High Functioning Autism (Including “Asperger’s Syndrome”), Memory, and Time

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Time

Time (Photo credit: Moyan_Brenn)

Do you have some memories that are so vivid that they are like three-dimensional realities re-playing in your mind? I think most people have some memories like that–a death in the family, a romantic breakup, one’s wedding day–but what if your collection of such memories was larger than just a few? What if, even if you lacked a photograpic memories of everything, had entire groups of memories dating back twenty or more years that could re-play so intensely that it feels as if they fill your heart to bursting? For many people with High Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder (including what in DSM-IV was called “Asperger’s Syndrome), time flows differently from most people who do not have autism. More memories are preserved intact than are found in so-called “neurotypical” people, and when they are remembered they are so real that one feels as if he were participating in reality once more.

I noticed this at my thirtieth high school reunion in 2010. Although people generally remembered one another (and they remembered me and I them), they lacked vivid memories of high school. But for me, although I had forgotten most days, I remembered much more concrete detail and many more events that most of my fellow class members. Most were not memories of earthshaking events that number in the hundreds. Some examples: Walking down the hall looking at the class photos from the 1950s and early 1960s, thinking myself part of a larger tradition at my high school and wondering about the days my aunt and mother went there. Playing chess in the cafeteria at lunch and some of the conversations and insults players hurled at each other. Feeling overwhelmed at the end of a semester and talking to a fellow student about it–he signed my annual that day and wrote, “Keep studying and you’ll make it.” I’ll not bore you with more examples–the point is that no one else had that many vivid memories of high school. One student remembered arguing with me in history class but did not remember another student who argued with her constantly. To me, that was amazing, and it was other people who were different, not I who was.

Does time and memory function differently for the (high functioning) autistic person? Why are my memories (and the memories of other students I know who had Asperger’s traits) so vivid that one re-lives them as if they were the present moment? A student from another local school from chess tournaments with Asperger’s traits talked to me about twenty-five years after a tournament and remembered the specific game we played including the opening and the moves! Such vivid memories are a gift–and a curse. Memories of times I was bad come back to the point that I feel guilty as h..l over things I did when I was a small child. Memories of swinging on a tree swing at Granddaddy and Granny’s are so powerful that I feel like I am there and am heartbroken when I realize that I am not. I have heard other HF autistic people say similar things. Time, to us, seems compressed, with thirty years in the past at times seeming like the present. We certainly do not experience time as God does, an eternal present, but it may the closest someone gets to that on earth. Sometimes memories, even the good ones, hurt so much that I shut them out. Each good event that is in the past seems like a little death that I want resurrected–I wonder if others with HF autism have had the same experience–reply to this post if you have and/or if you think this is an autistic trait. It seems like autism itself–wonderful and terrible, a blessing and a curse, God’s gift and God’s scourge–and something I would not want to live without.

On Looking through Time as Well as Through Space

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English: Lipscomb University in Nashville, Ten...

We are temporal creatures, living in a world of time as the measure of change. When we experience the world, we experience it in terms of space and time–Kant was correct in at least that portion of his philosophy. People do not experience time in the same way–some people focus on the present, others are future-oriented, and still others live in a world of images of the past. All human beings consider past, present, and future in their experience. Now science tells us that when we look into the night sky we are looking back through time as well as space. If I see Sirius, I am looking 8.6 years into the past, since it takes 8.6 years for the light from Sirius to reach the earth. Most stars are far more distant, and telescopes can peer billions of years into the past.

The past two days I have been attending the Christian Scholars’ Conference at David Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee, my Alma mater, from which I graduated with a degree in Biblical languages in 1983. Although my parents live thirty miles from the school, I am staying on campus to avoid rush hour traffic. The campus has grown so much that parts of it are difficult to recognize. The older buildings remain–Sewell Hall, where I stayed in the dorm during the week, driving home to Smyrna every weekend; the parking lot by the dorm where I would return from Sunday dinner at my grandparents; the old Student Center; the auditorium where I attended chapel; the Burton Building, which houses health sciences today, was where I took my Greek class under Dr. Harvey Floyd. As I looked at the buildings and the parking lot, the experience was so emotionally overwhelming that it brought me to tears. As I looked at the campus, I was gazing through time and space, and memories from the past flooded back in a series of photographs and moving images. I felt the extreme loneliness I had felt as a student, socially awkward and from a working class family, among students who were more socially astute and from very different backgrounds. All I had wanted was to find a good Christian woman to marry, and I was so awkward that dating, such as it was, was not a successful venture. Thank God I have a wonderful wife now. I remembered the walk I would take from the side of Sewell Hall to go to class, to the Student Center, or to the Tuesday night singing led by Mack Wayne Craig. The parking lot was poignant, which may seem strange, but the memory of driving home to find Granddaddy worse every trip, and worst of all, driving back to school after his funeral in late November of 1982, was so vivid that I was reliving the event. Perhaps that is an Asperger’s trait–to have such a vivid memory that the past seems as present as the present moment. That can be both a blessing and a curse. I had also had some good times and met some friends for life, and for that I am grateful.

I have quoted Peter Kreeft on this blog before on memory–that memory makes past events sacred, and I added that it can also make past events more difficult to bear due to the pain of loss. Even if you have not experienced time in this way, this experience illustrates why a good God would create a Heaven for people to live forever as embodied creatures. Perhaps one reason that human beings live in time is for them to learn how precious relationships are. Once this lesson is learned and we have nurtured virtue, then living forever without worrying about loss will not make us take relationships for granted. We will remember, I think (although God only knows) the pain of loss on earth so that in the New Earth, the heavenly realm, we will appreciate what is restored and praise the God who grants the gift of transcending the limitations of time. Perhaps looking through time as well as through space will be accentuated for all people in Heaven, but only what is good in human relationships will be in memory to be recalled as a whole whenever we meet a loved one. Now love of God is always primary, for it is only through His grace that we are granted eternal life in the first place. The hope of orthodox Christians is that through our primary love we can love those people we lost in life more deeply than before. We will never lose temporality entirely, but redeemed temporality will transcend the fabric of losses peeled from our earthly lives. Thinking of looking through time and space in this way makes that ability a gift rather than a curse.