February 22, 2021

Neurodivergent people and time perception

As Neurodivergent people, there are many aspects of our neurological processing that diverge from the rest of the population, including how we sense time.

Agustina C.M.

Guest Writer

Neurodivergent people and time perception

Agustina is the voice behind @theautisticlife, a space where she shares resources about living life as a Neurodivergent human.

As Neurodivergent people, our differences in executive functioning skills such as focus and attention, emotional and impulse control, working memory, planning, and organization can all be linked to our distinct perception of time.

Executive functions and perception of time

The executive functions are a set of cognitive skills responsible for regulating, controlling, and managing our thoughts and actions. And all of these skills impact our perception of time. Timing is linked to working memory, planning, and attention; all skills that Neurodivergent people may find challenging. In the context of time perception, our executive functioning profiles can manifest as difficulty understanding and following schedules, sequencing events, and how actions relate to one another, their order, and duration. Working memory is a combination of short-term memory and attention. Its function is to help us retain the information we've recently heard or seen so that we can finish the immediate task at hand. Not recalling a recent conversation, losing track of what we are supposed to do, entering a room and not remembering what for, are all examples of weak working memory. Challenges with focus and attention mean we often have a hard time paying attention to what we are supposed to be doing. Distractibility comes in many forms; some people are externally distracted by their environment, and others are internally distracted by thinking of other things. As Neurodivergent people, we are more likely to have trouble keeping focus for enough time to finish the task while filtering out possible distractions. This means that certain activities might take us longer than anticipated or than they usually take us because we lose focus.

Strong planning and organizational skills guarantee that we arrive at places on time with the right tools in hand. If you struggle with these skills, you are more likely to have a hard time breaking tedious tasks into smaller steps, and you feel flooded by the "big picture." This results in not being able to come up with a quick step-by-step plan to reach the goal in time and often miss deadlines. Organizational skills can also affect our time management, manifesting themselves as ineffective planning and struggling to estimate time. We may underestimate the amount of time a task will take us, making us more prone to miss deadlines. We might find it challenging to figure out the steps we need to follow in order to finish a task. We may feel like we can't keep up with a scheduled routine.

Some Autistic people report:

  • Experiencing stressing out about not having enough time to do something.
  • Not knowing how much time has passed from one moment to another.
  • Feeling upset because it feels like the day slipped away and they weren't able to do enough, often impacting their self-esteem.
  • Difficulty to remember which month, year or season we are in.
  • Time blindness manifested as not being able to tell the difference between five minutes and five hours.
  • Overestimating or underestimating how much time we need to finish a task.
  • Lack of chronological memory meaning we remember events, but we don't know how they relate to one another.
  • Not remembering our age, other people's ages.

Coping with our differences in perception of time

Many of these challenges are compensated with strategies such as continually checking the time, obsessively being aware of it, meticulously tracking events or tasks, and extreme punctuality. As a result, differences in time perception can make us develop severe anxiety related to time and being late. Fear can make us extraordinarily punctual and finish tasks before deadlines, potentially leading us to burnout more easily. We may struggle with time as if it's passing too slow, and have such a strict routine out of fear of making a mistake. Whenever something interrupts our expected routine, it might cause a lot of discomfort.

Many of these challenges are compensated with strategies such as continually checking the time, obsessively being aware of it, meticulously tracking events or tasks, and extreme punctuality.

Another thing that can impact our time perception is our hyper-awareness of sensory stimuli. Neurodivergent people have different sensory processing systems. Our brains are capable of perceiving most of what's happening around us compared to neurotypical people, leading us to be alert of our surroundings and what's happening within us.

Executive functioning differences can lead to impulse control challenges, making it hard to stay on a task. Many times we may distract ourselves out of impulsivity and procrastination, resulting in feeling like our day has slipped away. Other times, we might not make a mistake underestimating the amount of time that a task will take us. The problem lies in distractibility; the sensory stimuli around us – or lack of it – have become uncomfortable. As a result, a seemingly simple task that usually takes us 25-30 minutes in ideal conditions might take us longer.

Things that can help

If your sense of time is interfering with your daily life, it can help you visualize the number of tasks that you need to do and establish a potential order that fits your motivation and inspiration before starting a complex task. Take a moment to break it down into smaller tasks so you can have a better sense of how much time it may take you to finish it.

  • Keeping a journal with how long it usually takes you to do everyday tasks such as showering, laundry, and cooking for future reference.
  • Apps such as Google Maps can help you estimate the amount of time it will take you to move from one place to another.
  • Apps like Tiimo as a visual aid to help you schedule blocks of time for your day-to-day activities.

Developing a system that works for us is key to managing executive functioning differences and preventing long-lasting consequences. Not everything will work for everyone, and that's okay. If you haven't found your method yet. I encourage you to try different ones until you find one that meets your needs.

You can find more of Agustina's content via theautistic.life, @theautisticlife on Instagram or on Patreon.

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