Inertia

Here is an article I wrote about inertia a very long time ago, only slightly edited. It has a bit of my personal experience and a general description of what is meant by 'inertia' as well as things that hinder and help in dealing with problems like this.

Personal experience

I have a great deal of difficulty getting anything done, even when I want to very much. I often just sit around doing absolutely nothing, or continue doing one thing, for extended periods. I just can't get my brain and body "in sync" with my goal. It's just impossible for me to get started. On the other hand, I can easily get "stuck" in what I'm doing and be unable to stop. The harder I push myself or someone pushes me, the harder it is for me to get going. My friend long ago labeled this problem "inertia".

Some personal examples:

  • I don't eat until my stomach hurts, but when I start eating I don't stop until either I'm uncomfortably full or all the food is gone.
  • I don't pay bills until the day the company is going to disconnect me.
  • I very rarely wash my dishes, clothes, or do other housework, but when I get around to it, I can sometimes get lots done.
  • I often avoid doing something as simple as changing the channel on the TV.

I used to think the problem was laziness or procrastination, but it appears to be more complex and it's not deliberate. Even when I am highly motivated with enormous consequences (positive or negative), and know what to do and how, I still don't do it. Instead, I sit and think about it or plan exactly what I am going to do in minute detail. Conversely, sometimes I get started, even on something I don't particularly enjoy, and can't stop it. If I were just lazy, I don't think I would do so much at times.

From my discussions with other autistics and their families, I have found that this problem is relatively common in people of all functioning levels. Some others even used the word "inertia" to describe their problem as well. However, despite the frequency of it, there is very little written about inertia-like problems in autistics.


What is inertia?

In physics, the term "inertia" is defined as:

  1. An object in motion tends to stay in motion unless stopped or changed by a force;
  2. An object at rest tends to stay at rest unless changed (moved) by a force.

In this context it is not an object that has inertia, but a person's attention, thinking, or movement. We tend to stay on one task (or no task at all) unless stopped (or started) by a major outside force or tremendous act of will. It applies both to getting started on a task or focus as well as stopping once engaged in something.

Inertia applies to very small movements, as well as to broad areas. Someone with inertia may get "stuck" halfway through a movement such as pouring, causing them to spill. They also may repeat an action indefinitely, as with self-stimulatory behaviours such as rocking, tapping, or hand flapping. Inertia also applies to a person's focus of attention. Something as broad as a major topic of interest, or as narrow as fixation on the wheels of a toy car can be a result of inertia.

Symptoms of inertia include difficulties with:

  • "getting going", starting a task, getting one's body in motion.
  • changing activity and/or focus.
  • adjusting movements to rapidly changing surroundings.
  • performing a task without full understanding of what needs to be done and why.
  • stopping attention on desired focus (i.e. attention itself is "in motion")
  • starting and stopping movements.
  • changing subject of focus.
  • changing tasks.
  • doing something despite knowing how and wanting to.

Inertia can be one of the most disabling characteristics for an otherwise very able autistic person. Despite being intelligent and motivated, inertia can make it difficult to impossible to get anything done. It can even be the primary barrier to independent living. On the other hand, inertia can have benefits. The ability to hyper-focus allows one to work for extended periods of time - often work through the night and ongoing for several days. Topic-oriented inertia can lead to a great depth of understanding of a particular subject. When inertia is focused in the desired direction, it can be nearly unstoppable. If the disabling aspects can be accommodated or overcome, inertia can be a great asset.

Inertia is an explanation for why it's difficult to get things done rather than an excuse not to do them. Blaming yourself will only make it even harder to do things. So even without scientific evidence to support the existence of a distinct "inertia" difficulty, at least it may make you feel better. Besides, acting on difficulties as if the trouble is neurological often works better for people who fit the inertia profile than strategies which are supposed to motivate. Seeing the difficulties as disability related rather than a character flaw allows for a different and gentler approach to your difficulties.


Things that make it worse

Inertia appears to be a combination of attention shifting and motor planning difficulties. It seems to be neurological in origin, rather
than a result of depression, defiance, laziness, or procrastination. Although they are not the complete explanation, there are a number of factors that may affect the degree of inertia.

  • Decisions: Many autistics find it difficult to prioritize and organize incoming information and internal desires in order to make decisions. If you can't make up your mind, it is impossible to get started on one thing.
  • Perfectionism: Perfectionism can definitely be a factor in inertia, although it is more related to common lack of motivation. If a task needs to be done perfectly then it can very easily become overwhelming.
  • Depression: Although inertia may be exacerbated by depression, it also occurs independent of mood. If apparent inertia comes on suddenly or worsens, then the possibility of clinical depression or dysthymia should be investigated.
  • Disorganisation: This can be a problem with prioritizing, as well as with planning and sequencing. It is hard to figure out what to do, in what order, or what is most important.
  • Overwhelm: Sometimes the size or complexity of a job is overwhelming, making it impossible to sort out. When overwhelmed it is difficult to impossible to even think about how to begin a task, let alone do it.
  • ADD/ADHD: Like inertia, ADD causes difficulty controlling the focus of attention. However, the tendency in ADD is for the attention to wander while in inertia it tends to get "stuck". There is some crossover of symptoms, and although they don't appear to be the same thing, ADD can definitely make inertia worse.
  • Motivation: One of the defining characteristics of inertia is that it occurs even when the individual is highly motivated by great threats or rewards. The individual with inertia often wants to do other things, but just can't seem to do them.

Things that make it better

There are no cures for the problems caused by inertia. The only possibility is to work with and around it, rather than against it. None of the following suggestions are guaranteed to work, and many are even contradictory. Just pick one or more that seem to suit you and adapt them to your own needs.

  • Schedules: Often when something is in a regular schedule, inertia applies more to the schedule than to the individual task - the tasks within a regular routine are more likely to get done. Be careful not to over-focus on the act of scheduling rather than doing things.
  • Start off easy: Choose a task which is not a major issue. Make it as easy as possible to accomplish by taking account of any sensory issues and breaking down the task into manageable pieces. Try not to make a big deal about it or apply a lot of pressure.
  • Shock: Some people may need to be shoved rather than prodded in order to change focus. Alarms or timers can help for this purpose. Other people, such as irate parents or partners, are good at "shock therapy". It is probably not healthy to be shocked often (besides which, the shock value would likely wear off), but for the really important things it may be the only reliable method.
  • Set a timer: Aside from the schedule and shock values of a timer or alarm, it can help to know that one task does not go on forever. Timers can help with transitions by giving your brain time to get used to the idea of changing focus. Timers can also work for limiting unpleasant tasks. If you know you only have to do something you don't want to do for a specific amount of time, then it may be easier to get over the initial resistance. Timers can also help prevent exhaustion from doing a single task for too long.
  • Accompaniment: Sometimes it is impossible to get things done while being 'watched' by another person. It may be best not to tell anyone else so you don't have to be accountable to anyone. On the other hand, some people find it easier to get things done if there is another person around. The other person may need to be occupied, or it may be okay if the other just sits there.
  • Rewards: Having rewards for the completion of certain tasks is helpful for some people. Rewards may not work for long, but may help for getting started into a routine. A good reward has to be not too difficult to achieve, immediate (at least initially), and highly desired but not irresistible. Rewards do not have to be par of an elaborate schedule or earning scheme, they can be made up on the spot. Punishments usually don't work and can be de-motivating. If you use rewards, don't back down. Delay the reward until the decided task is completed. You can have what you want - as soon as you're done.
  • Listen to yourself: If something doesn't work or stops working, change. Also try to listen to your body and your feelings when they tell you that you need to be doing something like eating or sleeping. Feelings of pain are a message that something is wrong and needs to be changed.
  • Use your motivation: Pushing on inertial tendencies will usually just cause them to push back. It is more important to do things that you understand the reasons and have the motivation to do.
  • Don't nag: Nagging (repeated, annoying, or unnecessary reminders) is likely to cause resistance to any of the strategies you may try to implement. An occasional reminder by someone else may help you stay on task, but these need to be carefully suited to your own difficulties and desires.
  • Medical treatment: If you have any physical or mental illness which causes lethargy, it needs to be treated before you can make much progress. Take all prescribed medications and investigate the possibility of any treatable illness.
  • Stop trying: If you really can't get started, do something else. Try doing something completely different, but not something that you are likely to get "stuck in". Don't forget to try the task again later.
  • Ease transitions: Allow a short, specific amount of time or other limitation (e.g. 3 more pages of reading) before changing tasks.
  • Use transitions: Catch yourself in transition times so you don't have to stop doing one thing in order to do what you are trying to accomplish. (e.g. Start a sink full of dishes when you get up to get a drink.)
  • Break it down: Try to break down the task into manageable pieces.