Making Sense

derived from <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/kermitfrosch/5376271001">"Time Expired"</a> by kermitfrosch/flickr, used under <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/">creative commons by 2.0</a>

It was 1971. It was nearly four decades before I knew I was autistic. It was 25 years before soccer moms. It was the year, on one particular day, I discovered magic inside my brain.

I had orchestra rehearsal that day. I played string bass. Both the bass—quite a bit larger than my slight thirteen year old body—and I needed a ride home when practice was over late in the afternoon. We both made our way to the doorway of the school, to wait for my mother to pick us up and drive us two and a half miles in time for one of us to have dinner.

My mother had six children. Keeping up with them, even keeping track of them, was quite a challenge. This time, as was typical, the other orchestra kids had already been picked up. The staff had locked up the school for the day. A cold, rainy evening was settling in. In this age there was no handheld wizardry to occupy me. It was too dark, too wet, to read. So I retreated into the only truly comfortable place I have ever known: my mind.

I needed some distraction from the passage of time, so, perversely, I focused on time itself. My sister had recently taught me a way to count off seconds, “One-one thousand, two-one thousand, three-one thousand, four-one thousand.” Saying “one thousand” after each number as I counted added enough time to give a decent approximation of one second. Go ahead and try it. Get a clock that ticks off seconds and count to ten, each time saying, “one thousand” after the number, in a normal speaking voice. You’ll probably end up within a couple of seconds of ten. Close enough for jazz.

That’s exactly what I did that night, to ward off the cold, the rain, the wondering. I was lucky enough to have a watch with a sweep second hand. I started counting, “One-one thousand, two-one thousand, three-one thousand” all the while watching the seconds passing. I kept doing it, counting to 15, 30, 60, 300, until the cadence I used matched my watch exactly. I spent a half hour practicing until I was dead on, forgetting the wet, dark solitude around me. Then I closed my eyes.

This was the tricky part. Could I count in seconds without the constant correction of looking at my watch? How close could I get? Another 40 minutes passed while I practiced this. I started with five minutes. I was a bit fast, so I learned to feel seconds as palpable entities. They would cry out to me when I cheated them of their allotted period. I could sense the violation and give a slight hitch to my cadence, compensating for my error and getting back on track. After looking at my watch to start the test, I went dark, my eyes clamped shut so I wouldn’t look too soon and spoil the experiment. With enough repetitions, I was able to get within two seconds over the course of ten minutes. Close enough for jazz. Or cooking. Or rocket science.

I used the long wait that night to develop a brand new sense, a sense of time. I had a ready, immediate use for this new ability. Each time a car pulled off the main road onto the side street where I was waiting, the headlights—it now being completely dark—swung in my direction as the car started down the long quarter mile hill to where I stood. I would shut my eyes because my young mind still believed I could influence reality and turn the car into my mother’s if I didn’t look too soon. I could hold out hope until the car passed by. I used my new seconds-sense to know if the car was slowing down or not. I could tell the sound of the car had not passed me yet and it was still 18 seconds coming down the hill. It could have been her! Or it could have been just a slow moving car, which it turned out to be each time I gave up and looked.

I opened my eyes, each time, just before the time when, had it been my mother, she would have been close enough to wonder why her son was standing there in the glow of the only street lamp, rigid, rocking, with his eyes closed. I was fooled once when another mother slowed down to wonder why someone else’s son was standing there. She slowed down, but did not stop, for which I was glad. I wouldn’t have been able to speak. These were the days when you wouldn’t have reported a little boy standing alone in the dark. These were the days when children weren’t taught not to talk to strangers. There were no rules, which would have made any encounter a nearly impossible interaction for me. I felt so lucky she didn’t stop.

I also counted the time between cars coming down the hill. There was no pattern. Sometimes the next car would come as quickly as 30 seconds. Other times the quiet dark was unbroken for up to nine minutes. With my brain occupied by counting the interval, I didn’t have to speculate when—if ever—I would be rescued. When counting, there was no fear. There was no speculation. There was only a rail-thin (I ate very little then) child, eyes searching, rocking to a newly born beat in his head, living the passage of time, living nothing else, not thinking anything, focused on a mental sweep second hand counting down to deliverance.

Eventually I was saved. Eventually one of those slowing cars turned into my mother’s station wagon and came to a complete stop just in front of me. I opened the door and climbed in, wordlessly, happy to be able to count time and happy for no other reason.

 

Counting time in my head has become, well, second nature to me. I use the ability daily. It is remarkably handy. With time and distance I can calculate speed. I have used a measured mile along the road to test the accuracy of my speedometer. I know how long it takes to do everything. When I am tinkering in my workshop, my wife will call down the basement stairs to me, telling me dinner is ready, I shout back, “Be there in 47 seconds, Karen!”

There’s another trick I do with time, though, that doesn’t involve counting. By now, I can feel the passage of time, instinctively, in the same way you might taste food. At any time of the day, even after waking from a deep sleep, even if hours have passed since I have seen a clock, I typically can tell what time it is within a few minutes. It’s no great feat, but it is comforting to always know what time it is. For this, being off by three minutes is close enough. If I haven’t been asleep, I can be more accurate. I don’t do this by counting seconds, or at least not consciously so. Karen calls me “the human chronometer.” When she wants to know what time it is, she finds it easier to ask me than to search for her mobile phone and look at it. When asked, I wet my mental finger and put it up into the slipstream of time to get a sense of the direction and strength of the universe ticking along. I usually take a couple of stabs at it. Is it 3:17? No, I overlooked a 14 minutes blob of time-plasm floating over there. So 3:31 then? Ah, right. More like 3:29.

I fly on an airplane perhaps 20 times a year for work. One of my favorite pastimes is to predict to the second when the plane will land. I might start 10 or 15 minutes out, counting down each second until the wheels chirp on the tarmac. I use many clues: the tilt of the plane, the brief turbulence as the plane breaks through a layer of clouds, the flight patterns into known airports. I try not to listen when the loudspeaker crackles that we are 20 minutes from landing. Using the pilot’s prediction wouldn’t be fair. Besides, that estimate is more often incorrect than not. Of course, I don’t always get it right either, but I’m at least as accurate as the pilot. The whole time I’m counting, I have my eyes closed. I don’t cheat and look before we touch down. That might make my mother’s car disappear and I desperately want to land.

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16 Comments on "Making Sense"


Guest
David Zigas
July 30, 2015

In the Bronx, the preferred unit of orally cadenced time was “mississippi”. It had one application that I know of. In touch football games, the wood-be pass rusher was not allowed to rush until 5 mississippi, which the pass rusher had to count out loud. Naturally, this led to creative ways to compress and spit out those syllables, sometimes bordering on outright elision of them. In fact, the arguments that ensued were sometimes more entertaining than the throw and catch.

Guest
KVM
July 30, 2015

What I find comforting is that there are people like you in this world that make this a better place to be because you are not the majority. And with that it give us all a different perspective. You taught yourself from such a raw place – a delicate balance of the unknown coupled with the “shoulds” of society finally finding that place of uniqueness for you. We are lucky that you evolved to YOU. Wonderful you. Counting, literal, creative, and caring – all wrapped up into one person. And now sharing all of that with US. Yes, very very lucky we are. And we shall continue to quickly turn the page awaiting the next posting…

Guest
Abbey terry
August 5, 2015

Thank you. I live among the humans too. Successfully most of the time. But so tiring.

Guest
Gwennifer
August 20, 2015

Just found your blog from a thinking persons guide to autism Facebook post. Enjoying it.

Guest
Serena
September 12, 2015

Same here!!

Member
August 20, 2015

I got here too via Facebook. Your overall blog title is striking to me, because it immediately reminds me of when my older son was 3 or 4 and would refer to what “humans” do. It always sounded like he was making anthropological observations, and really he was. In the course of getting his Asperger’s diagnosis, I realized my own and that it goes back generations in my family. There are MANY mathematicians in my family; counting, factoring, and other number games have always been calming for me.

Member
September 3, 2015

I have a degree in History and a minor in Psychology. I have come to realize that in both I was working to understand people. Years ago, when my parents were discussing the traits of Dad’s brother, I offered the idea that he might have had a certain personality disorder. Mom, who had Psych as her second major, began to think about him and came to the conclusion that yes, maybe there was something different in his brain. Now I look at his traits and they scream Autistic. They were trying to figure out what happened just before we lost contact when I brought up the first idea, and some things his now ex-wife had said about their young son also make sense through that lens. I had 2 modes- sit and watch, participate if the other “gifted” students playing with some philosophical or intellectual idea as we ate in that resource classroom, or hide in a book when they were too much. Sometimes that was when I was with my parents, grandparents, biological aunt, the uncle who was Dad’s good friend before they married sisters, and 2 well-behaved normal children, not much older than me. This is Mom’s side of the family, not the one where the FBI looked for Dad’s brother to get my other aunt her security level and decided not to count him as they obviously weren’t in contact. And where my father came to me and mentioned the work I’m doing to learn to chat, and said he understood why I was doing it- because he has time to use his ham radio, and what people do there… is chat. And not about a selected topic.

I grew up reading. I like to read historical books, the ones where I am not going crazy because I have a degree in history and the author didn’t bother to learn the basics of the time period. And I love to read science fiction. I grew up using those books as a shield. I read a few books set in the mid-to-late 80s, which was the time I was reading them (I was born in ’78 and outside the youth books by middle school), but mostly series where I would know what to expect and understood the personalities of the girls in the “Babysitters Club” and a few other books. In a historical book, I know the rules society ran under. I understand that in books written now the main characters will be unusually enlightened for their time so that most people reading fiction will relate to them. I get that. I also know of real situations where women could operate with more of the freedoms we take for granted today, so the males learning that the woman has a brain and can use it is possible. In science fiction, they explain the rules. Piers Anthony explains Xanth and the rules for the Incarnations, McCaffery explained how the norms of Pern worked. A novel set today expects you to know the rules. There are some books like that I really do enjoy. A lot of them are just too much work. I think that in general the “they were solving a crime or working on a project together or fighting a supernatural threat and fell in love in the process” books seem more realistic than the “these people are going to fall in love and these are the coincidences that the author designed to make it a book” ones, in terms of relationships, seem more plausible. At least for the present, how 2 people who were in an arranged marriage in the past got to know each other makes sense.

I personally probably have discalculia. I do count, not as they once thought when trying to figure out why I absentmindedly paced, a certain route, a certain way of turning, as an OCD, though I’m more comfortable if I reach 50 than do 48 rows in my knitting (a narrow, bulky scarf, not a sweater there). I can stop at 48 though. Doing a repetitive stitch pattern calms me too. But Dad taught biochemistry, his father and grandfather were civil engineers. My aunt on that side taught intellectually disabled teens and now is a system admin. The missing uncle was lost in computer programming, Lynn asked him when he would be set in what he was doing to have time for her and the 2 young boys and he said 10 years. When his sons went to spend their day with him he put them on a computer (pre-internet, so safe, because they were on programs he chose) or VHS tapes and went to work on his computer. His sister does her work, goes home, uses hers as a way of exploring the world. I use mine to see people, what they are doing, to communicate, and to actually let loose what I think about something I’ve read. He seemed to stay trapped in the work.

Member
September 3, 2015

I generally have little awareness of time. I have chronic illnesses, at night I go to bed when I’m not in pain and when my brain isn’t insisting on continuing to cognate. My body doesn’t keep a schedule. My idea of the time of day it is can be vague. Add whatever my brain obsessing with, and ADHD overfocus, and I lose hours that feel like minutes.

But my brain worked faster than my high school teachers taught. In a few humanities courses, I would dutifully listen, more or less, to material I’d understood when I’d read it. I’d weigh whether or not to ask the question I had, due to the times they explained that it would be covered further on or they would have to think about it. I had 2 stimming behaviors, unnoticeable by others. Those were sometimes not taking enough bandwidth to leave me able to block out everything but the teacher, and the school designers made the worst possible design for anyone not NT, where you could hear what was going on in at least 2 other classrooms. I had to cope, find something else to occupy my mind. In one class, just over the blackboard, there was a clock, and that was when I started counting seconds.

I’d count off seconds, making a mark at every 100,, and when I had made the 3rd mark, look at the clock. Usually I was close, 5 minutes. If the teacher went into something that I did have to add new circles and lines to my mind-map (the way I took notes, starting with the book and adding any new things the teacher added) I’d loose track of my count, and start from from the new time.

In everyday life, When I think about my breathing, not full meditation but being aware of my inhales and exhales, I can be fairly sure that the end of the 10th breath is a minute. My father, with whom I live, will be using half the gas grill for his meat or waiting for me to finish something before he cooks their (his and my mother) meat. He is there with his timer set for the minute. He is the biochemist, the type who cooks by the recipe and with the exactness he needed in the lab. I will turn my zucchini or stir the vegetables in the grill pan, and count breaths as I move to the herb garden for what I will add to the dish. Or fill the watering can. I know what breath I need to move back to the grill on. I look at the clock for when I need to drain the pasta, but my timer for when to do each step in my cooking is my breaths.It helps that I’m a vegetarian, so I don’t need to get foods to a specific temperature, just each ingredient added at he time it needs to cook. Still, the hamburger patties don’t need their first flip to be at precisely 1 minute.

I can also use it when I am uncomfortable but need to rest. I can count out 20 minutes, and if I have gotten comfortable stay, if not I can get up. And I haven’t been watching the clock as I try to get relaxed. Which always defeats the purpose of 20 minutes of actively relaxing.

Guest
Serena
September 12, 2015

Fascinating read! These are things many other “humans” do in their heads to pass time, just not nearly as intricately. Thank u for your blog! I just found it this morning & haven’t stopped reading…the insight is fantastic. I have a semi-verbal 5 year old son who also happens to be autistic. We share many conversations, mostly with gestures, body language & through his eyes, but I often wonder what else he has to say, if he had another method of communication that allowed him to provide the details I know are in his brain. Time will tell I’m sure. Thank u again for being you.

 
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