Have you ever been able to focus on a task for hours, while also experiencing difficulty with starting said task?
If so, you may have experienced the increasingly-researched phenomenon known as “Autistic Inertia”. It’s the name given to the commonly-experienced difficulty in starting and stopping tasks, especially in neurodivergent individuals.
What Autism and Inertia Feels Like
- Transition challenges relating to difficulty with starting/stopping tasks
- Difficulty resuming activities after interruptions
- No control over actions despite desire
- Indecision, anxiety, or challenges with planning or starting tasks
- Time blindness
- Mind and body feeling separated
- Indifference over task urgency or task itself
- Motivation challenges
- Being able to focus on one thing for a long time easily once started (This can potentially be a major strength!)
Some of this may sound similar to Demand Avoidance and there’s a reason for that! It’s possible that there are multiple ways inertia could present in autism, and Demand Avoidance could be one of them (5).
Labels can be helpful when it comes to building skills or finding solutions, but knowing that it’s a common experience with neurodiversity can also be incredibly validating. More research needs to be done in this area, but finding general ways to recognize and describe Autistic Inertia is a HUGE start!
Enjoying this article? This post is also available in the Neurodiverging Store as a downloadable, easy-to-read PDF, with a table of contents, bibliography, and a BONUS suggested reading list. Click here to learn more!
Causes and the Relationship to Autism
Exploring the link between autism and inertia can help in identifying causes and triggers for neurodiverse people.
There’s also the possible shame-fueled pressure to function at “neurotypical levels” leading to dread and autistic burnout. This makes it even more difficult to gain momentum when you’re already feeling depleted.
Additionally, neurodiverse-related challenges with executive functioning, or with transitions and changes in general, could contribute to Autism Inertia. Other mental health conditions (3) or individual anxiety responses to demands (4) can also explain inertia on an internal level. Environmentally, factors like distractions, deadlines, pressure, nearby people, or sensory comfort could help or hinder Autistic Inertia.
The cause behind Autistic Inertia is different for everyone, but one thing that is certain is that it is NOT your fault! It’s the way neurodivergent brains function instead of being a “moral failing”. Understanding this is invaluable when finding ways to work with your autism without shame!
Impacts of Inertia
Autism can impact the way we work and adding in inertia can influence the things that are needed to maintain the best quality of life.
Identifying the ways Autism and Inertia interact can guide you in finding a lifestyle, career, and routine that works best for you. Some of the physical and mental effects of Autistic Inertia that have been reported (2) include :
- Self-care challenges
- Social relationship difficulties
- Work and income impacts
Autism Inertia may cause challenges, but it can also be a sort of superpower. Being able to focus intensely on something (especially interests!) (2) is an amazing ability to have. But, like all superpowers, there’s a sort of trial-and-error process that comes before mastery!
Work With Your Autism AND Inertia!
Finding success or happiness NEVER happens “despite” autism. It’s a part of people's identity and working with your neurodiversity is way more effective than working against it.
Autistic Inertia can be a strength, but it also comes with potential challenges with day-to-day activities. Some techniques to work with your inertia are:
- Planning your day around energy levels and completing things in one action block once focused
- Creating a routine (it may take time to get used to or to find the right one)
- Having a running to-do list, visual reminders, or a notetaking method to stay organized and help get started
- Setting timers or tracking duration times to help with time blindness and future planning
- Having activities (walking, showering, knitting, etc.) to act as a transition after maintaining inertia for an extended period
- Designating a distraction-free area or time block to keep focus
- Creating accountability to start tasks through body doubling groups or friends
- Setting realistic and sustainable daily goals that are compassionate while also working toward your long-term goals
These strategies could work great for some, while not working at all for others. And that’s okay!
No one solution works for everyone and some don’t work right away. The secret is to have self-compassion (1) for everything you feel and do. This doesn’t mean that goals can’t be set or that things can’t improve, but having kindness for yourself will keep you motivated through the high and low parts of growth!
Inertia Is Just the Start
Autistic Inertia is nothing to feel guilty or ashamed of, it’s part of neurodiversity and is more common than you think!
It’s natural to feel that inertia is “your fault”, but it’s the way your brain works and not something that can be controlled. But, what can be controlled is the response and adaptation created to work with your autism and inertia.
It may be hard to get started, but it’s not impossible with a little help and maybe a sticky note or two!
Author Bio: Amairani Asmad is a freelancer with a B.S. in Rehabilitation and Human Services. She is a strong advocate for diverse communities and uses her own experiences to write inclusive content.
(1) Bluth K, Blanton PW. The influence of self-compassion on emotional well-being among early and older adolescent males and females. J Posit Psychol. 2015;10(3):219-230. doi: 10.1080/17439760.2014.936967. PMID: 25750655; PMCID: PMC4351754. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4351754/
(2) Buckle KL, Leadbitter K, Poliakoff E and Gowen E (2021) “No Way Out Except From External Intervention”: First-Hand Accounts of Autistic Inertia. Front. Psychol. 12:631596. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.631596. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4351754/
Furfaro, H. (2018, July 25). Conditions that accompany autism, explained. Spectrum | Autism Research News. https://www.spectrumnews.org/news/conditions-accompany-autism-explained/
(3) PDA Society. (n.d.). What is demand avoidance? Retrieved August 19, 2022, from https://www.pdasociety.org.uk/what-is-pda-menu/what-is-demand-avoidance/
(4) White, R., Livingston, L.A., Taylor, E.C. et al. Understanding the Contributions of Trait Autism and Anxiety to Extreme Demand Avoidance in the Adult General Population. J Autism Dev Disord (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-022-05469-3. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10803-022-05469-3