Why time is a rubber band: on autistic perception of time as difference without deficit
This is a non-definitive short essay on autistic temporality.
I became interested in the question of ‘autistic time’ a few months before my formal diagnostic assessment. Perhaps typically for an undiagnosed adult questioning whether they are ‘on the spectrum’, I developed a fixation with autism. Everything about autism pulled me in, indiscriminately. It was as though I tried in a single colossal yawn to suck in everything ever produced in response to the concept, and anything else that may possibly relate. I cannot explain what happened exactly, but I know that months flashed by like days. Time always seemed to, under similar conditions, rapidly escape me – completely ‘pass me by’ – something my mother remembers as markedly atypical about me as a child. You seem to have a distorted, poetic sense of time, she said. And now again, fixated on a new problem, it was as though the timeline of my days – having gone stretched and stretched and stretched in months of frustrated ennui – had finally been released, snapping me into the future.
I don’t really remember those months. Nothing else seemed important. This is what makes Autistic interests ‘special’ perhaps, what makes them so unlike (but also alike) other obsessions. It’s not the interest itself that is so odd or strange. It is the sudden rapidity gained by the world around it, the sheer velocity that life can take.
I began my exploration with what I would now call the ‘pathology paradigm’. I read landmark papers, case studies, diagnostic manuals in their many historical reiterations. I looked for myself in the changing, competing and contradictory definitions, now seeing a part of myself precisely reflected, now losing that glimpse again. The literature of impairment was not what first made me question if I were Autistic, however it spoke to some of my seemingly incorrigible struggles, identifying my actions as ‘behaviours’, my tendencies as ‘traits’. What I thought were my own idiosyncrasies now fit uncannily well with a pre-pathologized way of being. And yet, I was frustrated and underwhelmed. The pathologists seemed mostly uninterested in theorizing connections between Autistic ‘inner’ experience and ‘outward’ behaviour, favouring biomarker-behaviour speculation instead. The Autistic to them was a rudimentary mind locked in an android body, encasing an enigmatic brain that will one day, they seemed sure, be completely understood.
And yet despite the pathologists’ faith in the existence of the elusive biomarker – the material cause of ‘the autism’ for neurobiologists to locate – their accounts seemed to lack any talk of difference. Instead, they seemed to assume that Autistic people are the same as typical people, only with more hemispheric lesions, more suffering in their lives, more incoherent fears and desiresand an innate and almost unique inability to truly access and appreciate the world.
Again and again, the perverse conclusion: Autistic difference is really a failed identity with the healthy control, only ‘different’ insofar as deficient, only deficient insofar as pathologically ‘less’, or pathologically ‘more’ than the typically developing, the ‘neurotypical’. Even if the Autistic can do something well or ‘better’ than the non-autistic, this is still to be understood as necessarily bound to lack. Whether good, talented, gifted or ‘savant’, the Autistic is still to be shown as shut off from something, a ‘something’ that would so easily and naturally be available to ‘the rest of us’, to anyone with a normal neurology.
Autistic life forms were conceptualized, I came to understand, as typical life forms, only ‘affected’ by a disorder and therefore – no matter the specimen – smaller, shrunken, shriveled. This is the difference between the Autist/Autistic and ‘person with autism’. The ‘person with autism’ is denied personhood, because their identity is not theirs to describe.
Unsatisfied, I turned to Autistic autobiographies. I came across a website which many of you may know, M Kelter’s Invisible Strings. I read and reread M’s writing. It gave me a strange feeling. It was as though I recognized the unnamable things he tried and often struggled to describe, although our situations were quite different. Rather than a sense of identity with M’s descriptions of himself, it was the kinds of problems that he couldn’t quite pose that I knew were my set of problems too. I read a story about a final year of college, philosophy books, long walks, insomnia, isolation. About something without a name eroding your sense of time.
This struck a chord, familiar.
It’s true. The world rushes fast past me and I can’t stop it.
Memory. People, gestures, expressions. Collaged parts of other children’s moving bodies. No memories of their faces. Contours of static objects multiply into terrifying cinematic series. Shadows constantly moving around me when I was small. The unending roar of a toilet flushing a floor above. The obsessive need to close doors to minimize the incoming, to minimize aural and visualmovement just at the periphery of my perception, to try and arrest for a moment the change imperceptible to flippant parents and angry teachers and laughing peers. Unnamed objects full of colour, bursting with shape. Trees, terrifying, snaking, incredible tactile trees. Being dragged away from every single thing I enjoyed, constantly nudged, rushed, screamed at. Don’t be so slow. Pay attention. Why can’t you plan ahead.
Each faraway memory stands out stark, loaded with several incomplete pictures within it. Each picture dragsheavy with overbearing, excruciating levels of detail. Each image encodes several seconds of motion, repeated meaninglessly on loop over and over and over, like a complex .GIF file. Sensations stand out like open dollhouses, odd figures without date and context.
Years go by and I don’t get as far as I am expected. I drop out, I fuck up, I don’t get a job. I lose friends, I lose people I love. I don’t learn the social lessons fast enough to keep the people who run out of patience. I am always late.
‘It’s not a mental illness. It is a neurodevelopmental condition’.
Rubber bands are hard, elastic, musical, rich with potential energy. A rubber band can stretch beyond your expectations, and snap painfully just as you thought you understood how it works. The doctor who diagnosed me had one around his wrist. The italicized words are his. I don’t remember his face, I was too sick with anxiety to try. And yet, so easily I recollect the memory of his thin wrists, thin fingers, thin pen, floating over and across the lines and pages of my life as he pauses over and takes into consideration my partner’s testimony, my earliest school reports, my medical records, my atypical pain threshold, my shit jokes, my repetitive head hitting, my anorexia and bulimia diagnoses, my hospitalization, my anti-social behaviours my frequent suspensions my sexual assault my failures to turn a fresh leaf my inability to meet people halfway my spinning my screaming my loss of speech my years of exclusion and isolation.
Snap, goes the rubber band. I drop my commas as everything that my diagnostician tried to arrange into a linear timeline happens to me again, unevenly, in warps of association, a simultaneous sequence of inaccessible nows, happening again together unevenly all at once. He asks me questions about the present and I try to filter the patterns of the past to give a good answer but people, impatient again talk around me as if I don’t understand, as if I am not quite there.
Autistic time is a rubber band; elastic, non-linear just like and unlike any other. I just need a minute to catch my breath.
This essay forms part of a series of posts addressing themes from the neurodiversity movement and paradigm which will be published during the course of April 2016. To read the rest of the posts, please click here.