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Autism and the Sense of Time

By Portia Iversen

A compelling description of the possible impact of autism on the sense of time (telling time). This description of sensing time is excerpted from the book, Strange Son by Portia Iversen, which tells the story of Tito, a highly intelligent boy with autism.

He had so little control over his life, which was made up of his constant and instant happenings. He could not will himself to stand up and walk into the kitchen to look at the clock on the wall. He couldn't even will his eyes to look at his watch on his own wrist and read it. Perhaps the body clock gave Tito a sense of order, and a sense of time, but without the external devices modern man has come to rely on.

Tito went to be by seven o'clock each evening. Dinner with the group was too much to expect of him at that late hour, when he had barely a shred of self-control left. After dinner, I asked Soma to tell me more about Tito and his sense of time.

He did not experience Time the way most people did, she explained. He was anxious all the time because he could not anticipate what was next. When she told him anything having to do with future events, his anxiety redoubled because he could not tolerate the thought of getting from the present moment to a designated time in the future. He had absolutely no ability to wait for anything and it seemed that in this respect, in spite of his otherwise well-developed intellect, Tito was developmentally more like a toddler. If he wanted something, he had to have it right now. She told me that when Tito go the idea that they were going out for ice cream, he would immediately get up and stand by the door until they went. It was this inability to wait that often turned to obsession and led to some of Tito's most intense, even violent outbursts.

Tito could not anticipate, he could not wait, he could not pace himself, he did not know how to live in the measured flow of time, defined by predictable events and expectations, the way most people can. This caused him untold anxiety and at times pure, raw, uncontrollable fear and rage.

Consequently, Soma often avoided telling Tito what was going to happen next. This established an unfortunate cycle in which the less Tito knew what was going to happen, the more his anxiety and sense of uncertainty grew. Yet any future event of which he was informed, be it in one hour or in a year, seemed to arrive with the full urgency of the here and now. This drove Tito crazy. If Soma told him that his father was coming for a visit, Tito would become obsessed with waiting for him, and knowing moment to moment exactly how many more weeks, days, hours, and minutes remained until his arrival. This obsession would occur to the extent tht it interfered with every other aspect of Tito's life. And the anxiety would grow over the weeks and days until it finally exploded in a violent outburst.

Thinking about Tito's sense of time and the body clock he described I recalled one of his poems I'd read in Beyond the Silence, in which he refers to "the continuous flow of happenings." Without any way to live a present built upon a past, or to predict a future, without a means to demarcate the beginning and the end of the events that make up daily life and finally all of life itself, Tito truly did live his life in "a world full of improbabilities, racing toward uncertainty."

Portia Iversen is the author of Strange Son, the story of her search to understand autism and to find a cure for her son through the vehicle of a young autistic Indian boy, Tito. Although he is basically nonverbal, Tito confides his extremely intelligent self observations via the keyboard. This excerpt is reprinted with permission of the publisher.

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