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

Time Bandits: Don’t Let Them Get You

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Cover of "Momo (Puffin Books)"

Cover of Momo (Puffin Books)

In Michael Ende’s fine children’s novel, Momo, an easygoing village is transformed into a world in which people become enslaved to the clock. Noonday naps became a thing of the past. Barbershop conversations were cut short. The Time Bandits had attacked, stealing time from the people and turning their calm, ordered, and happy world into a hurried nightmare.

Although Ende was German and wrote in a European context, his novel Momo especially applies to the United States. For over a century, large cities have been places where, “to get ahead” (of what?), people have worked long hours, having little time for pleasure or playing with their children or loving their spouses. I suppose that the situation may not be as bad in some rural areas–but I have seen the Time Bandits attack, the the result was not pretty. As a child, I often went with Granddaddy to the courthouse square in Murfressboro, Tennessee. Old men whittled cedar shavings and talked. They are gone now–they’ve been gone for years–and I miss them. Like the old men who used to gather in the rock store my Granddaddy and I used to visit after school when I was in first grade, these men were not enslaved by time. They knew that eventually they would no longer be on earth, but they enjoyed the company of their fellow men. They were not wasting time. The person with a $200,000+ salary who works eighty hours a week and ignores his family is wasting time and wasting away the best years of his life in work. Now work is necessary–God bless those people who have a sense of calling to a profession or trade. But work should not dominate one’s life and take the time needed to interact in a more than utilitarian way with other people. Even if a person is by himself, he can work in the garden or work on a hobby and not notice the specter of time chasing him. Those moments can be intimations of eternity. When I grow lima beans and crowder and black eyed peas, sometimes I take a break from “school stuff” and shell them on the porch. Those are moments for which I am grateful–those moments are “food for the soul.” During such moments, time is not wasted, but redeemed, and perhaps snatched from the hands of the “Time Bandits.” Don’t let them steal your time.

Does Time Move Faster as We Get Older?

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Transit spatio-temporel (Time & Space Transit)

Image by Gilderic via Flickr

As a child, days seemed to last forever. I’d lie by the fan on the cool floor in summer, watch the blades as they sped into a whirl. Or I’d swing across the gravel drive as if time stood still. In those moments, the slowness of time seems now a foreshadowing of eternal joy.

But there was the “bad” slowness of time, as Christmas crept closer, and the days slid slowly along like a snail on a leaf. Waiting to grow up, to be able to drive a car, was a lesson in patience, especially when I sat in the driver’s seat of my uncle’s Plymouth Fury. The first day I loved cottage cheese was when my aunt said that eating it would make me grow up faster so I could drive that car.

School days dragged, but both happy and sad moments lasted. Since then, memory, thankfully, has made the past sacred, and childhood seems an idealized timeless dream in wonderland. I wish I could go back and enjoy the slowness of time.

After high school, time flowed faster, and today, two years from fifty, time rages downstream like waters just before they fall into Niagara foam. I used to be able to sit down in the woods and contemplate what had happened in my life, to “take stock of things” as the cliche says. Now weeks were once what days were, and time to take stock is rare–perhaps during summer break while sitting outside in a swing or lying in grass under a red maple. But then the reality of time’s pace overwhelms, as years of gain and dear God, so much loss, so many family members and friends gone forever, at least this side of eternity. Perhaps Heaven will be a place where every moment is good and beyond the limits of time, with no worry about decay and death, and where memory and dream are as real as waking life. Until then, life passes by too fast, as chairos, subjective time, chases chronos, “objective,” “clock time,” and appears to catch up to it and pass it.

The answer to my original question of whether time moves faster as we get older is “Yes, in a sense.” Chronos will move on, set by the motion of the earth’s revolution around the sun and ultimately by the beginning of time at the Big Bang. But Chairos runs faster until it flies through the air as life runs its inexorable course toward the abyss–yet for me, I hope, as a Christian, that death is not an abyss, that the damage time does will be reversed, and that the good time does by making moments sacred will be enhanced beyond any of our wildest dreams.