My lower back screams at me to move. Pain burns through me like a wildfire destroys a forest, unstoppable, out of control. I know that if I just shift my weight, if I could just move a little, I could relieve some of the pain, maybe even forget about it for a little while.
I don’t move.
I want some chocolate ice cream, the food I’ve been samefooding for over a month. I crave the sweetness contrasted by the harsh cold. I can nearly taste it in desire.
An hour passes.
I keep scrolling through Tumblr, barely seeing what passes over my screen.
I don’t move.
The pain continues it’s screams, begging me to just move. My mouth won’t let me forget that I haven’t gotten ice cream.
I keep scrolling.
My joints lend their voice to the cacophony, my bladder soon following suit with a need to release. I want to move. I need to move. These aren’t difficult things. I know I can do them. I want to. I need to.
I keep scrolling.
I berate myself. I hate myself.
I keep scrolling.
I don’t move.
Finally, an alarm goes off to take my meds. I jump into action. I find my pils and gulp them down before racing to the bathroom to relieve what has become a desperate need. My body shrieks in pain, but relief begins to spread, a different kind of pain. I get myself some ice cream, trying to do everything before I get stuck again.
Does this sound familiar?
Maybe it wasn’t ice cream. Maybe it was needing to go to sleep. Maybe it was wanting to make some art. Maybe it was something you needed to do. Maybe it was something you wanted to do. Whatever it was, whether it was something you wanted to do or not, have you ever found yourself stuck, unable to break away from what you’re doing in order to do something else?
If so, you may be experiencing Autistic Inertia.
the property of matter by which it retains its state of rest or its velocity along a straight line so long as it is not acted upon by an external force. (source)
Many of us know of inertia from science class. “An object in motion stays in motion, an object at rest stays at rest.” Newton’s first law of motion. We learn about this in relation to how matter moves through the universe. Something will continue as it is unless something else intervenes.
For Autistic people, this principle can aptly describe something many of us experience.
Due to what are essentially different manifestations executive dysfunction, Autistic Inertia is something that many of us struggle with but don’t know how to explain.
It’s hard to explain to loved ones that we Want to do something, but somehow can’t get ourselves to do it. It’s hard to find the words how it feels to fight ourselves so hard and still not be able to just do the thing. Especially when it’s something “simple” like eating or going to the bathroom. For those who don’t experience inertia, it can appear that we are simply lazy or obstinate.
But, this isn’t laziness. This isn’t a lack of willpower or self-control.
Executive dysfunction is a very real, disabling aspect of autism (among other neurodiversities). With executive dysfunction, a person struggles with aspects of executive functioning which are the functions of the brain that control organization and regulation. These functions include:
- Abstract Thinking
- Cognitive Flexibility
- Decision Making
- Emotional Regulation
- Initiating and Inhibiting Context-Specific Behavior
- Initiation of Action
- Monitoring Internal and External Stimuli
- Moral Reasoning
- Problem Solving
- Rule Acquisition
- Selecting Relevant Sensory Information
- Working Memory
As you can see, executive function covers a lot of skills! As such, difficulties with executive function (executive dysfunction) can cause a wide variety of problems. Some of these difficulties are more prominent with one diagnosis than another. For instance, difficulties with attention regulation are the trademark of ADHD. While Autistic people without ADHD can certainly have difficulties with regulating their attention, significant difficulties in this area are typically indicative of ADHD.
When it comes to Autistic Inertia, many aspects of executive dysfunction can come into play. Let’s look at some of the things that can contribute to Autistic Inertia:
While Autistic Inertia (and many other Autistic traits) are not particularly well known outside of the Autistic community, difficulties with task switching are a rather well-known aspect of Autism. Many parents and teachers of Autistic children struggle to find ways to help their child transition between activities in school and at home as these transitions can lead to frequent meltdowns and distress.
Task switching is the ability to unconsciously transition attention from one task to another (consciously shifting attention between tasks is known as cognitive shifting, and is also an aspect of executive function) and is a subcategory of cognitive flexibility.
For those of us who have difficulty with this aspect of executive dysfunction, it can be nearly impossible to switch tasks without external influence, but being prompted to switch tasks can also be very distressing.
Much like with Newton’s first law, once we have begun a task, we will continue doing that task until something causes us to change track. Sometimes the force that intercepts our path is something within ourselves. When this aspect of executive function is working well, a desire or need to do something may be enough to get us to switch tasks. However, when our cognitive flexibility is impaired, it may take an outside force (which can be anything from an alarm to someone directly telling us what to do) for us to switch from one task to another.
Erin Human of Human Illustrations describes task switching as an Autistic person as follows:
“When I’m focused on something, my mind sends out a million tendrils of thought, expands into all of the thoughts and feelings. When I need to switch tasks, I must retract all of the tendrils of my mind. This takes some time. Eventually, I can shift to the new task, but when I am interrupted or must switch abruptly, it feels like all of the tendrils are being ripped out. That’s why I don’t react well. Please just give me time to switch tasks when I’m ready.”
(P.S. You should totally follow the link to see the cartoon. It’s a great visualization for how difficulties with task switching can present)
Difficulties making decisions is another prominent aspect of executive dysfunction. For many Autistic people (as well as for many others who struggle with executive dysfunction), choosing between options can be incredibly difficult, and may even seem impossible. This can be incredibly distressing for the person who is unable to make a decision, particularly when the choice is something that is generally thought to be easy or other people are expressing frustration with the indecision.
Decisions that involve uncertainty, a lack of information, or are arbitrary can be especially difficult to deal with for people with executive dysfunction in this area.
Short Term Memory
Yet another aspect of executive dysfunction can be memory problems, particularly with regards to short term memory. For people who struggle in this area, we may know that we need to do something and want to remember to do it, and, yet, we find ourselves forgetting until it is too late.
Phone calls to doctors generally take me about a week to actually complete. While I don’t enjoy phone calls, it isn’t the difficulty of the task that hinders me but, rather, remembering to actually do it. I often won’t remember that I need to call until after business hours. I’ll then set myself a reminder for the next day, and, yet, I’ll still end up forgetting until it’s too late. Rinse and repeat.
When it comes to Autistic Inertia, I may realize that I want to get something to eat while playing a game on my phone. I’ll tell myself that I’ll go get food when I finish the level. Then I forget. After a few more rounds, I’ll remember. Once again, I’ll promise myself that I’ll go do it after this level. And on and on. Finally, once I have begun to feel the effects of having not eaten, I may finally get myself to switch tasks.
Initiation of Tasks
Sometimes, we just straight up struggle with the actual act of starting a task. Initiating a task is another executive function and is one that many of us have difficulty with.
Often, I find myself sitting doing literally nothing. I’m in pain. I’m bored. I’m upset. Yet, I can’t get myself to do anything. I just continue to sit where I am, unmoving, unable to even shift positions.