A Look at Autistic Inertia

The subject of autistics inertia is one that’s not widely spoken about within parent or professional communities. Autistic inertia more or less is the concept that when autistic people stop doing something it’s hard to restart, and when we have started something, it’s hard to stop. Inertia can come about from stress, overload, and exhaustion.

So what is the underlying process that causes inertia? I see it as a combination of several executive functioning areas: shift, initiation, planning, and emotional regulation. There is a debate within the autistic community about whether inertia is just an area of executive functioning. I however think it’s a good place to start even if it doesn’t answer the entire problem.

So what does autistic inertia look like? It can look like laziness or resistance to change. When an autistic person has stopped for the day, or taken a break, or taken a vacation, it can be difficult to restart. This may look like resistance to getting out of bed in the morning, not necessarily because the person is tired, but because the steps to doing so are overwhelming. For school-aged children, this may be ending a school day and coming home and resisting to do homework, not out of laziness or out of an inability to do the work, but because they’ve kept it together for the day. They don’t have anything else to give towards starting, planning and executing the homework.

But that’s just half the story. When you get started, for instance with something of interest, it can be hard to stop. Even if you walk away from the book you’re reading or the video you’re watching, it’s still consumes your thoughts, your conversation, and your movement. It can be a repetitive motion, that once you start you may not be able to stop. None of this is particularly a problem until you need to meet others demands.

So how can we help? It’s a combination of things. It may seem like something as easy as setting a timer, but that only deals with part of the issue. It’s not necessarily just starting but also planning the movements to start. I like to pre-plan the steps I need to do when I get up when I’m experiencing inertia. Do I need to take a blanket off? Do I need to lift up my body? Will I be cold? What can I do to fix that quickly? I will write or type these steps out, sometimes with the help of a trusted person. This way I can see step to step what my plan is. That’s before I ever attempt getting up. I know if I can just get moving I can keep moving.

This can work as well with my body is in motion. If I need to stop my thoughts, I may write things down that I know I need to do next, likely with another person. This way my thoughts can keep going and I don’t have to remember what’s next. I can take my one step and then plan how to make it happen, usually with alarms. All my alarms are set that allows me enough time to stop, plan and go. The more important the task is, the more time I give myself on my alarms.

Finally, it’s important to recognize the effects of stress on inertia. No amount of pre-planning, timers, or trying to work it out with trusted people will get rid of the inertia if I’m not also getting rid of the stress. For me, this often is asking for help when there’s too much going on. This may mean taking a couple of days to relax while someone else is taken care of what I’m not able to do. Sometimes it’s somebody else breaking down the task into manageable steps. Sometimes it’s backing out of agreed tasks. That is to say it really depends on the person, what’s happening, and finding a specific plan to work with their specific needs and their specific tasks.

Find out more on how to determine what’s causing inertia and ways to support the autistic person through it in our upcoming training.