November 9, 2022

An Introduction to Autistic Inertia

Often feel like you are frozen instead of being able to start or finish a task? You might be struggling with Autistic Inertia.

Lydia Wilkins

Guest Writer from Mademoiselle Women - Documenting life on the Autistic Spectrum

An Introduction to Autistic Inertia

When it comes to the word inertia, it’s one of those words that can sometimes be banded around for no real reason, or even incorrectly - the same as how buzzwords can be created. (Think about it - we are all probably aware of how the term narcissist is used on social media, for example!) When you Google it, there are two different definitions. Originating from Latin and English, Inertia means that there is a ‘tendency to do nothing or to remain unchanged’. The other definition is related to physics - that there is ‘resistance to change in some other physical property’. When it comes to Autism and all things Neurodiversity however, inertia takes on a whole other meaning - just like when it comes to Autistic Burnout vs… well, Burnout. How does Autistic inertia impact productivity, and how can we tackle this head on to deal with it at its root?

What is Autistic Inertia?

Like Autistic Burnout, Autistic inertia has only really recently gained traction as a more mainstream type term - but is not necessarily recognised everywhere. In a post by @theautisticlife on Instagram, Autistic Inertia is “… described as a difficulty in starting and stopping an activity or changing course.” The post then later adds that “it often feels like we are frozen or in perpetual motion and can’t make ourselves act as we intend to…” The post further details what this may look like - such as difficulty with task planning, making transitions, as well as regulation of attention. If you look at other Inertia related resources, a lot of the same themes will keep coming back up. Trusty Reddit has a whole thread about this! Several users describe staring into space, for example. Another thread - from Quora, although confusing inertia with hyper-fixation, indicates that inertia can come from stress, overload, and/or exhaustion - and that there is some debate as to whether this is also connected to executive functioning. Executive functioning is “…Skills [that] are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully”. Executive dysfunction, as in a disruption to managing or executing these processes, often affects neurodivergent people, and for example, there is similarity between autistic inertia and task paralysis which is also experienced by ADHDers.

Notes on Burnout

There is some debate as to whether Autistic Inertia is connected to burnout - so, with that caveat in mind, we felt it was important to explain as well what this meant also. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), Burnout is an “occupational phenomenon” - and is not classified as a medical condition. This results from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed, characterised by 3 facets - feeling depleted/exhausted, negative feelings towards the job, and reduced efficacy. It is important to note that this is different from Autistic Burnout - which is essentially where an Autistic person has had to mask and to compensate for so long that there is not enough time to allow for self regulation and reset. This obviously also has an impact on work and productivity but as Autistic burnout is so severe, all consuming and takes such a long time to recover from, Autistic inertia is not relevant to this in comparison.

The impact of Autistic Inertia on Productivity

Generally speaking, Autistic and Neurodiverse individuals are kept to a different standard of what it means to be productive - in an non-Neurodivergent society that also favours non-disabled individuals. For the purposes of this piece, we are going to go with the definition that productivity is the ability to complete a task - rather than imposing a rigid standard otherwise. Autistic inertia would impact productivity in a number of ways - and one such example of this would be difficultly with starting or initiating a task. (Task Initiation is taken as a part of executive functioning a lot of the time - and difficulty with this is sometimes used as part of Autism diagnostic assessments.) Stopping an activity can also be difficult - and this could overlap, for example, if an individual has been interrupted, or is experiencing a form of a hyper-fixation. Struggling with stopping a task may prevent others from being completed, and may also become more of a serious issue if an individual experiences interoceptive issues. Changing course may be required, such as if there is an interruption - but it may mean that having to re-start a task later on results in it not getting done, too.

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Tips For Dealing With Autistic Inertia

How can we deal head on with the concept of Autistic Inertia, as well as protecting ourselves? Not every method will work for everyone - so it may be worth trying several different options, rather than sticking with one particular option. That you’re reading this already speaks volumes - because being self aware is always the first step!

From the Reddit thread referenced earlier: one user suggested adding an element of adrenaline, in order to kick start a task. Another user also described how they like to listen to audio books - to provide consistency when switching between tasks, in terms of the background noise. Finally, another user also pointed out that for them, Autistic inertia is often a warning sign that they may be about to experience burnout which is always important to be aware of. Staring down the gauntlet of a particular task when you have so many others to complete can feel beyond daunting - and it can feel overwhelming, to the point where you just wish to shut everything off, and ignore it. Breaking down a particular task into smaller chunks can aid lessening that feeling - and may well make managing more feasible, too. And while Autistic inertia can describe being frozen at any point in a task, there are actually lot of strategies that work for ADHD’ers around task initiation which could help with Autistic Inertia as well.

Lydia is an Autistic UK-based journalist. She is particularly passionate about disability and social justice issues. She is also the author of the Autism Friendly cook book which will be released later on this month, but is now available to preorder. She is also the host of the Aut-Cuisine podcast - all about Autism and Food (& which Tiimo sponsors!) You can find her blog and newsletter here

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