chronoception: the sense and perception of time.

Time perception is one of those things that’s so taken for granted, it’s really difficult to actually explain or talk about. Time doesn’t seem like something we perceive or interpret, it’s just seems like something that is. But of course it is something we interpret, because we interpret everything, because that’s what it means to be a brain living inside a meatbag.

Chronoception is also strange because no-one can really agree on whether it’s a neurological sense – along the lines of sensing temperature and balance – or something more psychological.

Time problems

I’ve always known I had a weird ‘Thing’ about time. The first example I usually think of is that I always find it really stressful and anxiety-inducing to know that I have a fixed period of time ahead of me, like “I’ll be in school for six hours from 9 until 3”. I’ve never been able to properly express why it’s so stressful. It’s not simply that I didn’t want to be in school, or that I didn’t want to be there for so many hours – it’s something inherent about a fixed time period, regardless of what or how long.

I’m similarly stressed by things like, knowing that I need to leave the house at a certain time to catch a bus. When that’s the case, I veer between being over-prepared and ready unnecessarily early, and ignoring the time limit (as a way of avoiding the anxiety) and ending up rushed or surprised. Often I go between those extremes more than once in a single period of preparation.

I’m not very good at keeping track of dates in the future. I’ve always had a tendency to anticipate things a really long way in advance. But I also quite often find myself surprised when a certain date arrives even though I knew about it.

Just recently I’ve come to the conclusion that all of these ‘weird time things’ I  have actually do all relate to each other, even though they seem very different at first glance. They relate to each other because they all arise from the fact that I have very poor chronoception. I’m bad at sensing time.


It sounds weird to say, because like I said above – time doesn’t feel like something that you sense. Time just happens, and I know that. There’s a certain number of minutes in an hour, hours in a day, days in a year, and so on. I know all of that, rationally. But I know it in the same way that I know the earth is rotating. I know it, but I don’t feel it. And so, in the same way as a scientist keeping track of the earth’s rotation through calculations and measurement, I have to outsource my sense of time in order to understand it.

That outsourcing is mostly in the form of checking clocks and calendars a lot. I carefully plan times and dates and always try to get an objective estimate of how long something will take or last. Because of all that, I probably seem like I’m good at time perception. But it’s all just overcompensation, like someone who acts arrogant because they lack self-confidence.

In fact most of the time now, I try to arrange my life so that there’s little need for that compensation at all. These days most of my time is pretty unstructured. I avoid commitments that have a set time or deadline, because commitments like that require me to put a lot of effort into keeping track of the time manually and trying to understand it. If I don’t bother with that, then sure I do lose track of time sometimes and forget to go to bed or don’t notice that I haven’t moved in hours – but at least I’m not under constant stress .


My lack of chronoception neatly explains all of my weird time problems. I’m stressed by things like fixed time periods and deadlines because I know they’re important and meaningful, but I don’t have an instinctive sense of what they mean. So I have to put lots of effort into consciously trying to understand and keep track of something that’s inherently totally abstract and confusing to me.

I unpredictably veer between being under- and over-prepared because I don’t have any natural ability to judge the ‘correct’ rate to do things. Where someone else might easily be able to think “I have half an hour to get ready, so I know what things I have time for and how quickly I need to try to do them”, I just have to guess and hope for the best, and constantly check how I’m doing to try and adapt as I go.

I can’t keep track of dates in the future because everything in the future is just in one big amorphous ‘some time other than now’ category in my brain. An appointment next week, and my birthday next year, both pretty much live in that category together. So although I can intellectually know which will come first by thinking about dates and years and numbers, it always feels like something of a surprise when any given date actually arrives.

This also explains why I intermittently come across as either very patient or very impatient. If I want something to happen, then I want it to happen now, because now is the only thing that really means anything to me. But if something isn’t happening now, then I usually don’t care much when it is happening – because next week and next month and next year all feel more or less the same.

My systems of overcompensation paradoxically mean I’m generally really good at meeting deadlines. I talked to my brother who does seem to have a decent sense of chronoception about how he handles deadlines and he said “I just work at a fairly steady rate until the deadline”. Because somehow he has the ability to know what rate he needs to work at in order to correctly meet the deadline?! I don’t have that, but I do still have a strong feeling that deadlines are important and missing them is bad.

So my solution is to pretty much always do things as soon as possible and as quickly as I reasonably can. I work on a university assignment at the same rate, whether the deadline is tomorrow or next month. I never have to try to make decisions about how quickly to work or when to do something, because I just have one setting – ‘now’. As with many things, that system has its pros and cons. The upside is that I pretty much never miss deadlines. The downside is that I sometimes cause myself stress even over things which don’t have deadlines (or which have very distance ones), because I still have the feeling of ‘must do it now’, even if I actually don’t need to do it for months.


Chronoception is now another in my very long list of things that made me go “…you mean everyone isn’t like that?”. There’s been some little pieces of research into the link between autism and time perception, but it doesn’t appear to be something many people are interested in. Anecdotally I know quite a few autistic people who have similar chronoception problems to me. It feels like an autistic thing, because it’s to do with processing and instincts and all those subtle things that are different for us.

It’s also on my long list of things that I don’t (yet) have any solutions for. But it’s always interesting to have a new word and a new concept to apply to my experiences.

13 thoughts on “Chronoception

  1. Hello again!!
    I have pretty much exactly the same experiences and ways of dealing with it, but my boyfriend had an interesting point – he also has aspergers and he loves having loads of set times. He thought maybe this is a female autistic thing?
    I know gender divides are really out of fashion right now, but honestly I think autism is one case in which there are a lot of key differences. Like the tendencies of female autistics towards being much more kinaesthetic and good with imagination and socialising but worse with stereotypically male autistic things like strongly visual skills like quick thinking and good detail memory.
    Anyway, just something to think about!
    (Also I had to give a last minute presentation today and I have absolutely no idea how long my “ten minutes” lasted for…
    Also I tend to find my perception of time is directly related to how engaged my brain is – more = quicker.
    Also if I have an important start time in a day I do pretty much nothing else all day except make sure I don’t lose track of time – which is very time consuming!!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I could rant about gender and autism for a LONG time because a lot of the stuff people say about it bothers me. Honestly one of the biggest things is just that being described as ‘female autism’ makes me feel really dysphoric. But I do also really think that the gender divide is nowhere near as simple as people make out, and trying to categorise based on gender is not very useful in my opinion. It’s definitely important to talk about the range of different ways autism can present, and that includes talking about the less well-recognised traits, and those are often the traits more common among women. But describing them as specifically ‘female’ traits is a simplification and I think it risks just creating a new set of stereotypes rather than really improving people’s overall understanding, if that makes sense. I’m extremely aware that my own feelings about gender influence the way I look at it though, so I can’t exactly be impartial here!

      Your last paragraph – I am exactly the same! I always want to have appointments and commitments in the morning, because if I have them in the afternoon or evening then I basically lose the entire day beforehand because I’m stressing about the time and feeling like I can’t do anything else.


      1. Hmm, okay! I agree for the most part – especially about the overlap between less-recognised traits and women and how correlation =/= causation.

        New iteration: rather than the distinction being gender-based, how about a visual-auditory-kinaesthetic basis? I know something else about autism is we tend to have much less of a balance of these than most people – we tend to be very much just one of them. So I’m really kinaesthetic (that covers both physical and conceptual approaches – often I forget to translate my gestures into spoken word, my whole world is in concepts and I often forget to add details, I find it very hard to remember anything visual and more associate the place in the picture with the information I know goes there, and I used to have a whole social language in different kinds of hugs) and my boyfriend is extremely visual (fantastic visual memory, bad at imagination because it’s conceptual so there’s no picture for him to work from, good at chess because it’s all about visual pattern recognition…).

        I think you’re dead right on the strict gender divide and on the overlap. I think it might be more about trends (at least within existing data). I know women in general are more kinaesthetic and men in general are more visual. I’ve definitely met very visual female autistics, and I’d say they have a lot in common with how my boyfriend’s visual autism works – for instance, one had an excellent visual memory and spoke very quickly (all autistics sometimes speak quickly, but visual brain’s processing is fundamentally fast). She did have enough social skills to join our college pub quiz team when she didn’t know us, but she seemed unaware of not interrupting, or not taking over the answers because logically she probably knew better (she didn’t always) and not really reading her social environment well. I know we struggle with these things but I tend to find that I find a pattern of behaviour for a situation and stick to it. I find it employs a lot of imagination because I have to make myself believe in my persona and its justification and be able to easily see this as separate from strict reality, which are all very kinaesthetic traits – ways of moving, using facial expressions, managing conversation… It’s like I have saved physical algorithms which I bring out on occasion. Not that I’m perfect (far from it!) but it’s a very different skill set. I can barely remember any details…

        Exactly how much a tendency towards kinaesthetic, touchy-feely conceptual thinking lends itself to understanding socialising more easily (e.g. patterns of behaviour, empathy as imagining someone else’s situation and caring about and adapting to it) is a question I’m not sure how to answer yet. As a case study, my boyfriend is picking up empathy over time after I’ve explained it to him, but it really didn’t come naturally and I don’t know whether he would have got some of the way there without that. Then again, maybe my mum just got in early – she’s always emphasised this stuff.


        Thank you for providing such interesting questions! I always enjoy theorising with you =D

        Liked by 1 person

  2. This just makes me think of one thing I’ve noticed in my own personal perception of time – if I’m working in the garden I get a lot done in very little time. If I’m doing anything indoors, especially on a device, I feel like I get very little done in the same space of time.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hello There, I am a Mum of a child with PDA and have recently written a post about time on my blog, I totally agree with you and its interesting to read the perspective from an adult rather than my observations of my child, what you say confirms my own views. Thanks for that. x

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I wonder if issues with chrono perception might be a partial explanation the excutive functioning issues (including time management!) that comes as one part of both autism and attention deficit disorder. I’m not autistic, but I have ADD and find some of what you describe very familiar. Like your bafflement at the idea of just knowing what pace you need to work at to meet a deadline. Wait, there are people who can do that without a lot of studying the calendar, and trying to remember how much time similar tasks took in the past, and then just guessing?

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Reblogged this on Rambling Justice and commented:
    By the author of the Autisticality blog. I wonder if issues with chrono perception could be a partial explanation for some of the executive functioning issues that can come with both autism (which I don’t have) and attention deficit disorder (which I do).


  6. That, “But if something isn’t happening now, then I usually don’t care much when it is happening – because next week and next month and next year all feel more or less the same.”, I get but in a slightly different way. Less strongly on the first half and very strongly on the second half. And the past is kind of the same way, it all blends in to one mass where 15 years ago and yesterday might both have been last week.

    Have an added factor in that my physical health is now a mess and that makes afternoon appointments better for me. Something I’m not sure I understand is how much simply getting ready to go be somewhere at a time keeps stressing me out more and more each year, each decade.

    Lists – oh god I hate lists of things to do: there is such a sense of pressure which comes from them, enough to overwhelm the energy to get the things on the list done.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. The only reason I reached this page was a focused search for what I perceive as flexible time passage I am investigating. I suspect I am autistic, but had no expectation that my search would end here. Here I am.


  8. I’m so excited to stumble on this blog, and I just have to share how I identify so much with the NOW being the only meaningful time. I also get extremely anxious when people are late or early. I also, like you and a commenter, need everything to happen in the morning so I don’t ruin my day. And I have no idea how long anything takes! I kind of think everything takes two hours. I’m always ending early or late! I also have a hard time starting or changing tasks. I’ll just read a few more blog posts, and *then* I’ll make dinner (/cut to/ twelve hours later . . . )


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