25 Feb 2020

Time is a strange thing

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Time is relative. Time is a concept we don’t think much about. Time is a way of measuring how long something has been or how long it will last. As we now know, time is also relative. That means that time is not always experienced in the same way. A famous example is that of a stove; 5 seconds with your hand on a hot stove is very long, but 5 minutes to be with your loved one is too short.

Time also differs when it comes to experience between people. I notice this almost every day. Of course this has to do with many different factors, such as culture, upbringing and patience. Still, I notice that my awareness of time differs from the neurotypical people around me. I find it very difficult to remember how long ago a certain incident was. I have to remember this with hints, such as documents that are dated and have a relationship with the incident. Or with help from people who were there. Otherwise it soon becomes a case of “about 5-7 years ago, I believe”. And whether that’s true then, depends on it.

Time and the value of social relationships

I have noticed that neurotypical people value social interactions and relationships. They appreciate the time you spend with them, the conversations you have (also about useless topics like the weather or something like that) and practical help. But the value also depends on the point in time when these actions have taken place.

For example, a pleasant conversation that took place a few months ago turns out to have decreased in value. Or helping with a problem is remembered, but seems to be less appreciated in the now than it was then. A relationship also seems to decrease in value when an (unknown amount of) time has passed since the last contact.

I have always found this very confusing. For me, the value of an action does not decrease over time. A pleasant conversation stays with me. But also the opposite is true; if, for example, help has been refused by someone, it stays with me. It is not that I forget nothing, but for me the value of a contact does not decrease or increase purely through the passage of time.

Nowadays I can explain to people that I haven’t been able to see or speak to them for a long time, but that for me nothing changes in our relationship. Either friendship or something else. If I don’t speak to someone for a year or more, it doesn’t change my attitude towards them.

I also don’t find it that important to hear from people on a regular basis. My upbringing also consisted of “No message, good message”. As long as it goes well, you don’t have to keep me informed. It’s not that I am annoyed by people who make regular contact, but I always try to explain to them that I don’t do that. And not because I don’t like them, or because I don’t think they’re important or whatever. I simply don’t realize that I haven’t spoken to someone for weeks or months.

Memories

What about placing events in time? Like retrieving memories of the past? Well, that’s not really a problem for me. As I described earlier, this is where I found my tricks. Also, it’s not like I remember everything all the time. However, it is true that I can remember details that someone else (who was there) cannot remember. I think that’s more because I notice some details before other people do.

That’s also why it sometimes happens that I can’t remember things that other people do. This is usually not a problem and is often taken care of by someone else who helps me. That is one reason why I started not to have very important discussions on my own. I prefer to take someone with me who at least listens, so that I can ask them later if I have forgotten something. Alternatively, it is always convenient to simply record conversations. Then I can listen back and not miss a thing.

Appointments

Appointments. The contradiction of my sense of time lies in appointments. Being in time for an appointment is a must for me. When I make an appointment with someone, I always make sure I am on time. When I have an appointment with someone, it irritates me immensely when they are late. This was worse before, then it irritated me when they weren’t exactly on time. Nowadays, I’ve become a little more flexible about this. It’s still a sensitive point for me, but I leave a quarter of an hour’s leeway.

I keep track of all my appointments in Google Calendar. That way I always have a digital overview of my appointments and I can easily see on my phone when I have an appointment. I also have a navigation program on my phone (Waze) that has a link to my calendar. This gives me a notification from Waze, who lets me know how long I am driving to my appointment.

I can also use Waze to send a message to my appointment with what time I arrive. Very nice, especially because some people have experiences with people who don’t show up. Now that I’m doing this quite regularly with family and friends, I notice that they like it. They know I’m on my way and what time I’ll be there.

Time flow and structure

Hours become days, days become weeks, weeks become months, months become years… To me, it sometimes seems like this is happening outside of me. Of course I do realize that the days go by, and because of my structure I am also reasonably aware of what day it is in the week. But what date it is, I always have to check on my phone. If I would let go of my structure, time would slip by without me noticing. Of course, that has its drawbacks that I’d rather not run into anymore. But for me it’s even more important to guard my structure. It doesn’t mean that I can’t deviate from the planning as it is, but it does mean that sometimes I have to stop myself.

It sometimes seems that people around me have an internal clock that tells them exactly what day it is, what time and when to do things. I realize very well that I don’t have such a clock. If I stick to the structure, I know about what time it is. But when I’m busy at home, I don’t really notice that it’s far into the evening, for example. And then I still have dinner… Which day it is, fortunately I’ve mastered better than I had. I know that on certain days certain things happen. Like a certain chaperone coming by.

But the weeks slowly blend into each other and turn into months unnoticed. And months turn into years. Some people I haven’t spoken to for years, but still feel exactly the way it always was for me. And that confuses some people sometimes…

But yes, time is relative, they say… Only some people don’t realize that relative can be so different…

Thanks for reading
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Tags: autisme ondergevoeligheid dit-is-autisme 
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David Westerink
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I am David, born in 1984 and I'm autistic. I write blog posts and advocate for autism acceptance. I'm willing to talk to anyone about anything.

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  1. This explains my sense of time (or lack thereof) too! Especially with relationships. I wish everyone could pick up where we left off without feeling like the arbitrary passage of time has weakened our friendship.