Inertia (anxiety)

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Inertia is a problem associated with anxiety and autism. People who experience inertia often experience feeling "paralyzed" when they are faced with stressful tasks.[1][2]

In autism, inertia can be described as a deficit in certain skill sets. For instance, some of the skills needed to initiate a task include the ability to:

  • Notice they can make a choice.
  • Notice what options are possible in their situation.
  • Figure out how they feel about the various options.
  • Bring "online" any skills which will be needed to carry out those steps (for example, if their choice requires standing up, they'll need to bring "online" whatever motor skills are involved in standing up. If their choice involves writing an essay, they'll have to bring "online" all the pieces of knowledge and manners of thought involved in essay-writing).
  • Begin -- i.e., actually start moving, in response to thought.] Difficulty in any given skill in this list can cause problems in moving from intention to action."[3]

In other words, a neurotypical person may think about doing something, decide to do it, and then does it. A person on the autism spectrum may think about doing something and then a number of things may prevent them from decision-making or action. For instance, as described by Anna Sullivan in her presentation for Autreat 2002, "Some people may have trouble making arbitrary choices. They'll move along fine until, say, they have to choose one of several roughly-equivalent ways of doing something, and then they'll just stall, unable to pick one and move on."[4]

Inertia may appear to be laziness, procrastination, or simple refusal - but it can also look like obsessiveness, mania or heightened activity. At its core, inertia involves difficulty changing state; the original state could be anything. Thus, an autistic person may end up either not doing something they want to be doing, or doing something they don’t want to be doing.[5]

Inertia is typically written about in autistic culture, but rarely discussed in support culture. The extremes experienced in performing simple tasks can be misunderstood as a lack of organization or an aversion to non-preferred activity. It is often unfairly related to the neurotypical experience of feeling apathetic or distracted. Inertia can allow people on the autism spectrum to hyperfocus for long periods of time on work or school, but success in those areas may come at the cost of social relationships or personal care.[6]

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