Time and space in autismland


[image shows an old clock face, stuck on quarter to six]

I spent a day at work this week where I only talked to people when I needed to or wanted to. I was genuinely surprised at how much better I felt at the end of the day. Instead of using up precious resources to perform exhausting and non-essential social acts, I ended the day with resources to spare. Spare resources means having time and space to choose things I want to do, not being restricted to only things I have to do.

When I talk about my resources, I mostly mean my cognitive and emotional capacity. My ability to think and cope fluctuates depending on the demands placed on me. This includes demands from other people and demands I place on myself, alongside family, cultural and societal demands. Managing these demands requires time and space. Time to think, plan and recover. Space to be me and to remove myself from demands.

I spend a lot of time planning and preparing for the day and the days ahead. I perform a series of mental calculations working out how best to prepare for demands and how I plan to recover afterwards. As well as thinking time, every demand requires time before and after. A lot of my time is spent thinking about and calculating time.

My two consecutive working days every week use up four days of my week. The day before is taken up with preparing, worrying, planning. The day after is spent recovering. If I have a dentist appointment, need to go shopping, visit the bank or attend a meeting at my son’s school, I go through the same process, allowing time before and after. I try to make sure these activities are spread out to allow sufficient time in between for necessary preparation and recovery time.

Ordinary activities seem to take up more time for me than for many people, even something as simple as my car needing a service. Most people drop their car at the garage and get on with their day, knowing the garage will phone at some point. They might worry about an unexpected bill, but their day carries on as usual.

For me, I first have to phone the garage. This takes time planning the call and rehearsing what I need to say. Then I have to plan and rehearse for dropping off the car. I then need to be prepared for the phone call from the garage to tell me the car is ready or to give permission to carry out repairs. After these actions I spend time going over and analysing the interaction, fretting about faux pas and all the things I forgot to say and ask.

I find myself unable to do anything until I’ve heard from the garage. I worry that if I start something I might be interrupted. Being interrupted is one of my least favourite things. If I start a task I need to know how long I will spend doing it and have a plan in mind for the next task.

If the garage haven’t phoned by the time they said they would, I worry further. Should I wait or should I phone? What if I gave them the wrong number? What if they forgot about my car? What if me phoning takes the mechanic away from my car, delaying the service? Will the mechanic be annoyed I’ve phoned? Will I come across as rude for phoning when he said he would call? Am I being a nuisance? What exactly is the convention and why didn’t anyone teach me?

Managing my time effectively provides a foundation for my days. Sequencing demands makes them easier to manage. But if my day is disrupted I struggle to move forwards. If I have to miss a part of my routine it is almost impossible sometimes to do anything at all. When my boiler broke, and I was unable to have my planned bath that morning, I found it impossible to do any of my planned tasks that day. I couldn’t move to the next task as I hadn’t completed the first. It seems irrational and illogical and really quite flaky, but this is how it is.

I also spend a lot of time prevaricating and avoiding demands. I am aware that I need to do certain things (tidy a room, carry out repairs, email school, weeding) but I put them off. It doesn’t stop me thinking about these things, I just find it hard to move from thinking to doing. I waste a lot of time.

Problems with transitions between activities are often talked about in regard to autistic children. Us parents work hard to find ways to bridge transitions and make them easier for our children. We might use visual schedules, timers, verbal reminders or create novel ways to bridge the gaps. I need to find better ways to support transitions in my own life. I need to find a way to make the start of new activities and demands easier for me. I need ways to better manage disruption. I don’t want to waste so much time.

For me, space is both an internal and an external factor. I need inner mental space to think and I need outer physical space too, free of the demands of other people.

Having mental space and the capacity to use my emotional and cognitive abilities as best I can is largely dependent on the absence of demands and the presence of physical space. Physical space for me isn’t about vast swathes of uninterrupted countryside (though that would be nice) or large indoor spaces. It’s about having a physical space where I feel comfortable and protected, a space where I won’t feel overwhelmed by social or sensory demands.

City centres, busy supermarkets, tourist attractions in the height of summer and open plan workspaces all take up too much space and can result in me shutting down, unable to perform all but the most basic functions. If I can hold it together at the time I might meltdown later. But even a meltdown requires space. You can’t release the pressure until you’ve escaped the vacuum, which may not be a scientifically correct analogy, but it is how it feels to me.

Finding ways to create space can be challenging when there competing demands on my time. But it is essential. My ‘special interests’ both create and occupy space. When I am engaging in my crafting activities I become consumed by the process, but it also frees space for other thinking. I am more able and more constructive when I am engaged in my chosen activities. The filling of space by choice rather than by demand seems to open up more space. It makes me more capable and more competent.

What I am realising is that though I have plenty of time, I struggle to find space. The time I waste on planning, preparing and recovering stems from a combination of anxiety and executive functioning problems. I am trapped in a vicious cycle of demands, anxiety and poor organisation. I need to make time and space for the things which relieve the pressures, and then I may gain some time and space to deal more effectively with the demands.

Moving forwards, having spent a day ignoring non-essential social demands, I realise more than ever that I need to find ways to remove, ignore or sidestep some demands so that I have some time and space left for me. It won’t be easy, I have many years of social expectations and habits to change. But I’m going to try.

12 thoughts on “Time and space in autismland

  1. I love this post. I totally sympathise with you and understand the need for emotional space. It’s a hard concept to put across and you have done it exceptionally well. I have no doubt that you will continue to not only try but succeed. I love the clock face. A beautiful image. An excellent post. Thank you x

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  2. Reblogged this on Under Your Radar and commented:
    This sums it up extremely well. We spend a huge amount of time prepping and then de-briefing… studying and learning and fine-tuning our approaches. Is it any wonder, it takes more time to do “basic” things? We have far more depth and involvement in what we do, than anyone outside the autism spectrum can ever imagine.

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  3. Thank you so much for this. I was diagnosed as a child and I’ve been involved in the autistic community for three years, and even now it still stuns me when I realise that yes, other people experience the same things as me, and have the same problems with doing things that people call ‘easy’ (like the garage example). This is such a brilliant post.

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  4. I am the queen of “catastrophizing,” as is illustrated with the car mechanic example above, and I’m not even a parent (yet, Lord willing…) However, I can handle “important” adult stuff like that; it’s something unexpected that happens to me during D&D that can send my week into a tailspin…


    1. It’s strange really, I think some things used to be more important so they got dealt with, but having a son with significant support needs (for want of a better term) and all the ‘admin’ which goes with that, means loads of other stuff has become downgraded!

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