In soft time

Takiwatanga*, the reality of autistic people, is a gentle world. In fact, it is so gentle that even time has a softness to it. Arrow of time exists here just like it does in neurotypical reality, as it originates from entropy. However, as far as current physics allows variations in experience of time, there appear to be some notable differences.

In deficit-oriented language, these have been described in words such as ”difficulty to plan the future”, ”ruminating in past”, ”atypical functioning of memory”, ”immaturity”, ”late blooming” or ”being little adults”, ”enjoying repetition and sameness”. I argue, that in big picture, all of these phenomena have one thing in common: they describe aspects of experiencing time and point at there existing a difference between autistic and neurotypical experience. Naturally, not every autistic person’s experience is similar (and same can be said for neurotypical people). Besides being gentle, Takiwatanga is a vast world and each of us inhabits a different spot of if. So I am not trying to tell here, what all autistic people are like but instead propose a way to understand certain parts of common autistic experiences one might encounter.

To me Takiwatangan reality is a wonder rather than a disorder, so I prefer to talk these phenomena as instances of soft time. Softness inherent to Takiwatangan time dimension means that past, present and future are not as sharply distinct as they are in neurotypical experience. Our memories are not linear narratives -some things we forget more easily than most, while especially emotional memories can be very powerful. This is especially true for those of us with strong affective empathy (which is an autism typical way to experience empathy, but again, everyone is different in both quality and quantity of experiencing empathy). Most emotionally powerful moments are the softest, and as living them changes a person and shapes the way they understand the life from then on, they imprint themselves into every moment of one’s life from then on. In essence, part of them never fades. They remain soft and relevant, connecting and reconnecting with new experiences as time flows by.

 Autistic ability to see patterns and connections between things that appear as separate for most, is another factor with somewhat similar effect. Planning for future is difficult, if one experiences interrelatedness of things strongly and sees future as ever-moving network of endless possibilities where nothing is certain, where interactions of known factors may give rise to emergent phenomena and black swans may take flight at any time. What point is there in making careful plans, pretending that events will likely unfold that exact way if one sees plainly that future is always in motion? How can any plan be much more than a statement of how one would prefer the future to turn out?

In same way, talking about ”ruminating” is an extremely negative way to describe a conception of time where past truly *is* present in its tracks and the shape of things as they manifest current time. ”Nothing is truly lost forever”, as late fantasy writer Robert Jordan might put it. All things that ever were, all events that ever passed, have their place in World All and connect to present via chains of causality, memory and inspiration. There is depth and beauty (and ecological excellence) in autistic ability to enjoy things intensely on repeat, in finding pleasure from routines, without need to constantly chase new stimuli and experiences. Experiencing relevance of past intensely is not ruminating unless you choose so -but there is also a choice to turn vividity of memory and sense of relevance into something constructive.

Autistic way of being can also be understood as consequence of living in soft time, outside social pressures to change and conform into a narrow mold of age-appropriatedness. To be authentic is to be fully present in each moment. Not only do we perceive soft time around us, we also carry it within ourselves. To those who see us from a different reality, we are part of a world living in soft time. As such, we may at times appear resistent to timestamps that neighboring reality tries to imprint on us while trying to fit us into its heavily linear time conception. To those who find themselves struggling to match autists in their lives with ”typical” people of that age…what if you just stopped?

I can see that there may be some satisfaction or feeling of accomplishment in managing to neatly box a person. But surely it cannot compete with the opportunity to see a glimpse of a different space-time unfold before you, which is exactly what would happen, if you accepted the autistic person and allowed them to remain outside your boxes instead. If you did that, you might see them, for a moment, swimming gracefully and tirelessly in stream of their own time where they truly belong. A soft time, different, but real enough to be experienced in moments of reflection and wonder.

The autistic way of experiencing time is no less valid or wrong than the neurotypical way. Common sense went out of the window some hundred years ago, never really recovering from discoveries such as relative space-time and quantum entanglement that slap the idea of a steady march of time silly. The notion of ”normal experience of time” and pathologizing any alternative ways to perceive time is equally deserving of defenestration. Current physics’ long project of inquiry seem to confirm Immanuel Kant’s conjecture of time being a form of human perception; a way for a human brain to make sense of reality. And ”human”, as we should well know, is not neurologically uniform. World All is so huge it can easily swallow both neurotypical steady march of time and soft time of Takiwatanga…and probably much more.

*Takiwātanga is māori word for autism, literally meaning ”in their own time and space”. While not a conflict free term, many autistic people find it more respectful and friendly way to describe autistic experience than ”autism”. Personally, I find it useful for describing autistic experience of reality.

My autism understanding is based on combination of relevant educational background and work experience, active membership in autistic community and upon reflecting on my own autistic experience. Kaiao is committed to communicating about autism in a way that supports equity of autistic people and describes autistic experience with respect and appreciation, as an inherently valueable way of being a human.