Newtons Cradle

Written by Alex*

“She laid alone
during her best days
as a work of art
reading naked on the bed …”
– Pearl Jam, Vitalogy album booklet

Most people think of inertia as a manifest difficulty in getting started. The term conjures images of immovable boulders. In common parlance, an object is “inert” if it is motionless.

It came as a surprise to me, studying physics at university (I switched from psychology because the “obviousness” of the content bored me – perhaps, in retrospect, another sign of my neurodivergence) to discover that the term “inertia” is not just about starting, but also stopping! Inertia actually describes the degree of resistance to a change in state, and is shorthand for Newton’s First Law of Motion:

“An object at rest remains at rest, and an object in motion remains in motion at constant speed and in a straight line unless acted on by an unbalanced force.”

So too is it with an Autistic person who is trying to get started on a task, or, once in task mode, is required to stop. The “unbalanced force” required is larger than that for a neurotypical individual. We take procrastination to the next level, but once we hit hyperfocus: wow! 

As with all things Autistic, we do not have the monopoly on inertia. It’s experienced by other humans, but it doesn’t seem to be particularly disabling if you are non-autistic, hence it has been co-opted by the Autistic community as another one of our “things”. Autistic inertia can definitely be heightened by stress, in common with many Autistic behaviours which may only appear when we are under pressure and can no longer compensate.

Similar to many Autistic traits, Autistic inertia can be equal parts strength, equal parts debilitating. Our:

  • detail-mindedness;
  • self-imposed standards for high degrees of accuracy; and
  • ability to stay on task once engaged

are all positive examples of Autistic inertia in action. Once we’re locked in on our target, we are like a dog with a bone, and woe betide anyone who attempts to interrupt the flow.

Inertia also dovetails with other Autistic qualities such as monotropism, hyperfocus, time blindness, poor interoception, the need for personal relevance, and sensory aversions/cravings.

These qualities may exist with inertia in an agreeable state of symbiosis, or alternatively may amplify, exaggerate, parasitise or sabotage it.

I wonder if anyone relates to the following examples of how Autistic inertia presents in my life. There are recurring themes of disorientation accompanying transitions, the painfulness of being distracted out of hyperfocus, time blindness, and sensory contributory factors:

1. The mental “jolt” of being pulled in and out of an activity.
Imagine reading on the couch, with a spouse sporadically interrupting with casual conversation. Said spouse is blithely unaware of the focus required to switch mental spaces – I conceptualise it as shape-shifting. Tendril theory is a widely accepted visual for this experience – painstakingly detatching all those creepers to return to real life, then plugging them back into the book, only to have the interruption repeated at random intervals. Surprise is expressed by the unwitting spouse when the book is ragefully thrown across the room.

2. Doom-scrolling social media, with the attendant disorientation/distractedness.
Maybe AuDHDers find scrolling helpful in kick-starting their dopamine. For me, it’s not a little nudge; it’s not even a boulder; it’s a frigging dopamine avalanche. I’m talking massive inertia pinning my brain to that phone like no force the physical world has ever encountered.

3. The unique dysphoria accompanying a session of looking at old photo albums, or emerging from a dark cinema where time and place was suspended, only to be slammed headfirst into the screaming sunlight.

4. Monologuing and info-dumping.
I have to get it all said, even if the other person has checked out – huge inertia rolling us along on the unilateral conversational train (and running right over our conversation partner).

5. Getting in the shower or pool.

6. Getting out of the shower or pool – an example of how sensory elements amplify Autistic inertia.

7. Not beginning a task for which the time cannot be estimated (such as clearing out a cupboard), assuming there will not be adequate time, and instead wasting all the available time on social media. Not starting because knowing it will be impossible to stop – or once stopped, may be impossible to start again, resulting in cupboard’s contents left stranded on the floor for an indeterminate period.

8. The inordinate amount of time I took in my job to make multiple transitions.
I used to think I was lazy and really poor with time management because it was so very difficult to transition from one client’s file to the next, then repeat. Oh, how I relished the days when there were only one or two complex clients as opposed to a dozen simple ones. This was the opportunity to hook those tentacles in and do a deep dive, instead of flailing around, drowning slowly in the shallows.

9. When dealing with a complex client, how they became my entire focus and how hard it was to take a break and hand over to a colleague … yet once I did physically manage to leave the room, the alacrity with which that person would cease to exist in my mind.

10. Waking up. Adjusting to the departure from dreamscapes and arrival in reality. Getting out of bed. Getting dressed – both requiring navigation of complex sensory landscape such as cold winter air on skin and textures of clothing.

Finally, Id like to draw attention to Autistic burnout and its relationship with inertia. Burnout amplifies inertia, one million fold. That is all I need to say.

To summarise my experience of Autistic inertia, lets circle back to the quote above, which I, as an Autistic book junkie, have personified more than once. The inertia of getting stuck in bed, sans clothing, is compounded by the compelling inertia inherent in reading. Lets go and wholly occupy that alternate reality.

There is significant difficulty in coming back for self-care, even a mere change of position. In fact, spending a day lying around reading, with no transitions, no demands, no peopling, and no tentacle-detangling, submitting to monotropic inertia, may just be an Autistic persons nirvana.

* The author has chosen to publish under a pen name. Many of our writers only feel safe disclosing their Autistic identity to a select few due to the enduring stigma and prejudice faced by Autistic individuals. We hope by sharing their stories, together, we can help dismantle this stigma and one day, achieve true Autism acceptance.


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