On Autistic Time

It’s honestly too dense for me adequately to make sense of on its own terms, but Wouter Kusters’ meditation on the psychotic experience of time has a couple of interesting things I wanted to highlight entirely for my own purposes, because I’m always on the lookout for ways (even be they happenstantial or metaphoric) to explain some of my autistic experience.

Kusters describes two ways in which time is understood, philosophically: “the external-objective-static view and the internal-subjective-dynamic view”. In the fixed view “time exists outside our consciousness as part of reality”, a sort of grid upon which there exists an “earlier” and a “later”; whereas the moving view “speaks of experienced time, lived time, the time of the soul, inner time” that is “based on the here and now” and where “the only time that really exists is the present”.

He suggests that there is a kind of unresolvable paradox between these two views of time and that “normal people” (as opposed to psychotics) “articulate, sublimate, or cover the paradox by means of shared stories”—in essence that what he terms “human time” is the time of narrative.

The psychotic, Kusters argues, understands fixed and moving time but “cannot make a connection between the two”.

Because there is no “human time” in madness by which dynamic and static time are connected, the static order of time is in danger of disintegrating. The static time axis is divided by means of moments. Moments cut time into pieces; they cause natural time to become fragmented. Each moment is like a cutting edge between a past period and a coming period. In the purely static view, calendar “dates” degenerate into a loose collection of temporal elements, without any inherent coherence or lived continuity. […]

In order to form a unit consisting of more than “loose sand,” moments would have to reach forward and backward in time — that is, to other moments. This is possible only if the moment itself already refers to the future and the past. In madness, however, past and future are not experienced as belonging to — or as aspects of — the present. This discontinuity creates fragmentation, and such fragmentation can affect the whole sense of the reality of time.

Longtime or close readers at this point might know where I’m going with this: to my autistic brain’s need for narrative structure rather than that of the database, not just in terms of my oft-cited inability to use social media but (as described in that linked post) in terms of engaging with real-world tasks.

(Parenthetically, and somewhat beside the point at hand, I read Julian Baggini’s thoughts on pet death in the same sitting as Kusters’ thoughts on “mad time” and it coincidentally has its own, brief sojourn into “lives as an unfolding narrative” versus those of “only tasks”.)

Kusters again:

When the various moments in time disconnect themselves from each other and are no longer organized in terms of time, they end up being “adjacent” in a certain sense. One event or time period is no longer connected to another event or period; rather, the two stand side by side.

The “human time” Kusters describes (which, really, is a terrible term as it positions the psychotic somehow as inhuman) is the time my brain rigidly adheres to; it’s my only way of to engage the world, be it online or off, absent significant anxiety.

In terms of social media, the feed for me is time cut “into pieces”, is time “fragmented”, is “loose sand” that exists “without any inherent coherence or lived continuity”. So, too, the garage-sorting task I described in that earlier post., and I cannot contain, mentally manipulate, or understand loose sand.

(Per the earlier discussion of blogging: for my brain, chronological organization of one person’s thoughts, as opposed to the superficially-similar social media feed, is more “lived continuity” than the latter’s “loose sand”.)

In important, substantial ways, my autistic brain operates by predictive processing as a way to cohere the fragments in advance. Anticipation beats compensation every time, because anticipation reads like narrative but compensation feels like a database. Autistics often rely on rigid (by normative standards) habits and routines because they form a sort of psychic respite that conserves resources for the fragmented database of the outside world.

When too often forced out of this, our narrative drive, we suffer very real, if “merely” psychological harms. I’m not, here, arguing that it makes us psychotic, but the mental health impacts of not being allowed to manage the discrepancies between the buffeting storm of the normative world and the things our brains and bodies need to do in order to engage with it are very, very real.

To briefly borrow Kusters’ artless term, “autistic time” is like a ramped up, somewhat less flexible “human time”. We script and we stick to routines and habits and we ask a lot of questions in advance of things because we must. These behaviors help make our moments “reach forward and backward in time […] to other moments”, generating the narrative that keeps our story moving forward.

Referring posts: