The Autism Files: the problem of time

What is time?

I don’t want a complicated philosophical answer, I just want to know- what is time?

It’s not that easy to answer is it? Most of us know what time means don’t we? It is the rising and setting of the sun, it is the ticking of a clock, it is the passing of… time… Hhmm. There’s a name for describing something using the thing itself and it’s not really very helpful if you imagine having to explain time to someone who has absolutely no idea what it is or means.

Do you know how long a minute is? I challenge you to test yourself and set a timer then don’t look at it and see if you can judge when the 60 seconds have passed. It’s actually not that easy when you are trying hard to think about it (unless you count the seconds “one Mississippi, two Mississippi…”) But having said that, most people have a general idea about the passing of time. We can gauge roughly how long it will take to travel from A to B taking into account the types of roads and the traffic for that time of day. We can gauge how much work we can get done within a given amount of time. We know when it’s ok to push time- to leave a bit late, to carry on something after the ‘finished’ time has gone past and we mostly know when time really matters and we have to stick to set times.

So now imagine someone with Autism where they cannot visualise or conceptualise the idea of time. Some individuals have very little awareness of the passing of time and may be governed only by feelings of hunger or tiredness or daylight vs darkness. (Though you can see the problems even with this when days are much longer in summer and shorter in winter.) Others have the beginnings of an understanding of what time means, but it is often a very rigid and inflexible one. Therefore you can imagine the upset and confusion when at a doctor’s appointment for 10am and they are not called until 10.20am due to delays. Or when a cake recipe says bake for 30 minutes but for some reason it isn’t ready and needs an extra 10 or 15. Or even at another level still when an individual is told that their dinner will be ready on 15 minutes but they have absolutely no idea what 15 minutes is and begin to get upset and anxious after about 25 seconds.

Visual aids can help here. Sand timers often prove invaluable as the individual can sit and watch the sand trickle through until it is all gone and they can then have their dinner/move on to the next activity/get their coat on to go out. But this isn’t very helpful if the person supporting does not know exactly how long they will have to wait.

I cannot imagine how stressful the world would be if I had no idea what time was. If I could tell the time but I was unable to perceive how long ‘time’ lasted. I can’t imagine what it would be like to know that something was happening next week but be unable to visualise how far away that was.

There are many things that cause upset and anxiety for people with Autism. But not knowing where they are in time or when things are going to happen is one of the longest enduring and probably one of the most terrifying.


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