Some people living with autism find it hard getting started on tasks – but they can also have difficulty stopping an activity. This ‘stop and go’ struggle could be what is called autistic inertia. It can underlie many of the key characteristics of autism, including common behaviours such as special interests, difficulties in decision making and challenges with transitioning.
I have looked in-depth at autistic inertia and believe it doesn’t have to be a purely negative phenomenon. Using parallels with Te Kore, the Māori Creation Story, I have provided a framework for how we could look more positively at autistic inertia.
Rather than viewing inertia as a total negative, it can also be seen as either “a place of a necessary void or a time of swift progress”.
What is Te Kore – the Maori Creation Story?
The Māori Creation Story begins with a time when there was no time, known as ‘Te Kore’, the chaos, or the void. The period of Te Kore expressed the idea of a vacuum in nature wherein nothing existed. From this space of ‘nothingness’ came chaos which led to great darkness, the realm of ‘te po’. It is in that great darkness that everything evolved. This is where the primordial parents Sky-father Ranginui and Earth-mother Papatūānuku appear.
It is suggested that Te Kore means chaos – a state which has always existed and which contains ‘unlimited potential for being’. Māori Marsden, a Tai Tokerau elder and Anglican minister, had a similar belief. He said that Te Korekore, a variant of Te Kore, was ‘the realm between non-being and being: that is the realm of potential being.’ Some believe that Te Kore is where the ultimate reality can be found.
The idea of Te Kore is central to notions of mana/status, tapu/ sacred and restricted customs and mauri/life force. These beliefs are an integral part of Māori and are found in many places, karakia and waiata. Beliefs such as these support culture and identity, which are two words we do not use enough when we think of autism and autistic people.
Te Kore and autistic inertia
In physics, inertia is defined as an object that continues in motion unless stopped or changed by a force. Alternatively, an object at rest tends to stay at rest unless changed or moved by a force. In autistic inertia the motion, or lack thereof, is related to a person’s attention, thinking, or movement. This phenomenon is often at the very core of the psychological health problems faced by those on the spectrum.
Te Kore – the Maori creation story – and autistic inertia have parallels, the chaos, the void, the time when there is no time. I dare to suggest that inertia is at the very heart of our challenges, as well as the fuel of our strengths. Using Te Kore as a descriptive image as a way to visually portray autistic inertia can be very helpful to view times of inactivity or fast activity as productive, not wasteful. Storytelling can be used as a powerful communication bridge and can help autistic people identify with what they are experiencing. Traditional stories can be particularly useful when people are in distress, feel disconnected or lost. The themes introduced can be powerful descriptors and visualisations.
Symptoms of autistic inertia
Symptoms of autistic inertia include difficulties “getting started”, getting one’s body in motion and adjusting movements to rapidly changing surroundings. Some people also have difficulty performing a task before they have full understanding of what needs to be done and why.
On the other hand, autistic inertia can also make it difficult to stop a task once engaged or someone may get “stuck” halfway through a movement or repeat an action indefinitely, as with stimming. Inertia also applies to a person’s hyper-focused attention, fixation or special interest.
Implications of having autistic inertia
This different way of moving leads to us being perceived by others in a number of not-so-great ways. This affects how others see us and treat us, and also how we treat ourselves. Symptoms of autistic inertia may manifest in maladies such as over- or under-eating, substance use, gambling, self-harm and more.
Inertia, both physical and psychological, impacts on all realms, the body, mind, spirit and whānau.
|Realm||Inertia – The Void||Inertia – The Chaos|
|Body||Lack of movement/fitness. Self harm to ‘feel something’.||Not meeting needs – food/drink/sleep. Substance use.|
|Mind||Fells stuck, depressed. Not getting to appointments, meetings.||Anxious, not mindful. Not stopping with enough time for the next activity.|
|Spirit||Feel hopeless, unable to move. May be medicated for depression.||Never resting or catching up. May be medicated for anxiety or ADHD.|
|Whānau||Unable to contribute, frustration, seen as lazy. Being left out, invisible.||Not being available, seeming disinterested in others. Intense or obsessive.|
Most concerning are the implications for the autistic person’s psychological health. Often people on the less visible part of the spectrum are seen in mental health services when their wellbeing has been seriously compromised. Why are they here and not being supported within the disability services? I believe that this is often because carers are not aware of autistic inertia, therefore they do not realise the extent to which it can manifest in someone’s life.
Asking for help
Inertia is something that is written and spoken about within the Autistic Culture, however not so much within the support services.
I have asked services for help a number of times for autistic inertia, it sounded a bit like this. “I can write plans, timetables etc but I can’t sustain them. I can’t keep on track so my anxiety and depression get overwhelming, and then I am no longer able to do anything at all. Or I drown myself in my focus interest at the cost of my personal needs or those of my whānau. Can you please help?” Because they don’t understand the frequency and intensity of this problem, they hear “I am a bit disorganised and/ or obsessed” and my plea for help is dismissed.
“Te Korekore is the realm between non-being and being—that is, the realm of potential being. This is the realm of primal, elemental energy or latent being. It is here that the seed stuff of the universe and all created things gestates. It is the womb from which all things proceed.” ¹
Neurotypical people relate it to their experience of getting a bit off track, feeling unmotivated or ‘deeply into their hobby’. This is similar to how the people who have never been crippled by anxiety compare social anxiety to feeling a bit nervous before attending an event. Unfortunately, this inability to put themselves in our shoes minimises our struggle with inertia, often to the point of not implementing strategies that would serve as an early intervention.
The ability to hyper focus for long periods of time and ‘get things done’ can lead to high levels of academic achievement, musical, maths and art, as examples. In this aspect inertia can be positive. Although, in some settings this can cause issues with the people around the person, be it class or workmates or whānau. It can also cause deep frustration for the autistic person when others around don’t ‘keep up’ with them or ‘wait for’ them.
Autistic people have spent their lives speaking a language that doesn’t elucidate their needs accurately. Verbal communication feels like a second language and much of what we need to express gets lost in translation. What is in our heads sometimes seems impossible to put into words. That’s why it’s helpful to construct a visual translation by using mythology and fantasy to represent the complexities.
An alternative perspective – using Te Kore for autistic inertia
Imagine if you will, Te Kore as a visualisation and symbolism of the unlimited potential of the person who is experiencing inertia. Rather than viewing inertia as a total negative, it can also be seen as either a place of a necessary void or a time of swift progress.
If you or a loved one get stuck in a state of autistic inertia which is causing tension or grief, use your mind to visualise things from a different perspective.
Imagine that time of Te Kore, a time of gestation, a chaotic void waiting to produce life. This time is not wasted, it is an incubation period. It may seem too fast, or too slow, however this is the non- linear world of autism. And after darkness comes light and with light there is life. ‘Tihei Mauri Ora’.
From a more practical point of view, seemingly simple reassurance and time management strategy could increase positive outcomes for those experiencing problematic inertia.
- Offer empathic feedback “I see that you are having difficulty getting started/taking a breather, would you like some help?”
- Give gentle advice remembering the onus is on self- efficacy. If the autistic person agrees to receiving your advice, give short concise and only one or two ideas that you think might help.
- Allow the autistic person to come up with their own plans or goals. The SMART goal framework is a simple and effective tool. Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound.
- Act as a supportive guide to help keep them on track with daily/weekly reminders, text, email etc.
It is important for the psychological health and wellbeing of an autistic person to be reassured that things don’t always go to plan. Remind them that getting stuck or not being able to stop is a part of their brain’s unique processing, and it is not a reflection of who they are, it is not their fault. Autistic inertia is not a chosen behaviour, it is a person who is having difficulty in their ability to manoeuvre.
I believe that no time is ‘wasted’ during the state of autistic inertia. Experiences of our past are timeless upon reflection.
About the author:
Tanea Paterson (Dip. Applied Addiction Practitioner) is a mum, autistic, home educator and Chinese crested dog owner.
¹Māori Marsden, ‘God, man and universe: a Maori view.’ In Te ao hurihuri: aspects of Maoritanga, edited by Michael King, 118–138. Auckland: Reed, 1992.
This article was first published in Altogether Autism Journal Issue 3, September 2016 read the latest edition.