Firsthand Tips on How to Get Moving With Inertia
I heard Mom’s voice, “We’re here, Peter! Time for gymnastics!”
I told my body to move. “Hands unbuckle, then feet move!”
But nothing happened.
I tried a second, then a third time,
But nothing happened.
Mom pulled out her timer.
“Five minutes. You can spend it here or in the air con.”
I asked myself, “Why sit in the hot car?”
My legs moved as if bounding.
I made it into the building!
Unfortunately, I spied the tables.
They drew me like a magnet.
Then the timer rang.
I couldn’t believe it.
Mom tried to coax me up,
but my body rebelled.
I felt immovable as a stone.
To my dismay,
Tickle Monster appeared.
It was relentless.
I got angry. Too intrusive.
The feeling welled up like an explosion,
but I kept my grip on it.
I commanded my legs to move.
Lower brain got on board.
To get away from Tickle Monster,
I slowly rose.
Mom tried another tactic.
I heard “Okay, one and two and three and four and…”
I felt pulled into a mesmerizing chant.
My hands and feet moved to the beat.
Before I knew it, I really got into it and was
on the mats.
You tried the foxtrot.
I love ballroom dancing.
Before I knew it, I was into the
swing of things,
dancing with my mom.
I was wound up and
ready to go.
What is inertia? My mind says, “Go!”, and my body says, “Stop!” All my teen life I have struggled with this. As a child, I remember running around much better. I don’t know what happened in my brain. It’s like a circuit gone bad, so the lights start flickering. I’m not the only person with this problem.
Donna Williams (1996) describes how she experiences inertia: “I found myself physically stuck and physically disconnected. I struggled to ‘remember’ how to cross the room or open a drawer, but I was now trying to remember with my body and my body had little memory of moving as me. Inside of me I was thinking, come on, leg, you know what to do, But it was like my body couldn’t hear me, like I had no body memory.”
Ido Kedar (2012) details the practical and social consequences of this deficit: “Sometimes my initiating problem is huge. I have to work on this because initiating never comes easy to me. Many nights I am overly hot in bed or too cold, but I lie there like a dope freezing or sweating. I’ll think about how I wish someone would come and give me a blanket or take one off me. I don’t seem to be able to react to my needs of the moment…one time I was walking with my mom and she slipped and fell on her knee. I saw it and I saw she was hurt but just like with my inability to respond to my temperature in bed, I was stuck. I felt terrible because I really wanted to help her and ask if she was okay. Instead I stood there like a statue. Luckily she was able to get up and walk home. If not, it would have been a disaster.”
My mom says that there really is a faulty switch in my brain. The basal ganglia acts as the gatekeeper of the brain. As gatekeeper, it allows an intention from the upper brain to become an action, meaning the intention goes on to the motor parts of the central nervous system. So for example, I may want to get up to exercise, but if my initiation switch blinks, my body doesn’t move. I’m stuck. What’s really strange is that the lower brain seems to circumvent this switch. I once surprised everyone at church by running to grab a doughnut. I usually walk very slowly to church, so probably no one knew I could move that fast.
I use this lower circuit to help me get around my inertia. When I feel stuck, I sometimes ask for a reward, or positive reinforcement. Once I asked Mom to put my favorite tapping toy, my swim goggles, in the bathroom to help me get up and get myself over there. Sometimes Mom shows me my plate of breakfast to get me out of bed. I’ve got a bag of potato chips next to me right now. I will give myself a chip after writing each paragraph.
Negative reinforcements also work. Negative reinforcement is when you make use of something negative to get your emotional brain to get the body to act in order to get away from the negative thing. In my gymnastics story, I got out of the car to get out of the heat. Mom got me out of the chair by tickling me. Negative reinforcement is tricky to do well because if you overdo it, it might cause a tantrum or aggression. I felt pushed unfairly when Mom tickled me out of the chair. My tutor, Miss Belinda, is very good at tickling because she makes it fun by asking me where I want to be tickled next, like my head or elbows. The timer or alarm clock is another form of negative reinforcement. Earnestly be careful though. I cut the wires on a nice alarm clock my tutor bought for me. So don’t let the negative go on too long.
Another trick that helps me get unstuck is imagery. It helps to imagine what I want to do and break it up into steps. I often get out of the car by imagining that I’m getting up out of a ski lift. “3-2-1, lean forward, bow, and stand up,” I say, telling myself the steps. Maybe I should try playing this game to get out of bed in the morning.
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Tito Mukhopadhyay (2011) describes how his mother taught him to talk himself through an action by breaking it into a sequence of steps:
“My plan to write a few lines remained a mere plan because I could not get the mental map required to actually do anything beyond sitting where I was, or to implement my plan. My pencil and my notebook were in the next room, and I could not map my body to go and bring them, although I could very well visualize the process of opening a page and writing.”
Mother asked me to break my plan into step-by-step actions. ‘First, what do you need to do?’ she asked me.
‘I need to stand up,’ I answered.
‘So… do it,’ she prompted. Only when she reminded me could I get up.
‘Next, what do you need to do?’ she asked.
‘I need to face the door,’ I answered.
‘Which way is it? Point,’ she told me when she saw me getting stressed out.
I pointed toward the door. And then I faced the door.
‘Now what do you do next?’ Mother asked.
‘I walk toward the door.’
‘Now do it,’ Mother prompted again.
I walked to the door from where I could see the next room, where my pencil and notebook were kept. And once I saw them, it became very easy for me to bring them to my writing table.
The purpose of learning how to illustrate my thoughts was to enable me to implement my mental wish by appropriately mapping my activities. In order to do so, I needed to have a basic mental image of the objects and a map representation of my body’s orientation in that environment. Things got better with practice. Today, when I tell myself ‘I will need the dictionary,’ I can get a dictionary and not pull any random book off the shelf and get all embarrassed about it.”
Finally, my favorite trick to move is rhythm. I kind of forget I’m autistic when my mom dances with me. As the rhythm starts, my feet move. The rhythm overcomes my tendency to stop.
Inertia is a bothersome obstacle, but it can be overcome by harnessing the lower brain with rewards and negative reinforcers, using imagery, breaking up a motor sequence into steps, and using rhythm. Everything takes patience and practice. Support is essential. I hope I gradually will be able to use these strategies on my own without coaching. Maybe I’ll try chanting to myself. It’s all a matter of getting with the beat!
Kedar, Ido. (2012) Ido in Autismland.
Knierim, James. S(1997-present) “Basal Ganglia,” Neuroscience, Chapter 4,Texas: UT Health Medical School,
Mukhopadhyay, Tito. (2011) How Can I Talk If My Lips Don’t Move. New York; Arcade Publishing.
Williams, Donna (1999) Like Colour to the Blind. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
This article was featured in Issue 80 – Conquering Challenges With ASD