Health Magazine

Time Blindness and Autism

By Gbollard @gbollard
icon of a head with a clock in it.
People with Autism and Asperger's syndrome may experience a variety of different executive functioning issues. These include issues with; organisation skills, self regulation, the ability to process tasks sequentially and remembering instructions, multi-tasking, filtering distractions, setting priorities, planning and attention focusing. 

In this post, I want to focus on "time-blindness" and look at some of the causes and the ways in which this obstacle can be reduced.

What is Time-Blindness?

Time blindness is when an individual becomes somewhat unaware of the passage of time. Like most executive functions, the ability to measure and manage time is part innate and part learned. It needs to be practiced and honed in order to keep it sharp and functional but it comes more naturally to some people than to others. People on the autism spectrum and people with related issues, such as OCD and ADHD can have particular difficulty in this area.
Time-blindness can impact people in a very big way and can make it difficult for them to get to places on time, complete their work and function in a society where everything seems to have a deadline..

What causes Time-Blindness?

There are many factors that influence time-blindness and these include behavioural influences, upbringing and the general mindset of the individual.  Some of things that are particularly related to autism include;

Hyperfocus and Special Interests

Hyperfocus is a well-known trait that many Autistic people share. It's often, but not always, connected to special interests. Hyperfocus is when a person gets so engrossed in a task that they lose track of the world outside their task. With the right focus, this can be a great gift and it's one of the reasons why many people on the spectrum are able to become very successful, particularly in the areas of science and computing.  A hyperfocused individual may power through lunch without realising that they're hungry and it's not uncommon for them to look up and suddenly realize that they're in an office all by themselves because everyone else has already gone home.

Poor Time Estimation

People on the spectrum often have little understanding of how long a task is going to take. As a result, they may start a long and difficult task that cannot be interrupted when they clearly don't have enough time to complete it. For example they may decide to clean out a refrigerator ten minutes before they're due to leave. Such a task often cannot be interrupted and needs to be completed. This results in the person being late.

Skipping Steps

Another area where people go wrong is in missing out steps in a procedure. They plan to be at a specific place at a particular time but don't think the entire thing through. As a result, they don't factor in transport times or the need to get changed before they leave. Often, people with time blindness will leave home at the time that they're supposed to be arriving at their destination. This isn't because they don't understand that time is needed but simply that they fail to factor the journey into the procedure. 

Perfection

Many people on the autism spectrum are perfectionists and many also have OCD. While having OCD can be beneficial for a time-blind person on a strict routine, it can create great problems when flexibility is required.  OCD can make simple tasks take far longer and can add multiple layers of unnecessary doubt and "double-checking". If someone with OCD is  following a set of procedures written for others, their times are likely to be completely different. 

Self Regulation and Self Control

Distractability is a big issue for many autistic people, particularly people with a co-condition like ADHD. Technology is often the worst of the distractions with computer games and mobile phones frequently pulling individuals off-task. It's not simply an issue during work hours either as these distractions can prevent people from completing daily chores and personal hygiene. They can also result in people staying up all night and being unable to wake or unable to function in the morning. Computer games often encourage total focus and are usually played with the curtains closed. They are very addictive and often have their own day and night cycles which do not line up with the outside world. There are no clocks displayed on the screen and the passage of time can easily become lost. 

Two computer game screens, one in day mode and the other in night mode.

Computer Games have their own day/night cycles.


How can we reduce the effects of Time-blindness?

While nothing is going to be one-hundred percent effective against time-blindness, there are quite a few things that we can do to reduce the issues. These include;

Increasing the presence of time

This really does mean to hang clocks everywhere. Make sure that there's a visible clock in the rooms that the person with time-blindness uses most frequently. This should include bedrooms, kitchens and TV/Games rooms. While it's stylish to have analog clocks with invisible numbers, it's much more effective to have digital clocks as these will leave no doubt as to when a certain time is reached. Having a watch, such as a Fitbit or Samsung with multiple alarms (and a vibrate mode) will also help. 

Use technology as a prompter

There's a lot of great technology available now that will help you to manage time. Phones and watches now have multiple alarms that you can set for specific times (for example when it's time to leave the house for work or school) and alarms that you can set for specific duration, such as "one hour of game-playing time". Some of the best of these alarm systems are the home assistant devices, like Google Home and Amazon Alexa. You'll find that you can use these for other things too, such as keeping track of your day and determining how long it will take you to get to places.

Set aside time for interests

Nobody is suggesting that anyone give up their special interests. To do this would make it unlikely that your aspie would be interested in doing other tasks. Instead, the idea is to plan out the time that is allocated to those interests to ensure that it doesn't conflict with other things, so for example, starting the next level of a computer game five minutes before dinner doesn't happen. 
Planning doesn't have to be detailed but it's important to recognize that the interests are critical to the individual's happiness and should ideally be uninterrupted. Find a 30 minutes to one hour slot in the day where this is possible and slot those interests in. If possible, set a timer (or say to your google home; "Hey Google, set a timer for one hour called Game Playing"). 


Plan and Prepare in more detail

When my wife is taking us somewhere, she'll often say, "be ready to leave at six". That's the extent of her planning because that's all she needs. In my case, I'll work it out in more detail. I need to be ready at six.  Which means that I'll need at least 30 minutes to get dressed, another 15 for breakfast and probably 15 for a shower. So, that means that I'll need to wake up at five. I'll also select my clothes and pack my bag the night before so that I'm as ready to go as possible. 

Plan to be early

Too often, we plan our day around deadlines. We know that we have an appointment somewhere at 2pm, so we plan to be there at 2pm. This leaves us in a very vulnerable position if anything were to go wrong. Instead, whenever possible, plan to be there at 1pm. Plan to be early and then if your connections fail you, you'll won't necessarily be late.
This morning, my son said to me, "my bus doesn't leave for another 15 minutes and I can walk to the stop in 6". I reminded him that if he gets to the bus stop early, that's 9 minutes that he can spend playing on his phone and that given that it's school holidays at the moment, buses will emptier and will be  running faster than usual.  It's not something that kids will usually consider.

Work against perfectionism, when it creates delays

There's nothing particularly wrong with a bit of perfectionism. I love having my books perfectly arranged in alphabetical order with the titles lining up correctly. I'm careful with the way that I name files when saving, to create the same effect. Perfectionism can create great, easy to use systems which are not just a pleasure to use but also provide a lot of great advantages. Unfortunately, sometimes these systems can take a long while to perfect -- and sometimes the time they take outweighs their benefits. 
It's important to be able to recognize when a particular custom of yours isn't helping and to stop doing it in order to save time. Sometimes this isn't always apparent and sometimes familiar routines are difficult to let go of.  If they take too much time, let them go.

A bookshelf containing books arranged by colour

Not all OCD Routines add value


Time blindness can be a great thing when you're working on a project with a long deadline and you need to be able to ignore distractions to give your 110%.  It's not a good thing when there's a clear and close deadline. Fortunately, it only takes a few changes of habit to negate the worst effects. 

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