My Autistic Sense of Time Is a Fluid One - An hourglass surrounded by clocks

While I’m writing this article, the blue color in my Time Timer disappears minute by minute. That’s the kind of indication of the passage of time I understand.

I’m autistic. I also have ADHD and a poor sense of time.

My autistic sense of time is different from the neurotypical way.

First of all, I see time visually. Also, I don’t really feel the passage of time internally.

Seeing time visually

I process time differently than neurotypical people. I picture time units visually.

In my mind, each day of the week has a unique color. Monday is yellow, and Tuesday is red. Wednesday is a pale, almost white shade of green. Thursday is bright green, and Friday is purple. Saturday is white, and Sunday is blue.

It’s difficult to explain how I see the time in my head, but I’ll try. I visualize the time with my toes and fingers.

The hours from one o’clock to ten o’clock (am or pm) move through my fingers from right to left.

The pinky toe of my left foot stands for eleven o’clock, and the toe next to it represents noon or midnight.

So, the hours from 10 to 12 (am or pm) move through my toes from left to right. Then, the circle starts over from the pinky finger of my right hand. So, my internal time circle moves clockwise!

When it’s five o’clock, my internal clock is on my right thumb. At eleven o’clock, it’s at my left pinky toe.

I have visualized time the same way since I was a child.

I didn’t know I was autistic until I was 28. So, I never realized how I experienced time was unusual. I thought everyone perceived time the same way as I did.

For me, hyperfocus is not a superpower

While I have a vivid image of time in my mind, I don’t feel the passage of time like most people.

I often experience hyperfocus. I forget to take breaks and eat when I’m in hyperfocus mode.

In hyperfocus mode, I lose my sense of time. When I’m in hyperfocus mode, hours can feel like minutes!

I can focus on specific tasks for hours without taking a break. But not taking breaks still drains me. That’s why I need external reminders to take breaks.

Some neurodivergent people describe hyperfocus as a superpower. For me, it doesn’t feel like a superpower.

When I enter hyperfocus mode, I always pay the price later.

A pocked watch buried in sand

According to research, autistic people have difficulty understanding the passage of time

Research shows that people with ASD (autism spectrum disorder) have difficulty understanding the passage of time. This has a significant impact on how they perceive the world.

The poor sense of time in autistic people could even explain why we don’t know when it’s time to talk in a conversation. Research suggests that temporal synchrony may be impaired in autistic individuals.

There is also evidence that autistic people have difficulty understanding sequential events that don’t have concrete existence.

For example, an autistic child might find it hard to understand what “yesterday” or “tomorrow” means. They need to be concretized by showing them the days on a calendar.

Maybe this explains why I see time visually. I need concrete images, such as colors and my toes and fingers, to make sense of time. I’m an adult now, but I still have the same visual sense of time I developed as a child.

I’ve lost my battle against time

For my whole life, I’ve lost my battle against time. I underestimate how long everything takes, and I overestimate how much I can get done in a day.

I feel like no matter how much time I have, it’s not enough. When it comes to spending time with my interests, time certainly flies. Time disappears.

For example, if I watch my favorite TV show for three hours, I feel like it’s not enough. I want more.

Three hours of watching TV is a lot. But it doesn’t feel like a lot to me. That’s why the modern habit of binge-watching Netflix suits me perfectly!

Talking about Netflix, sometimes I feel like a cookie, the replicated consciousness in Black Mirror. In Black Mirror, they subject the cookies to increased time perception. A cookie could be subjected to perceive one hour as six months.

I often experience the opposite; decreased time perception. For me, an hour of writing can feel like five minutes.

That’s why I set my Time Timer to alarm once an hour so I remember to take breaks. When the alarm goes off, I’m like, “now already?”.

A black and white image of an alarm clock

How do you see the time?

I have a poor sense of time.

However, I see the time visually. I have had the same internal system for processing time since I was a child.

I didn’t know that was related to autism until I got my diagnosis as an adult.

Research shows that autistic people have difficulty understanding the passage of time. We need to concretize the concepts of time with visual cues. We also need external reminders because our internal clock is impaired.

The autistic brain is a beautiful thing. We may have trouble perceiving time, but our brains compensate for that in genius ways.

How about you? Do you have a poor sense of time? Do you have a visual system for how you see the time in your mind? Please share your experience in the comments!

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