inertia: a property of matter by which it continues in its existing state of rest or uniform motion in a straight line, unless that state is changed by an external force.
Autistic inertia is common but little-known and poorly understood. It lies somewhere on the borderline between catatonia and executive dysfunction.
Inertia doesn’t mean laziness, or not wanting to do things, or procrastinating – although it can look like all of those things. But sometimes it also looks like mania, obsessiveness, or even a burst of motivation. Because inertia just means difficulty changing state, and that original state can be anything. The simplest explanation for how inertia looks and feels: sometimes an autistic person ends up doing something they don’t want to be doing, or not doing something they do want to be doing.
There are a lot of different possible causes and contributing factors for inertia, and they can be different for everyone. Part of what makes it difficult to understand or explain is that there can be endless possible causes, which can all lead to apparently the same result. I’ve been thinking carefully about this for a while, and I’ve come up with a list of the most common causes for me.
Energy levels. This is the most catatonia-like one. It’s hard for me to switch from low-energy to high-energy activities, or vice versa. This is part of what’s happening when I’m sitting at home and I need to get up and go out. My brain is stuck in low-energy mode and I can’t properly imagine or work out how to switch into high-energy mode. It’s also what happens when I start doing something like tidying up my room, and I end up spending hours frantically cleaning and organising things. In that situation, I’m stuck in high-energy and it’s easier for me to switch to a brand new high-energy activity, than switch to low-energy mode and take a break.
Time anxiety. I have trouble describing this, but it’s a really big thing for me. I think I have trouble with medium-term time perception. I can abstractly imagine periods like months or years, and I can instinctively understand very short times like minutes or seconds. But in-between lengths of time like hours or days are difficult for me to get my head around. So if I need to start an activity that is going to last for a medium-term amount of time, I can’t properly imagine how long that is. Which makes me really anxious and confused, and so I can’t start the activity because I can’t imagine it.
Decisions. This is probably the most obvious executive function-related cause. Sometimes it’s just really difficult for me to make a decision. Especially if the choices are arbitrary, or uncertain, or I feel like I’m missing information, or any number of other things. One obvious example of this is when I have a chore to do which has an unspecified time limit. For example, I know that I need to wash some laundry at “some point today”. But because it’s not specific enough, and there’s no other way to make the decision, I end up not doing it at all. I can be thinking “I need to wash laundry today”, and sitting around doing nothing, but it’s still difficult to actually make myself do it even with nothing else in the way.
Memory. Another definite executive function thing. My working memory is disproportionately weak, considering my long-term memory and general abilities. If there’s nothing to prompt or remind me about a task, I will often completely forget about it. This can even happen with things that I really want or need to do. It’s not that I deliberately ignore it or pretend not to think about, so that I can avoid doing something. It’s just that it genuinely doesn’t cross my mind unless there’s some kind of external cue.
The simplest and most obvious thing that affects my susceptibility to inertia is general stress. Stress from overload, anxiety, tiredness, or any of the millions of things that can bother me. When I’m stressed for any reason, I’m more likely to have trouble with all of the contributing factors to inertia. Executive function and memory gets harder because I have less cognitive resources to spare, it’s harder to handle any additional anxiety because I’m already anxious, it’s more difficult to override my instinctive energy level sticking when I’m busy stressing about other things.
Having other people around can also sometimes make things worse. I’ve written before about how other people overwrite my edges very easily. When I need help to get something done, that’s great. But when I need to do something a specific way, that’s a problem. If I want to do some university work on the dining room table, and someone else is tidying up – I can get ‘stuck’. Instead of my own energy level getting stuck, the other person’s energy level gets in my way. I have trouble doing a low-energy activity like sitting and working, if there is someone doing high-energy things around me.
I don’t have any easy solutions (sorry, if that’s what you were hoping for). The first step is to accept that inertia is a thing that happens and can’t be completely solved or taken away. But there are two main things that help stop me getting stuck, or get me un-stuck if it happens: prompts, and planning.
Prompts. This one can help with all the causes to varying extents, but most significantly problems with memory. I leave reminders for myself when there’s something I need or want to do. I write lists of things I like doing, to check on when I’m bored. I conscientiously keep a to-do list for even minor tasks. I am in the routine of automatically looking at the calendar when I go into the kitchen. All of these help me dodge around the fact that my brain isn’t very good at remembering things by itself.
Other people can be very valuable prompts, too. They can remind me of things, and can be very helpful when I’m stuck on a decision. If a decision is completely arbitrary, then often the easiest solution is to just get another person to make it for me. It’s not mentally taxing for them, and it makes whatever I’m doing much easier.
Planning. This is really important to help with making decisions, and also the mysterious ‘time anxiety’. When I need to make a decision, I work through it as systematically as possible. I break things down into small parts and logically figure out the pros and cons and the best solution. Doing that helps me avoid the fact that I’m not very good at: a) knowing what I want, or b) instinctive or common-sense decisions.
Planning helps with time anxiety by breaking things down into small enough parts for me to imagine. If I’m going to be spending five hours at a family gathering, I get as much information as I can about exactly what will be happening. That allows me to imagine things in smaller parts, like “half an hour in the lobby with drinks”, and “the speech will last ten minutes”.
Inertia is a weird and subtle thing. It was yet another trait that I didn’t initially realise that I had. But realising and accepting that I do experience it has helped me deal with it. It’s never going to go away, and I probably wouldn’t want to – sometimes it’s handy to accidentally spend all day cleaning! But at least I can now understand what’s happening when I don’t seem to be doing what I want to be doing.