Writing While Autistic 6: Inertia
Sticky Note: I am an adult autistic writer. All text in Writing While Autistic is my personal reflections and thoughts, which are based on my experience alone. While I do make general statements and give advice, this does not constitute prescriptive advice: meaning that what I say is just one possibility in a sea of other advice. Take what you need from it and ignore the rest. 

I'm frequently hearing "I'm not autistic, but this is really useful to me." I'm really glad to hear that this generalizes to other neuroatypicalities. 

You can help this series continue!  Our next stretch goal ($375) is to support WWA. I will post one more essay before we reach this goal, and at least one more after we reach this goal.


I made it so far without discussing autistic inertia, mostly because I have only recently encountered it as a concept, and I am not sure if I will fully embrace it. Perhaps what I am resisting is the word “inertia”, which for me has a negative feeling, composed as it is from two Latin elements in (un-) and ars- (art, or skill) - to be inert is therefore to be quite literally deskilled, and I do not view inertia and other autistic traits as a lack of skill, but rather as a different way of being in the world. I also tend to be vary of medical-sounding terms to discuss my life. 

All that said, the realities I have seen described by this term are very real, and connected to my previous discussion of transitions. Here are some of the things autistic people include under the umbrella term of autistic inertia (some of these overlap, but I felt it was good to include them): 

  • Problems with shifting attention from one thing to another
  • It’s hard to mentally and physically “shift gears”
  • Motor planning difficulties, especially with transitions - it’s hard to start or stop speaking, and/or start or stop moving
  • It’s hard to stop doing one thing once you start it (in my academic life, it’s hard to stop researching and start writing up results, it’s hard to stop writing and switch back to reading if I need to expand my literature review, it’s hard to streamline my argument and understand what to allistics will feel like less relevant/a tangent) - a good resource on this is Autistic Inertia - an Overview (http://unstrangemind.com/autistic-inertia-an-overview/)

An important and insightful article on autistic inertia by Anna Sullivan describes an experience where wanting to do something, choosing to do it it was nevertheless extremely difficult, if not impossible, to transition to actually doing the thing:

In high school, I passed many hours thinking about how I wanted to be doing my homework, being frustrated with myself for not doing my homework, making elaborate plans to try to get myself to homework... and still not starting my homework. When I've tried to describe how this worked to others, I've generally been met with disbelief. "If you didn't do it," they say, "You must not really have wanted to." This idea seems to function partly as a belief about how people work, but also partly as a definition -- what a person wants to do is almost defined as what they end up doing. (Inertia: https://web.archive.org/web/20160301144431/http://archive.autistics.org/library/inertia.html)

I have observed this in myself and in many other autistics: that we want to be doing something, that we spend a lot of time thinking about doing it, planning it out, but it is extremely difficult to actually start. In other words, knowing how to do something, preparing to do it, planning out the smallest details, does not always result in being able to actually do it. 

Sullivan has an additional important observation: that being able to do something on one day does not mean that you will be able to do it on the next day: autistic people often have varying skillsets from day to day.

This all is very true for me, and for my writing. I can plan, imagine, block out time and still not be able to follow through. I might not be able to even open my writing files. On a different day I might be happily writing away. Accumulated practice really, really helps here - I have written so many times, and I’ve written so many different things, that my hands remember how to do it, and I can convince myself that I already know how to do it. 

I feel that it really helps to hands-on experience, it helps to have a practice - which is, I believe, a lot truer to life than the admonition to write every day , it helps to give oneself permission to struggle with autistic inertia, and it really helps to make writing a bit more social. Positive encouragement goes a long way. 

Above all, I think it helps to understand that autistics are different from NTs, that we have different patterns and needs. I think many of us have heard the painful “if only you wanted to write badly enough, you would be writing!!” which is not only unkind, it ends up being ableist towards autistics (and other neuroatypical and disabled people who for a variety of reasons cannot write in the same way as allistic and/or abled people can). 

We need find better ways to frame our efforts than endless cycles of guilt and shame, both external and internalized. We can figure out how to do it, we can do it, but we are not going to do it like NTs and in perfect obedience to NT rules and patterns.

(to be continued)