I will spend all my time doing just that thing. Even if I’m hungry or thirsty or tired, I just keep doing that thing. One time I was chatting to a friend online and I fell asleep with my finger on the z key so it just said ‘zzzzzzzzzzzzz’. That was kind of funny, but it’s also not funny because I needed to get up early the next day.
What impact can inertia have?
Some autistic people say that inertia is a big problem in their life. It means that they don’t always do what they want to do. It can mean that they let people down. It can mean that they need lots of help to get things done. They get told off in school or at work, and family members get angry because they don’t do things they’re meant to.
Having problems with getting stuck seems to be more common in teenagers or adults. This might be because it starts then, or it might be because younger children have more things done for them.
Inertia can be good in some ways. It can help you focus on one thing for a long time and become very good at it.
Inertia can be made worse if you are stressed, tired or your senses are overloaded.
I experience inertia, what can I do about it?
There are things you can do to make inertia less of a barrier. If you want to get an assignment done, set up a meeting with a friend so you can both work together. You don’t have to interact, just working side by side (or even on Zoom) can be very helpful.
When you want to do something new, try to attach it to something that already happens in your routine, and try to stay in motion. So if you want to walk the dog every day, do it straight away when you get home and still have your shoes on.
If it’s hard to start because the thing is big and difficult or because you’ve needed to do it for a long time, it might help to trick yourself a bit. So if it’s hard to stop being in bed but you know you need to get up, you can start by just wriggling one toe. Or if you have a big homework task, you say to yourself “I’m not going to do those Maths problems, I’m just going to open my computer,” and then “I’m just going to look at what the question was.” And you can do this a tiny step at a time until maybe you will start writing.
How do I explain this to my parents/teachers/friends?
There is not much understanding about inertia outside of the autistic community and therefore people can often misinterpret inertia as laziness or awkwardness. You can help people understand more about inertia by sharing this web-page or sharing the links shown below.
If inertia affects someone you know, try to be understanding. Blaming the autistic person will only make it harder to do things. See this as a disability with control of movement, rather than a character flaw. This will help you support the person better.
Where can I find out more?
If you want to learn more about autistic inertia, you can read blogs written by autistic people. Here are some examples: