Today I’d like to talk about something I’ve mentioned several times before but I feel deserves a blog post all on its own. I’d like to talk about why it is that many autistic people have trouble initiating new tasks, and also sometimes simply switching tasks.
Task initiation is exactly what it sounds like. It’s the ability to actually start a new task, which could be anything from as complex as starting a new large project to a simple as getting out of bed or getting dressed. This is a major challenge for me and many other autistic people, and it can make productivity a challenge. Sometimes I just cannot get myself to the point of of starting something, even if it’s something I actually want to be doing or need to be doing. Many autistic people who have this trouble are mistakenly thought to simply be lazy or unmotivated, but this isn’t the case. It actually is a cognitive block that makes task initiation difficult, one that has to do with executive functioning, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
Some autistic people also have trouble switching between tasks, sometimes for similar reasons. And/or some autistic people tend to want to stay in a constant state without change, something that has been dubbed “autistic inertia,” and well also get to that in a bit.
If you or someone you know is autistic, executive functioning is a phrase you should know. Executive functions are a broad group of cognitive skills that include things like impulse control, working memory, task prioritization, planning, and yes, task initiation. Autistic people very often have difficulty in areas of executive functioning. My anecdotal observation suggests that many autistic adults rate difficulties with executive functioning as the most difficult thing about being autistic (with living in a sensory unfriendly world coming in at a close second). Executive functioning is such a major player in the autistic experience that one could probably write a series of books on it. In this short post, we’ll only be talking about task initiation.
To understand what “autistic inertia” is, let’s define actual inertia. In physics, inertia is simply the tendency that objects have to either continue moving (if they are already moving) or continue staying still. An object in motion stays in motion, an object at rest stays at rest, unless acted upon by an outside force. Hypothetically, if you were to push an object in a perfect vacuum without gravity and with nothing to slow it down, that object would continue to move forever in the same direction. Similarly, a still object will never move unless acted upon by an outside force.
So if that’s inertia, then what is “autistic inertia?” Well, autistic inertia is the tendency that autistic people have to want to remain in a constant state. When we’re asleep we want to stay asleep, when awake we want to stay awake, when we’re working on one thing we want to keep working on it, when we’re doing one thing we want to keep doing that one thing, etc. Now, yes, this tendency exists in everybody but you must understand that this is often significantly more pronounced in autistic people. This can also (at least in part) be due to executive functioning struggles. (There are many other reasons why autistic people may have trouble switching tasks, but here we’ll only focus on executive functioning).
So, now that we’ve gone over a potential reason why many autistic people may have trouble switching tasks, let’s go over some things that I have found helpful or I have heard other people have found helpful when it comes to task switching/initiation.
The first important thing to remember is that executive functioning struggles absolutely do not represent laziness. I know that if you yourself don’t experience executive functioning difficulties you might think this is all quite strange, because it “should be easy” because all you have to do is just “do the thing.” However, difficulties with task initiation actually are a product of a very real cognitive “block” and very often can get in the way of our actual intentions.
Perhaps the most basic and useful accommodation that can be sought is prompting. Prompting is exactly what it sounds like: giving a prompt in some form as a way of helping someone to move onto another task. This could be anything from a written chart to verbal prompting, and can even be done independently by, say, setting an alarm on your phone at specific times. Sometimes a prompt is enough to push us out of the rut and moving onto another task. Sometimes it could take multiple prompts, but I say that with the warning that this could quickly become overwhelming, particularly in people who have the Persistent-Demand-Avoidance autism subtype, but that’s a discussion for another day.
It also may be useful to have a specific support person who can help ground you in a new task. It’s helpful to me sometimes to have my mom sit down next to me when I’m starting something new because she can help my brain get switched over so I can actually initiate something new.
Another accommodation that helps many with task switching are visual timers, which is literally just a timer that visually displays how much time is left on it. You can find them online for fairly cheap. These help ease the transition more and make it easier to make said transition. Developing and sticking to a routine can also help with such transitions, for similar reasons in that it makes it easier to be cognitively prepared and “ready” for the switch, if that makes any sense. And not only can these things be useful for help with executive functioning, but also potentially relieving anxiety.
Lastly, and this is always important, just be patient and if there’s an autistic person in your life who has trouble with this know that it’s probably just as frustrating for them as it may be for you. And if you yourself are autistic and struggle with this, know that you certainly aren’t alone and don’t be afraid to experiment and try new things to help yourself with task initiation and switching.
I write posts like these to both autistic and non-autistic people, hoping to help non-autistic people understand the autistic people in their lives and also to help other autistic people understand and support themselves. Reading blog posts from other autistic people helped me learn a lot about myself, and so I hope I can do the same for others.
11 thoughts on “Task Initiation, Executive Functioning, and Autistic Inertia”
Thank you for this post. It definitely help me with my autistic son.
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Thank you so much. I am on the autism spectrum but was unaware of it until I was about 37. I used to think I was lazy until I read about executive function and when I did some soul searching I realized that what I fear when it comes to starting new tasks is my frustration that often comes from my struggles with new tasks. I can do a lot of negative self-talk when I struggle. When I was younger I would even hesitate to go into a fast food place to place an order for food because all of the questions they can ask, like do you want cheese and what size and so forth could frustrate me. I am trying to reach out to people and introduce myself as I am now coming back to blogging. I share stories from my book The Driveway Rules. They deal with relationship struggles,alcoholism, and the importance of structure and rules in my life.
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This is such a well considered post. Thanks for sharing. As an adult with recently diagnosed ADHD I can see that I have struggled with executive function challenges my whole life and had often confused them with laziness and some kind of moral failing. Reading the experiences of people like yourself goes a long way to healing that wound. Best wishes and love.
The dubbing of autistic inertia was not ‘very recent’. I wrote about it in alt.support.autism in 2001, https://groups.google.com/g/alt.support.autism/c/Eu8k-7BKoKE/m/coOFxjGwF04J and it was the theme of Autscape 2008 http://www.autscape.org/2008/ and we were calling it that for a good deal longer.
Did I say somewhere that it was? Maybe I did, I can change it if you want.
Yes, in the third paragraph you say “something that has very recently been dubbed ‘autistic inertia’.” I’m not sure why you would have thought that this was a very recent thing. It was at least 22 years ago.
I’ve been active in the autistic community since 2015 and I had never heard the term until late 2019, so how was I supposed to know where the term originated? “Relatively recently” is also a relative term.
This is my first time reading this blog, I have never heard any of these terms before. I thank you for explaining it so clearly for anyone to understand. It was a great article and I look forward to reading more of your blogs.