About Autism: the Concept of Time

Preface: these posts are about my personal experiences and my personal opinion with regards to autism. I’m not a mental health professional of any sort, nor am claiming to be one. I also do not claim to speak for everybody that has autism, I’m discussing my own experiences. Please keep this in mind while you read any posts in the About Autism series.

It’s often said that time is experienced differently by individuals and that the concept of time itself is a purely human construction. Our idea of time as a society has been constructed and made based around us and what we do.

That said, I often find myself swept up in tasks or chores and generally not adhering – nor not able to adhere – to a schedule everybody else seems to have. Days and nights don’t frankly matter to me because I don’t process them the same way, nor do I process an hour the same way anybody else seems to either. Today, I want to talk a little bit about how I experience time and things that, as a result, I find frustrating or difficult to deal with. I’m writing it because I figure, why not? And maybe it will interest some of you.

To begin with, I have two different concepts of time depending on my state of mind.

The first is being hyper aware of the time, to the point it effects everything I do. The second is being completely oblivious to time as a basic concept, not even recognising its existence.

Let’s talk about the first state first: being hyper aware of the time.

If I make plans with somebody (and as long as I don’t forget, but that’s a totally different post about autism for another day) then generally I keep that plan in mind… basically always. I can’t do anything else without distinctly remembering that plan, as long as it was given a specific time. Do you need something done by two o’clock? My brain locks onto that deadline (for as long as it remembers it) and every following five minutes, I look at a clock.

But that’s mostly because five minutes doesn’t feel like five minutes to me in this state. While hyper aware of time, five minutes feels like hours, so I’m constantly checking myself to make sure I don’t do something late. I’m also highly conscious of how long something will or won’t take me, in general, and together with a habit of procrastinating, I tend to leave jobs until the very last minute. Not intentionally, either… but just because I know how long a job will take me, and I won’t rush to get it out the way first when I just know I can do it later before a deadline.

I’m so hyper aware of the time that even if I go and take a nap, my brain will wake itself up every ten to twenty minutes so I can look at the time. Do I have another ten to twenty minutes? I can probably nap again. It’s physically impossible for me to properly sleep as long as I’m in a state where I’m not only aware of time but I am keenly aware of the fact every second is time passing, meaning a deadline is creeping up on me.

Additionally, because over half my brain is always focused on the time, it’s very easy for me to get annoyed by people reminding me of things that I already know about. Similarly, if a deadline has been set, I’ll get just as annoyed and frustrated at people asking me why I haven’t done something yet if the deadline hasn’t been reached – to the point of almost genuine anger. It isn’t that I’ve forgotten (although sometimes I do forget and, again, that’s another post for another day) and it isn’t like I’m just ignoring the time. In fact, I can’t ignore the time. At all. I’m aware to the very minute how long it’s been since you gave me a deadline and I’m equally aware of how long I have left. Pestering me about things before they’ve been arranged to happen is a sure fire way to light my temper because I’m already somewhat annoyed that my brain’s focus on the time makes it very hard to actually do anything else – even if I rationally know I have the time for multiple things.

If you set a date or a deadline, please don’t harry me about it before the deadline arrives. And don’t be late, either. And don’t change the deadline on the fly. Shit like that messed with my brain really, really badly and will always without fail drive me to annoyance and frustration. I was ready by X time, I had to be because my brain wouldn’t let me do anything bloody else, so why aren’t you ready when you were the one to set the deadline?

The other state of being, when it comes to processing time, is a failure to actually process time… at all.

Some days when I’m really into doing certain things, I don’t just “lose track of time” but time literally stops existing. The day can roll on and the sun can set and the moon can rise and I’ll still just be at whatever time it was when my brain “turned off” the switch that recognised time passes at all. I can do something for eight hours straight, easily, and when you ask me what the time is I’ll still think it’s the time it was when I started doing that.

To be honest, it’s very hard to try and explain the difference between this lack of cognition of time, and then just “losing track” of it. It isn’t that I lose a couple of hours because I get engrossed in a task, because I can lose entire days to this. Weeks, even. I can be involved in a task for an entire week and I’ll absolutely forget what day it is and how many hours I’ve been doing it, because my brain just… stopped recognising that hours passed. It stopped registering the fact different days are a thing that happens.

It’s very easy to forget to do other basic things in this state, too. I recognise that the sun goes up and goes down and that there’s day and night, but I stop processing the fact that this means time is passing. Which also means that basic things I’d normally do get lost in the same oblivion time got lost to, because, well, time isn’t passing any more. Without recognition of the fact that time is going by, my brain also stops recognising that things may need to be done that it would normally otherwise remember.

So you see, it’s more extreme than just “losing track of time” because you effectively forget time even exists in the first place. It means you don’t just lose an hour or two, you don’t just accidentally nap for an extra forty minutes, but instead you lose genuine, actual days. And when your brain next turns the switch back on, it’s like a punch in the face, and you immediately panic because you remember all of the things you’re supposed to be doing that you just didn’t do because your brain was stuck constantly on “It’s Monday at about 9AM” and, as far as it cares, it’s been 9AM on Monday for the last five days. Then suddenly it’s 11PM on Saturday and your brain shits itself just a little bit as it tries to work out what you were definitely supposed to be doing in the days that went by without your notice.

There isn’t as much of a “medium” between these two states for me than you might expect. Strict schedules that I need to adhere to are easy for me because they trigger the state of hyper awareness of time, which is why on work days for example, I’m able to literally set my alarm for ten minutes before I need to leave and never be late. Similarly, flexible schedules that never give themselves a fixed time or a fixed date are the absolute worst thing for me in the world, because without knowing exactly when something must be done, my brain might well wind up accidentally deleting my concept of time and, with it, all the “flexible” schedules that I might have.

Dates and times are required for me to function on routine. Sadly, because of my own sometimes inability to grasp time, I don’t always manage to properly schedule myself and this leads me down the dark rabbit hole of losing weeks at a time and only realising after those weeks have gone that things needed to be done. I can’t self-regulate my time very well because my concept of time overall is rather fucked, so even at twenty-five years old I will always function better and better meet my responsibilities if other people give me times, dates and schedules to adhere to.

And that is also why the idea of a “routine” works well for me. Because if the routine is based on time – do this at X, do this at Y and do this at Z – my brain focuses on X, Y and Z consistently. By that same token, it’s also why flexible routines where nothing is given a time just don’t work for me at all, because without a deadline to meet I simply don’t ever fit them into my schedule to begin with.