Experiencing The Passage of Time When Living with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Time has an extremely important role in our daily lives even if we don’t consciously think about it. Whether it’s waking up, going to work or having dinner, time marks each event and moment. But do we experience time the same during each hour of the day? Of course not. 

Our perception of time hugely correlates with our mood. If we are engaged in a fun activity or are deeply hooked in a movie, our experience of time differs tremendously from when we are performing a mundane task or find an insignificant conversation boring.

Early researchers have found that some psychopathologies are correlated with disturbances in how we experience time. For example, this is the case for schizophrenia, depression and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). 

The American Psychological Association defines ASD as “a neurodevelopment disorder that is characterized by difficulties with social communication and social interaction and restricted and repetitive patterns in behaviors, interests and activities.”  Symptoms are present early on in development and affect daily functioning. The characterized repetition of pattern is what may be associated with disturbances in experiencing time, but the possible relationship between  he latter and social interaction in autism has still not been fully investigated. 

In 2018, to address this lack of qualitative bibliography, Vogel et al. performed research to analyze how 26 adults with high-functioning ASD experience the passage of time. For a more complete discussion, though, the findings have been compared with another study by the same authors, with the exact methodology, albeit in participants without ASD.

The Unexpected Results of a Qualitative Study

Surprisingly, just as with individuals without ASD, results have shown that time was experienced as having passed more quickly as age increased and if engaged in pleasant situations. On the contrary, though, time was perceived as slowing down if individuals were in unpleasant situations.

In this qualitative research, there was not a clear difference made between the experience of time in individuals with ASD and the presence of social interactions of lack thereof. This means that social aspects don’t have any influence on experiencing time. As a result, authors came to speculate that the affective imprinting of social situations rather than social situations themselves is most likely to cause the perception of time flying by or slowing down.

In individuals with ASD, personal interest and a deep engagement in an activity fostered a state of flow, which had been defined by the participant as time disappearing.  

This state of flow was reported while individuals were engaged in social situations. Even if it was also observed in individuals without ASD, it has seemed to be highly important in the case of those individuals with ASD. This made the authors hypothesize that this state may be related with the routinary behaviors typical of ASD or could be seen as a desirable state for individuals with the disorder.

The research has also shown a generalized need of using clocks or calendars to be able to tell time, a characteristic which has also been observed in wider literature ((Boucher, 2001; Boucher et al. 2007; Allman & DeLeon, 2009; cited in Vogel et al., 2018). 

In conclusion, this study results show that individuals with ASD experience the passage of time as speeding up during pleasant (social) situations or slowing down in unpleasant activities (or unpleasant social circumstances). The passage of time may also appear as vanishing when they’re deeply enjoying activities or social encounters. 

In Virtualtimes, we are analyzing and studying the sense and structure of time by generating a flow state with the use of VR gaming. The experience of time can be distorted due to certain psychopathological conditions. Funded by the European Union, this project aims to provide individuals with opportunities to re-experience and normalize a variant and distorted sense of time.

Other articles that might interest you: