6/18: Inertia

In addition to difficulty starting a task that seems overwhelming, executive function problems can also manifest as difficulty with stopping in the middle of a task or with suddenly changing focus. I have some mild issues of this type, in that I often get confused or frustrated when I’m interrupted unexpectedly. It’s hard for me to push a half-completed train of thought out of my mind to fully focus on something else, and it’s also hard for me to pick it back up again later.

Some autistic people have these kinds of problems on a more physical level– rather than (or along with) getting stuck on an idea or in a particular state of mind, they get stuck on physical actions. I’ve heard this called either “inertia” or “autistic catatonia”. Autistic catatonia is an officially recognized sub-type of autism in the DSM, whereas inertia seems to be a term that’s come into use among autistic people online, but they refer to the same thing.

“Catatonia” sounds like a scary word, and probably makes you think of people in comas– or at least, that’s the association I had with it when I first heard the phrase “autistic catatonia,” so I want to clear this up. In this situation, catatonia doesn’t mean being completely unable to move. It means having difficulty consciously choosing to move or stop moving. Catatonia or inertia is a breakdown in communication between your intention or desire to move, and your body’s actual movement.

Inertia can be thought of as a part of executive function problems, except specifically with the planning and execution of physical movements. People don’t normally think of physical movement as planned in the same way that we plan an essay or our daily schedule, but on some level we do plan out everything we do, even just standing up and walking to another room.

How is this different from dyspraxia? In dyspraxia the main problem is precision within movements. Dyspraxia might cause someone to stumble and fall easily while walking; catatonia might cause them to keep walking, apparently smoothly and intentionally, when they actually want to stop where they are. The term “motor planning” is sometimes used to describe the ability that’s impaired in catatonia/inertia, to contrast with “motor skills”.

Here are some descriptions of inertia written by autistic people. (Sparrow Rose Jones, and Ido Kedar.)

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