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
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
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
- stopping attention on desired focus (i.e. attention itself is "in
- 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 high functioning 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 hyperfocus
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
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.
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.
- DECISION MAKING: 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
- DISORGANIZATION: 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.
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
irresistable. 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
- 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
- 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
- BREAK IT DOWN: Try to break down the task into manageable pieces.
Well, I for one will definately buy your book when you write it! :)
This was a very interesting article. A lot of it applied to me. (I
*STILL* haven't unpacked from my move; I'm about ready just to throw
all my stuff out rather than unpack; I've got a couple "disconnect
notices" on my floor - no room on the table; I find I have to remember
to eat; etc...) This "inertia" is definately real and you write about
it much better than I could.
One more suggestion for people like me who don't pay their bills until
their electricity is turned off (or gas, like last month...They charge
$50 to reconnect it...):
Subscribe to an on-line bill paying service; schedule monthly payments
for your recurring bills that don't change amounts (rent, car payment,
etc) and then set it up to allow easy approval for your other bills.
Of course, right now I'm not motiviated to do anything. :( I've been
fighting (and losing against) these allergies. I've got to move
somewhere where nothing grows. When they are bad, I've got to take
medicine which puts me to sleep, in addition to not doing work outside
and not eating many of my favorite foods (allergic to milk, eggs, and
molds; just try to cook a meal without any of those; usually they don't
bother me, but when I'm fighting all the other allergies, they do). :(
The current "manefistation" is that my skin itches. All of it. :(
I feel miserable.
I guess my inertia problems have to do with prioritisation.
I'm not dying of any diseases, so why do the dishes?
I can still move around my house (in the dark even), so why clean up all the
trash on the floors?
I'm not dying of cancer, so why quit smoking.
I always thought I just had a high tolerance for the niggly things that
annoy other people.
Having a tag like 'inertia' might be useful.
It means as long as I can get the ball moving, it will stay moving.
I guess I have overcome my inertia in the past.
I used to about 25Kg heavier.
Then I finally decided to do something about it.
So I guess once I can get the ball rolling (make a life change) I can stick
Now, quit smoking, join a gym, fix the floor, fix the roof, fix the
guttering, fix the fence, tidy the house, install the waterbed, get my
various nigglying medical stuff 'fixed'...
Well now I feel overwhelmed.
Tryng to do stuff a bit at a time has never really worked for me.
But a big all encomparsing - shocking - change might just work.
Jeremy Thomson (unDXed AS)
Sorry getting spammed when I post so I'm using a bogus email address.
remove panties to reply ;-)