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Autistic Inertia: A Double-Edged Sword

If I wanted to explain how autism is capable of being simultaneously perceived as a supremely useful neurotype by many people, and a crippling disability by others, in just two words, "autistic inertia" would be a pretty good way to do it. A relatively unknown phenomenon outside of the autistic community, autistic inertia is a tendency that is either heralded as a "superpower" when it manifests in a positive way, or a crippling dysfunction that can border on full-on catatonia when it rears the other, less pleasant side of its visage.

Autistic Inertia Defined

Much as Isaac Newton's first law of motion, for which this phenomenon was named, states that an object at rest will stay at rest, and an object in motion will remain in motion, unless acted upon by an exterior force, autistic inertia refers to the autistic tendency to become intensely preoccupied with whatever the autistic person may be doing, whether productive or vegetative, and then become unable to switch gears as a result.

Long-time visitors may have noticed that I am very unpredictable with how I update - and this is often the reason why. Sometimes, I get lucky and autistic inertia (and real life demands) will allow me to obsess on my website to the point where I spend an entire day or even an entire weekend working on something for the website without taking a single break except occasionally to go to the bathroom (usually after ignoring the urge to go until it was too physically painful to do so any longer), and at the end of the day to eat dinner and go to bed. Conversely, there will often be entire multi-week periods where I can't quite bring myself to get anything website-related done, in spite of how much it pains me to leave this place without updates for long periods of time.

Autistic inertia is utterly pervasive, affecting just about every aspect of an autistic person's life to some degree. Even a process as simple as "get out of bed and put the tea kettle on, go back to the kitchen and pour water into the teapot once it has boiled, then come back in 3 minutes to pour the contents of the teapot into cup" is liable to get delayed at every single turn because the brain is just fine continuing to sit there until the heat death of the universe, caffeine or no caffeine. For some people, even getting to making the cup of morning tea/coffee can be a journey. If I have no urgent obligations, such as work, to pull me out of bed, I can easily spend hours lying in bed after waking up, even if I'm not sleepy and actually want to get up and do something.

Autistic inertia is something that neurotypicals generally have little to no awareness of, and has only just begun to become studied by researchers after the phenomenon became known via the autistic community. Much like executive dysfunction (a superficially similiar phenomenon), parents and other authority figures often assume an autistic person being affected by inertia is just being obstinate or lazy, not realising that what feels as simple as turning a sports car around for them, can feel like trying to turn around an overloaded tractor trailer trapped in tar.

Although unproven thus far, extreme cases of autistic inertia could be the cause of of severely "non-compliant" behaviour or even full-on catatonia exhibited by autistic people that are usually labeled as "low-functioning". One exceedingly terrifying study done on a teenage autistic girl, which used non-invasive monitoring methods to monitor her brainstem activity while she was continually asked to squeeze a handgrip device, showed that despite her making absolutely no physical effort to fulfill their request, her brain activity showed signs consistent with attempts at physical movement.

Interestingly, the only study that I was able to track down on the subject of autistic inertia revealed varying signs of catatonia in a number of the participants. This included everything from having difficulties starting tasks, to being unable to initiate conversations at social events, to completely involuntarily freezing up for prolonged periods of time.

I have yet to see autistic inertia explained relative to the Intense World theory of autism, but my personal theory right now is that the hyper-connectivity and the resulting tendency to hyper-focus on things, means that our brains are inherently less flexible and nimble. Autistic brains are always running in hyper-drive, whether or not we are over-stimulated or not..

As a result, much like it takes significantly more time and effort to get a bloated, bureaucratic corporation to change course when the CEO decides to shake things up, than it would a nimble startup company, it takes significantly more mental effort to redirect an autistic person's focus, whether or not they're reading a difficult mathematics textbook, or staring at a wall. Whereas a neurotypical can spend all day moving molehills as needed, moving from task to task can require moving mental hills for many autistics.

I also suspect, and there is evidence suggesting this, that autistics (and ADHDers) generally have a warped sense of time. Among many other things, this means that we have a tendency to genuinely want to do something, while simultaneously putting it off for weeks, months, years, possibly even decades. The voice that says "I need to do x" just does not become any more urgent with time, as it presumably does in a neurotypical's mind, no matter how much time goes by. I suspect this, and our reduced interest in social bonds in general, is why autistic people are often abysmal at keeping in touch with anyone.

The warped sense of time can become especially evident when an autistic person emerges from the inertia-driven enthrallment of plugging away for long hours on a project, especially if it's something related to their special interests It's not uncommon at all for autistic people to be unable to recall what day of the week it is, what time of day it is, or even where they're currently located. As a humourous example of the latter, while alternating between working remotely and working in the office during the late stages of the COVID lockdown, I would sometimes have to look away from my computer monitor to figure out which location I was in after becoming engrossed in what I was doing.

Living With Autistic Inertia

Due to the many pitfalls of autistic inertia, careful planning and time management are essential strategies if one wants to get anything done, on time at least. I personally have a life-long loathing of the thought of running on a strict schedule instead of just going with the flow, but I also know from experience that the only times I can ever be consistently reliable is when I am being forced to run on a schedule or other plan, such as at work.

As a child, I had a lot of help from my father foisting a daily schedule on me, to keep me focused and ensure I had everything done every day (homework, reading, tooth brushing, and so forth) and in a timely manner. As an adult, I found this sort of system to be significantly less helpful simply due to the fact that I do not have nearly enough willpower to fight my autistic inertia and keep myself on track and changing gears as needed, and because my shoddy time perception makes it so that I consistently either underestimate or overestimate how much time I need to accomplish something.

I am still far from taming this beast (and am not confident I will ever be entirely successful in doing so), so there may be a better strategy than this, but right now my best system has been to keep notes (.txt files in my Startup folder) where I keep track of everything that I need and want to get done. I then try to come up with liberal estimates for how long each task will take, when it should probably be done by, and whether there's reasons (convenience, time-saving, proximity, etc) for doing any tasks together or one after another. After that, I can try to maintain a day-to-day plan for the next week or so, with a list of tasks that need to be done that day.

After that, depending on how confident I am feeling in my ability to steer my metaphorical ship, I will either completely deny myself the right to use my computer until I have completed everything that I need to do for the day (or as much of it as is possible to do in the morning). This sort of rigidity is required because even sitting down at the computer to browse the Web while drinking my morning cup of tea can accidentally spiral into wasting the entire day.

Knowing that a task will need to be done ahead of time is immensely helpful, and ties in to the autistic need for routines and our legendary loathing of change, especially if unexpected. As an example, I generally have no problem going grocery shopping after work if I know ahead of time that this will need to be done, and will generally go to specific stores on specific days of the week to make things more comfortable. On the other hand, last week, I remembered on my drive home that I needed to buy eggs, and was unable to will myself to get off the highway on my way home to stop at the store. Going straight home that day was already the plan, and that was a mental mountain that wasn't going to budge.

If you're wondering why I said that I keep track of everything that I want to do, in addition to what I need to do, this is because, as mentioned, autistic inertia affects quite literally everything. The most obvious difference between autistic inertia and laziness, is that a lazy person who needs to do their homework would have no problem wandering off to play a beloved computer game, while an autistic person would struggle to get themselves to go do homework and to go play the computer game.

As I alluded to earlier, there is definitely a bright side to autistic inertia. Despite how much it can cripple one's ability to function, it can also manifest as one of the so-called "superpowers" of autism, by allowing an autistic person to work on something tirelessly and without any breaks. It's highly ironic to me that I have been praised numerous times for my ability to work long hours without breaks at work and elsewhere, when in actuality, it would quite literally require significantly more effort for me to have to stop, rest, and then return to working.

Some autistics have suggested that autistic inertia could be related to the phenomenon of special interests. I do not yet have an opinion on this matter, but both phenomenon are certainly characterised by so-called "mental inflexibility" and getting obsessively attached to something and being unable to change gears. And much like autistic inertia is a true double-edged sword, special interests can drive autistic people to achieve incredible things just as easily as they can lead to them utterly wasting their time away.

Michelangelo is arguably a very prominent historical example of both of these phenomenon. Along with the plethora of other signs of classical autism that he displayed throughout his entire life, he had an incomparable work ethic towards his art that literally consumed his entire life, making him often unable to take care of basic things such as sleeping, eating, and doing even the most basic hygienic tasks. Despite being considered the most brilliant artist of all time, he himself attributed his success to the unimaginable amount of work he put into his craft, as opposed to genius.

The long and short of it, is that autistic inertia is an unavoidable fact of life that an autistic person will always be stuck living with, for better or for worse. Left to its own devices, it can slowly gnaw away at one's life day-by-day, but if corralled, properly motivated, and tamed, it can be put to use as a mighty steed that will never tire.