Updated: Apr 21
If you ever took physics class, you may be familiar with the concept of inertia. An object in motion stays in motion, an object at rest stays at rest, unless acted upon by an outside force. Few people realize that Autistic brains can work much the same way!
Many Autistic people have trouble getting started on tasks. But once they get started on them, they also can’t seem to stop! Whether it’s homework, cleaning, a video game, or anything in between, an Autistic brain is more comfortable continuing the task it’s currently doing than switching to something else. It can be especially difficult to switch from rest to productivity mode and vice versa. We call this difficulty Autistic inertia.
(I didn't mean to spend 4 hours organizing my bookshelves but here we are.)
Autistic inertia is part of executive dysfunction, or ways the little manager in your brain can get off track. It is one way that a dysfunction in "task switching" presents in Autistic people.
Another term you may have heard is hyperfocus. This is where a neurodivergent person gets so focused on a task or special interest that they lose sense of how much time as passed. They get "stuck" for a long period of time, blocking out their surroundings and neglecting their basic needs. (If this sounds familiar, the autism life coaches at Autism Personal Coach can help you create strategies for getting unstuck!)
An important part of our physics definition for inertia gives us a hint for tackling its challenges: “unless acted upon by an outside force”. This is key for Autistic brains as well! Here are a few ways you can kickstart your brain into starting and stopping tasks when it’s struggling with inertia:
1. Animal magnetism
If you want to start or stop a task every day at a similar time, give your pet a treat at that same time every day. They will learn the routine and start asking for their treat, and you know you can't resist that face! This will force you to stop the task you’re currently on and give your brain a fresh start to pick up something new.
2. Bait and switch
If you only want to do a potentially "sticky" activity for a certain amount of time and then stop, try this.
Set an alarm
Place the alarm across the room from you or in a different room from where the sticky activity is taking place
Put a small, interesting thing to interact with where the alarm is, like a Rubik’s Cube, a snack, or fidget toy. This is "brain bait"!
When the alarm goes off, getting up to silence it will help break your immersion in the sticky activity. Then, the brain bait will keep you there! Try to stay away from the sticky activity for long enough that your brain can reset. This will give you an easier time switching to something new!
3. Buddy up
Ask someone to be an accountability buddy or body double who can make sure you are able to start or switch tasks. Your buddy could say, “send me a text when you start making dinner, I’ll check in in thirty minutes if I don’t hear from you.” If your buddy is in the same place as you, walking with you to the next task's location can really make a difference!
If you or a loved one struggles with Autistic inertia, the autism life coaches at Autism Personal Coach can help! Your Coach will give you tips and tricks for combatting inertia that work for your individual needs and lifestyle. Every person is unique, but we have more in common than we sometimes realize! If you think executive dysfunction is affecting your life, we have plenty of experience helping people with your same struggles. Contact us to get started!