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Opinion

For people with autism, time is slippery concept

by  /  29 August 2014

One of my three sons has an autism spectrum disorder, and another has a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. These two boys are so behaviorally similar, though, that we’ve often wondered where one diagnosis ends and another begins.

One area of overlap is their sense (or lack thereof) of time and timing. They both show delays in responding to spoken questions or requests. When their peers learned to tell time in elementary school, they were completely at sea, unable to instinctively comprehend the passage of time. Even now, in their adolescence, the question “What day is it?” is frequent, as is “What are we having for lunch?” within an hour of having had lunch.

These differences in time perception are probably familiar to many people with autism and their families. And studies are increasingly confirming what we can relate anecdotally. The most recent, published 30 July in Autism Research, found that people on the autism spectrum have an impaired sense of time.

The researchers asked 27 children with autism and 25 controls, all aged 9 to 17 years, to gauge how long a light bulb glowed. Sitting in front of two bulbs, each participant first saw one bulb light up for 4 to 20 seconds and then pressed a computer key to make the second bulb light up for the same amount of time.

Because attention deficit — a common feature in autism — may affect time perception, the researchers also asked parents to complete a questionnaire on their child’s levels of inattention and hyperactivity. They also measured each participant’s short-term, or working, memory, defined as the ability to recall very recent events, using a standard test for intelligence quotients.

They found that children who have a poor working memory are less able to consistently recreate time intervals, and this association is more pronounced in children with autism. However, attention deficit does not appear to affect performance on the task.

Their findings agree with those from several previous reports, including a 2010 study that found that people with autism are less accurate than controls at assessing the length of a tone.

This tendency may be significant beyond wondering what day it is, and may relate to the ability to distinguish day from night. Some research points to the relevance of clock genes, which regulate sleep, memory and innate timing, in autism. For example, mutations in two circadian genes, NPAS2 and PER1, have been linked to autism.

Consistent with this, children with autism often struggle with sleep. PER1 has also been linked to Alzheimer’s disease, another condition characterized by disrupted short-term memory and time perception and severe sleep problems.


4 responses to “For people with autism, time is slippery concept”

  1. usethebrainsgodgiveyou says:

    Visual Clocks are available for children, typically in ADHD journals.(Google images: clocks + visual +ADHD). We finally got one for our son about 10 years too late. He used to work for hours on homework, so the clock gave him a visual focus to see time passing, because I really don’t think he had a clue.

    But almost any label a child has can carry with it a poor working memory…Timed tests are the nemesis of many brilliant Dyslexic children. Some observations of the Dr.’s Eide of Dyslexic Advantage show the exceedingly high verbal IQ is often coupled with and exceedingly low wm. It was almost diagnostic, the similar peaks and valleys they had plotted in the childrens areas of IQ testing. There is no study, however, it concerned the children they work with in their practice so I am sure there were privacy concerns. It was fascinating, though. My son’s recent psychoeducational testing was almost exactly like those of the dyslexic children Eide’s worked with. To have so much in common with each other was like similar renditions of the same mind, a way of thinking. The working memory takes away speed, but free thinking, non-rote thinking is added.

    The next IACC meeting is on the co-occuring conditions…I think they are all intertwined. It’s about time…

  2. Barbara Dewar says:

    This opinion reflects much of the work that I have been reviewing as part of my research into how young children with autism develop the recognition of duration. Duration here being used to mean the passage of time, as opposed to time that is labelled by us, as in days, hours, minutes , seconds. There is an indication from the study of neuro-typical development that the development of duration is a key factor in developing phoneme recognition, and verb format (speech), recall and organisation , social relationships and cognitive development. If then a child does not develop the ability to recognise different duration there would be strong implications that this may impact on their development in a way that links closely to the difficulties children with autism present.

  3. APassionateMomWithGoLiveLong says:

    I’ve been looking for this information. So often I tell teachers that my son with (HF) autism can not tell time, nor does he know what day it is. However, if you ask him what day is it, he can answer. And, if you ask him what time it is, he can answer. Though when you apply time to a 1 to 3 week long project, he has no idea how to incorporate time. He can NOT apply time to the future. He lives in the here and now, and knows exactly what assignment is due tomorrow. … His IQ is above 140 and when I try to explain this to educators, they look at me with pity — I’ve been told many times that “your son understands time and he’s manipulating you.” THANK YOU for your research! I will continue to look closer into this study with tremendous gratitude!

  4. usethebrainsgodgiveyou says:

    http://visualspatial.org/files/abouttim.pdf Linda Kreger Silverman wrote the book, “Upside-down Brilliance”. It is out of print and available for a pretty penny. It used to be when I googles “visual-spatial”, autism often came up, but it seems to be it’s own category now. Here, time from a VS perspective is discussed.

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