Inertia: What it is and what we can do to overcome it
What is Autistic inertia?
Similar to ADHD Paralysis, Autistic inertia arises from executive functioning (EF) difficulties which can cause us to become both physically and mentally “stuck”; unable to move forward, start something new, or to switch to something different.
This can be owing, in part, to cognitive rigidity. Many Autistics struggle with being mentally flexible, so when we have our mind set on something, it can be very challenging to change course.
Autistic inertia can also happen due to challenges with task initiation. Due to executive functioning issues, we may know what we want or need to do in terms of the larger picture, but struggle to break it down into smaller, more manageable steps.
These are very familiar experiences for me on a daily basis. I can get hyperfocused on a task and really struggle to pull myself away, even when I know I should.
Perfectionism and difficulty breaking things down into manageable parts are also a daily struggle for me.
Apparently people with ADHD tend to start with the bigger picture and work our way inwards to the more specific details, whereas neurotypicals tend to do the opposite, starting with the intricacies and working their way out toward the final product.
This is definitely how my brain works (or doesn’t work, as the case may be). My brain is easily bored with the nitty gritty and just wants to fast forward to the interesting stuff, the end goal. Once I do start something, I just dive right in and figure out the details along the way.
This does not always work to my advantage.
When impulsivity overrides my Autistic tendency for attention to detail, I forge ahead without taking a moment to evaluate or contemplate, and that can end poorly for me.
Similarly if I have a relatively small job to do, like wash a few dishes, my brain is not satisfied with this. I will look at the whole kitchen, and if there is a lot of cleaning or tidying needing to be done, my brain tells me that I must do it all.
Allegedly there is no point in doing the dishes if the rest of the kitchen is messy, so it’s all or nothing. If I am feeling overwhelmed or tired, this is when inertia sets in and I choose option B.
This is related to cognitive rigidity as well, where we may engage in very black-and-white thinking.
What works for me
Okay, this might be an annoying answer for some of you, but this is really what works for me: checklists. Not just any ordinary checklists, however. I’m talking full-colour, illustrated, beautiful step-by-step checklists.
Remember that difficulty with breaking things down into manageable steps? That’s where this comes in.
This may not work for everyone, of course, but I find when I’m looking at a big job I often feel overwhelmed. Breaking it down into smaller tasks helps me take that first step — which is often the most difficult — getting started.
If this list is overwhelming, make one with fewer items, just the most essential tasks you feel are necessary to complete. Sometimes I get into a groove and end up doing more than necessary.
Other times I run out of steam and don’t complete the list, but at least I’ve gotten started, and there will be less work for me when I come back to it… (if I come back to it within a reasonable amount of time, which doesn’t always happen).
Some people find it helpful to take a photo of the completed project, or have an image of the end goal. Using my example, once the kitchen is cleaned just how you like it, take a picture.
This may help motivate you to return it to that state in the future, and also may help give you the bigger picture you need to work toward.
Be fair to yourself and others
Be realistic with your expectations of yourself, your loved one, or your employee. Different brains and bodies have different strengths and weaknesses, and if we all had the same strengths and weaknesses, then life would be very boring, and human biology would not be very diverse.
Autistic brains offer many strengths and assets, both personally and professionally. Reaping the benefits of those strengths means accepting that things others find easy (easily adapting to change, for example), Autistics may find difficult.
Conversely, there will be things allistics (non-Autistic people) find difficult that we find easy. It’s a trade-off. To support your employee or loved one to achieve their best (and to simply be comfortable and feel good about themselves) means accommodating their needs.
If you struggle with Autistic inertia, try to be patient with yourself. Beating yourself up will not help you “snap out of it”, in fact, it often causes us to become even more stuck when we put undue pressure on ourselves.
If you are becoming frustrated with yourself, try to take a step back and return to the basics. What has worked for you in the past, and can you try that again now? Take note of what does work and make it easier for yourself to access those strategies again in the future.
What works will be different for each person. It will depend on which aspect is creating the barrier, whether it’s getting started or maintaining motivation in order to complete the task, and which EF is standing in the way.
If you wanted to throw your phone or computer when you read that my advice was creating checklists, I do have a separate piece about managing executive functions which may be helpful.
For some, an external “nudge”, offer of support, or simply the presence of a trusted person is the best way to get unstuck, whereas others (myself included) can become quite irritable or feel thrown off when our flow is interrupted.
A reader (thank you, Camellia!) commented that removing barriers can be very helpful, and I couldn’t agree more. The fewer steps we need to complete to get started, the more likely we are to do it.
I had been meaning to do my laundry all weekend, but kept forgetting because it was up in my bedroom, and I spend most of the day on the main floor reading, working, spending time with my family.
Last night I put my laundry basket right on my stairs so I didn’t have to go back up for it, and also it would be a visual reminder for me. After walking my son to the school bus, I came back home and immediately put the laundry in the washer. Success!
I also have an article explaining ADHD Paralysis, which is — to my mind — essentially the same thing, so you may find helpful information there as well.
Warning: That article does suggest checklists as well, but offers a variety of other strategies which you may find more useful — and hopefully less infuriating (phones and computers are heckin’ expensive).
© Jillian Enright, Neurodiversity MB
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Buckle, K.L., Leadbitter, K., Poliakoff, E., Gowen, E. (2021). “No Way Out Except From External Intervention”: First-Hand Accounts of Autistic Inertia. Frontiers in Psychology, 12. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.631596
Kotowicz, Annie. (2022). What I Mean When I Say I’m Autistic: Unpuzzling life on the Autism spectrum. Neurobeautiful.