Exploring Time

Over the holidays, I spent some time reading a popular book that I got as a Christmas gift: Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert.  It’s about the author’s experiences of spiritual growth and self-discovery while traveling abroad after a divorce.  She has a talent for describing the events of her life, however upsetting, with enough calm reflection to find humor in her situations and to distill meaningful lessons from them.  I was quite enjoying her lively narrative until, in the middle of a chapter about her control issues and her worries about mortality and the passage of time, I came across this paragraph:

I have a friend from high school who now works with the mentally handicapped, and he says his autistic patients have a particularly heartbreaking awareness of time’s passage, as if they never got the mental filter that allows the rest of us to forget about mortality every once in a while and just live.  One of Rob’s patients always asks him the date at the beginning of every day, and at the end of the day will ask “Rob—when will it be February fourth again?”  And before Rob can answer, the guy shakes his head in sorrow and says, “I know, I know, never mind… not until next year, right?”

Without much comment on the exclusionary phrase “the rest of us,” other than to note that our society has a long and unfortunate history of assuming books to be only for the privileged majority, I’ll freely acknowledge that as a child I had an obsessive fascination with calendars and the passage of time.  I put together detailed schedules for my daily activities, which (at age six) even included listing what imaginary character I’d pretend I was on a particular day.  I created fictional worlds with their own precisely constructed calendars and timelines.

But none of this had anything whatsoever to do with a heightened awareness of mortality or fear of the future.  To the contrary, I saw time as a wonderful adventure of exploration and the years ahead as a distant shore full of amazing discoveries to be made.  I wanted to gather the future to me in sparkling droplets of revelation.  If I ever said that a particular date was not coming again for another year, it would have been meant as an expression of impatience that time wasn’t moving quickly enough to suit me.

Although I’m not of course claiming that my experiences represent those of the entire autistic population, I believe it’s fair to describe enthusiasm as the defining quality of autistic obsession.  And when such enthusiasm manifests itself in the context of time and calendars, I’d say it is fully consistent with the autistic style of consciousness that experiences the universe in primary process—that is, as a multitude of vivid and often-contrasting possibilities.  Time is the vehicle in which we travel, or imagine ourselves traveling, to all these potential destinations.  From this perspective, time is not viewed as a simple linear process like the moving sidewalks at an airport, where you just park yourself and your luggage in a particular spot and get carried along at a constant speed while distracting yourself from the tedium by chatting with the other travelers.

I should also mention that, as often discussed by Lili Marlene, many autistics have some degree of synesthesia.  This means that calendar dates aren’t just plain black text on a sheet of paper or a computer screen.  They’re quite likely to be associated with colors, textures, and other sensory perceptions and related emotions.

To me, February 4 is a deep bluish-purple; a breath of cool air on a rainy afternoon; the pleasant glint of polished amethyst; and sugared violets.  I’ve never actually eaten sugared violets, but the idea struck me as wonderfully indulgent when I read something that mentioned them (probably a Victorian novel) many years ago.  Although I’d like to try making sugared violets someday, I don’t ever seem to think about it while they are in bloom—perhaps because, by then, it’s not February 4 anymore.

Now that I’ve grown older I don’t find calendars as fascinating as I did when I was a child.  That interest has been eroded over the years, I suppose, by the mundane schedules and appointments of adult life and the workplace.  There’s nothing particularly interesting about a date on a calendar if it represents an appointment with the dentist to get one’s teeth cleaned, for instance.  Another factor, not quite as easily explained, has to do with modern society’s shift toward an environment of creative discovery.  Not all that long ago, history was generally seen as consisting of specific dates when rulers reigned and wars were fought.  We’re now moving into an era of decentralized social structures, as Mark Stairwalt recently discussed here on Shift, in which political leaders have lost much of their power and history is measured more by social and technological changes than by dramatic events on the calendar.

Still, there’s something about having arrived in the year 2011 that has an exciting futuristic feel to it, as if we ought to have flying cars buzzing around above us and robots doing all our household chores.  That’s not going to happen for a while yet, I know; but I wish a new year of happy discoveries to all Shift’s readers, even if they are joys as simple as tasting sugared violets for the first time.

on 01/5/11 in Autism, featured | 2 Comments | Read More

Comments (2)


  1. This is such a beautiful post, Gwen. You describe your experience with such warmth and love.

    And you are so right to call the author out on the exclusionary language. There are so many problems with the paragraph you quote: the dismissive and dehumanizing phrase “the mentally handicapped” (which, along with its sister phrases “the homeless” and “the disabled,” should be shouted down whenever possible), the ellision of “autistic” and “mentally handicapped,” the disease-paradigm references to people receiving services as “patients”…It reads like a primer of how *not* to write about disabled people.

    But I’m definitely one of those autists who does have a deep and abiding sense of the passage of time. However, this awareness does not inhibit my ability to love life. On the contrary: it increases it. It does feel “heartbreaking” to have this awareness-not in the sense of “incredibly sad,” but in the sense of “breaking my heart open” and being awake and alive.

  2. Gwen McKay says:

    What a wonderful redefinition of “heartbreaking” — I love it! Thanks, Rachel. :)

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