Autistic Inertia and Movement Disorders: A recent (2021) study of Autism examined autistic inertia. The study looked at 32 autistic adults aged 23-64 and asked them to describe in detail the impact of inertia has on their wellbeing, day to day activities and what management skills they employed to try and initiate activity. Results showed that problems described by many in ‘initiating even simple actions’ were reminiscent of a movement disorder, much like peripheral neuropathy.
Rather than focusing on the usual psychological diagnoses we tend to make for those on the Autism spectrum this beautiful study titled “‘No Way Out Except From External Intervention’: First-Hand Accounts of Autistic Inertia” instead investigated the physical underpinning of autistic symptoms. It was led by an autistic researcher and instigated by requests from the autistic community to investigate this issue.
When you look at the fact that Autism has been shown to have an atypical autonomic response to stress and people on the spectrum have difficulty regulating the autonomic nervous system; and that chronic autonomic imbalance can lead to physical and psychological inflexibility – a more physical appreciation of the symptoms of Autism starts to make sense.
If people with Autism are in a constant flight/fight or immobilised state, they will quite naturally find it harder to control their mind and body. Where we often take a psychological approach to understanding autistic inertia (cognitive deficits; emotional inflexibility, Pathological Demand Avoidance), may it perhaps of more use to find physical remedies that support the nervous system and help it move out of a heightened autonomic state?
We often take a cognitive approach to both Autism and peripheral neuropathy, but what can happen if we work more closely with the nervous system to help bring the body into a greater state of harmony? In this study, the authors described ways in which people on the spectrum took to manage their inertia. Most of the conventional management tools, such as reminder alarms and lists, were not deemed helpful. Having others support memory by prompting and facilitation of tasks was deemed of more use, utilising social connection and co-regulation.
In my practice I am working with people of all ages with Autism, ADHD and intellectual disability. They are making sometimes profound changes in their physical and psychological flexibility through gentle physical exercises and mindful acupressure that helps promote a softer, autonomic state that allows them greater access to a range of executive function, movement and coordination that can go offline under duress. They often have improved vision and hearing; they report sleeping better and are able to engage more fully with their world. In essence their body works better, therefore so does the mind.
This current inertia study is part of a trend to start seeing co occurring issues of Autism, ADHD and intellectual disability from a more physical perspective that allows us to open the doors to greater levels of autonomy and wellbeing and may start to shift the long-term need for government services.
Holly Bridges is a neurodivergent therapist, educator and author. She is running an online course on Reframing Autism: From the Inside Out – A Game Changer for Autism and ADHD