The Little Things: Time Is(n't) On My Side
Time Perception in Asperger Syndrome
Posted Oct 08, 2008
I can still hear my father's brief guffaw of embarrassed confusion...It was my first visit to my friend's house, and the last (that I can recall). I remember nothing about the party itself, but I could not forget the day before. I was mortified.
"Come away, O human child!
To the waters of the wild
With a faery hand in hand
For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand."
In one of her case histories - that of "Mark R.," she writes, "...developing a sense of time was a long, slow, tedious process with few rewards along the way. There were even fewer signs of progress as there are no ground rules for gauging another's concept of the passage of time. He did not grasp it intuitively like others do. At this stage of development he had little faculty for abstracts and had to be given a yardstick to measure them by. That yardstick was a watch. With a fantastic eye for detail and a prodigious memory, mastering the technique of using the watch or clock offered no difficulty. From the age of six he constantly wore a watch and always had two spare watches in readiness in case one broke down. When this happened panic set in until a spare watch was produced. In the meantime life came to a standstill. Often two watches were worn, one on each wrist, both very accurate. As long as he could hear the ticking of the watch, he felt secure, and slowly, imperceptibly, over the years a sense of the passage of time, the present, and future began to develop.
Stopwatch in hand, he timed everything, from the time it took the sound of a train to pass the house, to the time of the chime of the grandfather clock, as if he had an inbuilt knowledge of what he lacked and was building up a reservoir of time to draw on, automatically replacing the abstract with the concrete. Lining up his collection of egg timers, he loved to watch the grains of sand run out as the stopwatch clicked the seconds away. But it took him a long time to grasp the concept that moved in one direction only. There was no going back. He could never return to his childhood because time had marched on and yesterday would not come again. Eventually, he grasped this abstract concept by thinking of time in terms of a train on a single track, traveling across the plains but going in one direction only. Once he got this image he held it firmly in his mind and thoughts of returning to live in the past were fewer. Eventually he accepted the concept and stopped asking such questions as, 'When I'm three again will we go to the zoo again to feed the monkeys?'"
Reading this account, I came to recognize the germs of my troubles with time. From a young age, I easily to lost my grip on the thread of time. I could become absorbed, and lose all awareness of the world for hours at a stretch. In the preschool years, reading stories to me was a better choice than taking me to a movie, or allowing me to watch TV, because you can re-read a story. In the years before DVRs, DVDs, and VCRs, the ending of a movie or TV show I liked created in me a profound sense of loss and grief. I would cry, hurting over the fact the pleasure I felt while watching was gone, that I could not go back in time to recapture it, and did not know if I would ever enjoy it again. Eventually, my parents sat me down and told me that if I couldn't learn to watch without getting upset, then they wouldn't be able to let me watch anymore. I soon learned to pull myself together. If I were born today, I would become the kid that demands to watch the same DVDs over and over for hours on end.
Clearly, I grasped that time was one way, and it was very upsetting to me. However, I didn't have a sense that it was consistent, and passed at the same rate for everyone. My family got quite a bit of amusement out of my persistent idea that I would "catch up" with my older brother. I believed that someday, he and I would be the same age, and maybe, someday, I would be older than him. It took some time for them to convince me that this wasn't so - and I finally stopped threatening him with what I would do to him when I was the older sibling.
In adulthood, I've gotten very good at predicting how long it will take my loved ones to do certain things...but it's not intuition, or anything similar. It's the same type of world observation and notation reported in Mark R. As a child, when I got my first stopwatch, I though it was great. I played with it a lot - but not as much as described in Mark R.
I find myself watching the time on all the activities of daily life, to the point that I could usually throw out the time it takes, on average for many different activities. I find it frustrating, though, at times, when others don't...I find myself thinking, "You've seen me do this often enough...don't you know that it takes me 5-15 minutes to do this...don't you pay attention? Why do you keep asking me how long it will take?"
The average person doesn't need to observe or analyze quite this much. Why? An average person has a sense of time that I don't. I watch, analyze and measure to keep myself on track. In response to my last post, a reader commented, "...whenever I have an appointment or am going to a party, I have this terrible fear that I'm going to arrive on the wrong day or at the wrong time. I don't have the sense that the calendar or clock have an absolute connection to the now." This is my reality, too.
I have a recurring nightmare that I wake up on a beautiful Sunday morning, sleep in, get up, and enjoy a relaxed morning. Then I realize, with horror, that it's not Sunday, but Monday, and I've already missed half of a day of work. Another nightmare is that I'm back in school. I'm lost in a hallway, and I don't have my school schedule. In fact, I don't even know what classes I'm taking. First I wander, lost, through the crowded halls, then find myself alone, still searching for where I need to be.
I finally find my way to the school office, and get my schedule, but I've already missed my first one or two classes. Then it takes me so long to get to my next class, that it's over when I get there. Then, the whole thing starts over again from the very beginning, and I'm again wandering, confused, not knowing what happened. By the time I jerk awake, I've gone through this cycle so many times that I'm hopelessly behind and realize that in my dream, I'll never graduate.
Another commenter described a very similar dream, "I had nightmares for years after my one year of college. Dreamed that I had a class, but couldn't remember what time it was held or which classroom it was in.
If I didn't have my schedule with me, I was completely lost. I'd wander the hall where I thought the class should be, looking for a familiar face, but I rarely recognized anybody."
In daily life, I'm rarely far from a clock, or a watch. At work, I have long been an enthusiastic adopter of time management software. I need the automatic reminders to keep myself on track. At home, I keep music playing or the TV on.
Music and television provide auditory and visual yardsticks for time....at minimum, the changeover in shows creates natural breaks on the half hour or hour marks. Further, most shows have a structure that is consistent, so that if you even half follow it, you can generally get a fairly good sense of how much time has passed, and how much is left to go. (For example, I enjoy the show House M.D....in it, each episode begins with a medical crisis. Then, House and his team brainstorm on a diagnosis. Next, there are two to three false starts before they actually find the true diagnosis. At the end, they treat the patient and wrap up the episode. So, for example, if they're only on the first diagnosis...you know that they're not far into the episode.) As for music - the average popular song is about three to four minutes in length, so its very easy to calculate the passage of time...three songs equal nine to twelve minutes, four songs equal twelve to sixteen, and so on.
It makes for an interesting experience of life. And the most interesting thing about it, to me, is that it took a couple of comments from fellow Aspergians to make me truly examine and realize how much these issues effect my life...and the adjustments I make to my troubles with time.