This post is part of my april autism series for autism acceptance month. Visit the first post here for links to the rest of the series!
Ever since I took physics and learned the word “inertia”, I’ve used it in an off-label manner to describe my own difficulties in beginning an activity, changing to a new activity, or stopping an activity that I’m interested in. I have a lot of inertia, I’ll say, so it’s hard for me to get started with something, especially if it isn’t something I have a lot of motivation to do (like cleaning the bathrooms!). Or: I am mentally like a very heavy ball rolling along and it can therefore be hard to stop my brain from pursuing its direction of interest (for instance, obsessive reading at the expense of all other good things like sleep). Then there is the emotional inertia: once I am angry at someone or about something, it is incredibly difficult to stop feeling that way – but once I am close to and grow to trust someone, it is equally difficult to damage my respect for and loyalty to them.
It always seemed to me that most people didn’t have quite so much trouble getting started on disagreeable-but-necessary tasks, or have to race to recalibrate to avoid panicking when plans abruptly change, or get stuck on one particular thing for quite so long. For example, no matter how far in advance I prepare for something, I am always struggling to finish it right as the deadline approaches – I just keep merrily going along in one step of the process and suddenly realize with horror I’m almost out of time to do any subsequent steps! Or I’ll set phone reminders and ask my husband to text me and think about it every day and still manage to “forget” to make a necessary phone call for weeks, because I don’t have the mental ability to initiate an activity I dislike without some type of urgent motivation (again with the dirty bathrooms…). Or I’ll find myself unable to read anything other than the one book I’m currently absorbed in, so I’ll just read it over and over and over again until the hunger for it finally abates (I read Lord of the Rings over twenty times when I was 18-20 years old, as a reference point for this. I just could not move on. And that was hardly a unique situation…)
A few years ago I tried looking up this concept online to see if anyone else had similar struggles, and to my great surprise I found that other people had noticed the same phenomenon and even given it the same name! There is something very reassuring about not being odd and not-quite-right all by oneself. From what I can tell, this inertia is related to several executive functions that can be impaired in autism, and is related to more commonly-referenced autistic behaviors such as rigidity, adherence to routine, discomfort with transitions, and perseveration. It is not due to laziness or stupidity; it’s just a result of the way the autistic brain is wired. And that is certainly a relief to hear when someone has spent years berating themselves because they’ve tried to change and couldn’t – and it also provides the accuracy of understanding necessary to design helpful solutions to the inertia problem. For example, no matter how many times I tell myself I need to get my lazy self in gear and clean the bathrooms, it isn’t going to happen and I’m going to be swamped in guilt and struggle to do anything else either – but if I tell myself something like, I’m in here anyway supervising a bath so how about I just wipe things down and see how much I can get done, I can usually get it taken care of and then have the glow of having conquered a difficult obstacle to build off of.
Anna Sullivan’s handout on inertia from Autreat 2012 is the most comprehensive description I’ve found of inertia, and takes the time to break down why it is in fact different from laziness or poor decision-making, and how it is possible for someone to not do something they actually want to do (personally, I have now or have had in the past significant challenges with four of her examples: I cannot make arbitrary choices, I used to struggle a lot with breaking a large task into smaller pieces, I cannot put myself into a desired mode of operation on demand, and I find it very difficult to move from a low-energy to a high-energy state). Reading through her list of practical tips was insightful as well – although I’ve stumbled upon a lot of those strategies myself, having them articulated objectively makes it easier to remember and practice them in the future. (If you click through to the article, note that the abbreviation AC refers to “Autistic and Cousins”, including other neurodivergent groups and individuals in the discussion).
Are you an inertial person? How does it affect your day-to-day life?