Autistic inertia is a term many use to describe the difficulty some with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) experience when starting and stopping tasks or shifting from one state to another, according to research by the National Autism Society. However, it is not often an aspect of academic literature exploring ASD. Typically, experts researching autistic inertia characterize it as a resistance to change that can manifest in various ways, including being stuck in repetitive behaviors, difficulty transitioning between actions, and freezing in new experiences.
Imagine if your body felt like it was encased in concrete, making following even the most straightforward instructions impossible to complete. Or the feeling of pushing a stalled car forward. These tasks would require massive focus, effort, and energy for anyone. Many with ASD experience the feeling of autistic inertia this way. Additionally, once the activity begins, it can be equally challenging to transition to a different task.
While this phenomenon is still not well understood, and many overlook it, it does affect many with ASD, making it essential to address and further research.
Whether you are an experienced ASD parent navigating this with your loved one or are new to the term, this blog post by ABA Centers of Florida aims to provide insight and understanding of what autistic inertia is and how it impacts life for some individuals on the spectrum and their families. As a parent, it is essential to comprehend autistic inertia as it can significantly impact your child’s daily life and overall development. So, keep reading, and let’s explore the term together!
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Understanding Autistic Inertia
In the context of physics, inertia describes the tendency of an object to remain in the same motion or no motion unless some external changes occur. In the context of autism, the individual’s thinking, attention, and movement have inertia. Many individuals on the spectrum tend to remain on the same task unless interrupted by a substantive outside variable or a strong act of will, according to Frontiers in Psychology.
Autistic inertia is not limited to physical tasks but also applies to cognitive and emotional tasks. Individuals with autism may have difficulty shifting from one thought or emotion to another, leading to problems in social interactions and communication. For example, a child with autism may have trouble moving from doing something they enjoy to another task they do not prefer, which is natural. Still, the rigidities familiar with autism can make the outcome worse.
For example, imagine being engrossed in an epic movie when suddenly you must redirect your attention to writing an essay about finances. For neurotypical folks, this transition may feel annoying. For those with autism, the experience can be unnerving, challenging, and even impossible, leading in some cases to outbursts and other complex demonstrations of behaviors. During autistic inertia, the brain feels like it’s in a distinct mode, and it cannot switch gears.
Additionally, many individuals with autism describe having trouble starting tasks that require sustained attention or effort, even if it is something they are interested in. They may become limited in their thoughts or routines and need help beginning a new process. These experiences can be frustrating for both the child and their parents, and they can also lead to feelings of helplessness, hindering progress and independence over time for some.
While some who experience autistic inertia describe it as being one of the most disabling aspects of neurodiversity, for others, the experience is pleasurable. The inertia of being wholly absorbed in the task can feel favorable, and it can be an asset when appropriately applied in the proper context, like employment or a group project. The characteristic can be both enabling and disabling, depending on the person.
Identifying Autistic Inertia
Autistic inertia presents in different forms, making it challenging to identify at times. Some may exhibit physical signs such as freezing or becoming physically unresponsive when faced with a change or new activity. Others may show emotional signs like becoming agitated, anxious, or overwhelmed. It is crucial as a parent to observe your child’s behavior and understand how they respond in different situations.
Common Traits of Autistic Inertia:
- Difficulty transitioning from home to school or vice versa: children with autism may have a set routine and become overwhelmed when there is a change in their schedule, leading to maladaptive behavior.
- Trouble resuming activities after experiencing interruptions: Once interrupted, recovering and refocusing on the activity can be tricky.
- Little to no impulse control over actions: even if there is a desire to engage in an activity, the individual may still engage in unproductive behavior to escape the task.
- Challenges starting tasks: Individuals with autism may have trouble initiating tasks, causing delays in daily routines or responsibilities.
- Indifference to the urgency of the demand: Autistic inertia can make it hard for individuals to understand the urgency of a task or situation, leading to lags or disruptions in responding appropriately.
- Focusing for long periods, once focus is established: This can be an advantage as well as a challenge, as individuals with autism may hyperfocus on specific tasks and have difficulty redirecting to other tasks.
- Struggling with changes in the environment: Some may have difficulty adjusting to new environments, such as a new classroom, playground, or doctor’s office. Challenges adjusting can also include accommodating or tolerating movements, big or small, within their surroundings.
- Challenges with completing tasks: Autistic inertia can make it difficult for individuals with autism to complete tasks that require sustained effort and attention, such as schoolwork or chores, leading to feelings of exasperation and lack of progress.
Coping Strategies for Parents
As a parent, it can be challenging to witness your child struggle with autistic inertia. However, there are strategies that you can implement to help ease the impact of this characteristic on your child’s life.
- Offer Routine and Predictability: Children with autism thrive on routine and predictability. Offering them a sense of control and stability helps reduce the impact of autistic inertia. Establish a consistent daily routine for your neurodivergent child and prepare them in advance for any changes or transitions whenever possible.
- Visual Schedules: Visual schedules are an effective tool for individuals with autism as they provide a clear representation of tasks and activities in a sequential order, helping reduce distress and confusion when transitioning between tasks or activities.
- Breakdown Tasks: Breaking down tasks into smaller, manageable steps can make them more approachable for children with autism, thus reducing the impact of autistic inertia. Also, providing clear and concise instructions can help avoid aggravation and discouragement.
- Allow for Choices: Giving your child choices can empower them and give them a sense of control, which can help in overcoming autistic inertia. For example, instead of telling them to stop playing with their toys and start homework, offer options such as “Do you want to finish the puzzle first or put away your toys before starting homework?”
- Use Transition Strategies: Transition strategies can help ease changes between tasks or activities for children with ASD. Strategies such as providing warnings before a change, using transitional objects, countdowns, and incorporating sensory breaks can be beneficial.
Autistic Inertia and ABA Therapy
ABA therapy, also commonly called Applied Behavior Analysis, is a behavioral approach for individuals with autism, and it can also be beneficial in managing autistic inertia. ABA providers work with individuals to identify the underlying function of their behaviors and develop strategies to modify them so they can explore their world with greater confidence and ease.
Through ABA therapy, children can learn skills that may help them overcome or manage their autistic inertia experiences, including self-regulation, flexibility around ideas, and task completion through behavioral chaining and other ABA approaches. It is crucial to work with qualified Behavior Analyst Certification Board providers who can create individualized therapy plans based on the specific needs of your child or teen with autism and understand ABA principles.
Autistic Inertia Doesn’t Have to Leave You Stuck
Autistic inertia may not be a well-known term or concept. Still, caregivers, providers, allies, and educators should understand it when supporting individuals with autism. As a parent, it is crucial to recognize the signs of autistic inertia and implement coping strategies to help your child navigate through their daily life, and leverage the inertia to their advantage whenever possible, even though it’s not an experience everyone on the spectrum experiences.
So, keep learning, keep advocating, and most importantly, keep loving your ASD child or teen just the way they are. Together, we can make a difference in their world. Happy parenting!
More About ABA Centers of Florida
ABA Centers of Florida provides top-quality ABA therapy to children and teenagers with autism. Our team of highly trained ABA professionals works closely with families to create individualized ABA therapy plans addressing the unique needs of every child and teen living with neurodiversity.
We strive to help children reach their full potential by targeting specific behaviors and developing essential daily living skills that benefit them across many areas of their lives.
With our support and guidance, every child, regardless of developmental uniqueness, can thrive and achieve their goals. Visit our website here to learn more about our ABA and autism diagnostic services, or reach us at 772-773-1975.
We serve the autism community in regions of Florida, including Bradenton, Port Saint Lucie, Tampa, Miramar, Doral, Kissimmee, Davenport, Boca Raton, and Melbourne.