Category Archives: Sensory Processing

Chronoception

Chronoception

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.

Outsourcing

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 .

Explanations

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.

Realisation

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.

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Defining stimming

I’ve written about my own stims before. Even when I wrote that post, I was a bit doubtful about the idea of a defined concept of ‘stimming’. And since then, I’ve become even more unsure.

Everyone defines stimming differently, and gives it a different purpose. I think the reason it has such a vague non-definition is that it’s a word coined by neurotypical people to describe whenever an autistic person did something they thought was ‘weird’. From the outside, it’s impossible to know what someone’s thinking or why they are doing something. So that means that a whole lot of different things end up being lumped together under the word ‘stimming’, making it not very useful.

Here are some of the reasons I do things which would be classed as ‘stimming’:

  • I actively enjoy it – e.g. pressing something that makes a clicky sound.
  • I don’t know why I do it, it just happens without me noticing – e.g. I rock automatically when I’m sitting down in certain positions, and it requires active concentration to not do it.
  • A kind of in-between of the previous two: I feel uncomfortable if I’m not doing it – e.g. folding up my legs when I’m sitting in a chair.
  • To release nervous energy – e.g. I pick my fingers and click my jaw much more frantically if I’m anxious or excited because I have twitchy energy that has to go somewhere.
  • To block out or process bad sensations – e.g. when I’m somewhere loud I often tap my hand rhythmically to give me something to focus on.
  • To express myself – e.g. when I’m excited, freaked out, confused, (or… pretty much anything now I think about it), I sometimes do a single very quick hand-flap.
  • To handle bad emotions – e.g. when I’m very anxious or upset I sometimes punch my leg because it feels grounding.

And I’m pretty sure there are others too.

Looking back at that list, I think it can be divided into categories (nothing like a bit of categorisation to help me understand something!):

  • For the sake of the sensation. This includes things which are enjoyable, things which are automatic, and things which make me feel more comfortable.
    I’d say that this category is entirely the result of a weirdly wired autistic sensory system. Everyone has sensations they find enjoyable, some of mine are just a bit more unusual. Most people find themselves moving automatically every now and then, it just happens more often and in different ways for me. And a lot of people feel more comfortable in certain sensory situations, they just maybe have a wider range of what’s good for them.
  • To deal with bad stuff. This includes processing my own emotions, bad sensations, or anything else which causes me stress.
    I think this category is the intersection of an autistic sensory system and an autistic brain. The autistic brain part is what causes us to get more stressed or bothered by things which NTs can handle (like an unpleasant sensation or a negative emotion). The sensory system part is what allows us to be comforted or calmed by specific sensations or actions.
  • Body language. A lot of my body language is similar to NT people’s, but a lot of it isn’t.
    I would put this category firmly in the autistic brain section. Whatever it is that’s different in my brain, it give me different instinctive ways of expressing myself.

I’d be interested to know whether these categories resonate with other autistic people.

Sensory sensitivities

Sometimes having sensory sensitivities makes me more able to deal with unpleasant things than most people. I’ve had to learn to handle bad sensations my whole life, so it means I’m better at ignoring things that other people find intolerable.

Most of my sensitivities are to do with either smell or eating. I get easily stressed out by loud and bright things, but there aren’t any specific visual or auditory sensations that bother me in the way some smells and foods do.

One of the worst smells for me is a specific “car smell”. A lot of people would probably say that cars don’t have a smell, or at least they don’t all smell the same. But, they do! It does vary from car to car, but they all have a very particular combination of a few things: a hint of petrol/diesel vapour, the musty and usually damp air, and the plasticky materials of the interior.

That smell feels like a physical threat to me. It makes me feel ill, it gives me a headache, and I get stressed and anxious. I’m more used to the smell of my family’s own car, which is one of the reasons I don’t like going in other people’s. When I was little I tried to explain that the smell of my aunt and uncle’s car was the reason I didn’t want to drive with them. But no-one really understood, because most people don’t notice or care about the “car smell”.

So, all my life I’ve had to learn to tolerate something which feels intolerable. Depending on the situation I just try to avoid the smell by breathing with my mouth, or I reduce it with open windows and air conditioning, or I just get used to it – some days it seems less strong than others.

It’s pretty clear that I have a reduced neurological tolerance for some sensations. My brain and senses get frazzled by certain things much more easily than most people. But as a result of that, I’ve developed an increased conscious tolerance. I’ve had to teach myself to push on even when my brain is telling me to freak out about a sensation.

Which means that when a sensation arises which is equally unpleasant for me and other people, I often handle it better. If there is a mysterious drain smell coming from the sink, everyone in the household freaks out more than I do. Because, what’s new? There’s a bad smell – it’s not a rare occurrence for me. So I assume that I’m being oversensitive as usual, and that I should put up with my discomfort because other people won’t care. Then when other people do care, it’s quite unexpected.  I find myself wanting to reassure them that they can handle the bad smell, because I feel so much more experienced with that than they are! Which is pretty strange when I’m the youngest person in the family.

 

Food

Food is a notorious issue for many autistic people, and I am definitely included.

I’ve always been a legendarily ‘picky eater’. From the age I could express a preference, I demanded that foods on my plate not be touching. I never wanted to eat vegetables. I would always prefer to eat my same few favourites over and over again, and eating out or in a new place was a huge source of stress. I was renowned for ending up with a plate of bread and butter at family parties or gatherings.

My food issues have always varied a bit over time. When I’m generally more anxious and stressed, I get more strict about my ‘rules’ because they’re a source of control and reassurance. But the underlying preferences are always there. Certain things are just impossible for me to handle – certain combinations of tastes and textures are processed like a threat and my brain tells me it’s harmful.

I don’t like most strong flavours or spices. I can’t stand ‘savoury’ foods that are at all sweet or sugary. I don’t like anything which has lots of different flavours mixed together.

I generally can’t deal with contrasting textures in the same mouthful. I don’t like foods to be mixed because I don’t eat them together anyway, so having them separate on the plate just makes it easier! If anyone was to closely watch me eat something mixed, like noodles with peas, they would see that each forkful contains only one or the other – never both.

There are also some textures which are unacceptable even by themselves. I like things that are very soft, like mashed potato or well-cooked (over-cooked!) pasta. And I like things that are completely crunchy, like toast or raw carrots. It’s in-between textures that are a problem. Unfortunately, that in-between area is where most cooked vegetables lie.

I’m working on finding ways around it, though. I over-cook vegetables until they’re falling apart, or blend them in sauces and soups so they’re completely uniform. I generally stick to my favourite reliable foods, which are always consistent. I take nutritional supplements to make up for what I might be missing out on. It’s not ideal, because of course it seems more right to get everything you need from ‘real’ food. But lots of things in life aren’t ideal, and I think food is a relatively minor issue in the scheme of things. If I’m getting enough calories to power my body through the day, and enough nutrition to keep all my organs in working order, then I think I’m doing alright.

Stimming

I’m not going to do an elaborate description of stimming in this post. I’m going to assume that anyone reading already has a rough idea. The short version is, ‘stimming’ is the name for certain repetitive and/or not-otherwise-functional actions. It’s common among autistic people as a way to handle sensory input and process emotions. This post is all about me and my own stims, I’m really just writing it as a way to organise my own thoughts.

I have three main categories of stim.

Grounding

I’m not quite sure ‘grounding’ is the best word for this, but I couldn’t think of anything better. These are stims which help me control and understand where my body is. They don’t actively feel good to do, but I feel uncomfortable when I’m not doing them. There are a few different categories:

  • Pressure. I always want to have my legs and/or lower body under some sort of pressure. Most often I have my legs crossed, curled up, or folded under me. I am uncomfortable in bed without a duvet over me, or at least over my lower half (which is horrible in summer because I’m also extremely sensitive to being too hot). When I’m sitting at/under a table, I normally try to press my hips or legs against the underside of the table by pushing my chair in as close as possible.
  • Movement. I rock back-forth or side-side a lot of the time when I’m sitting down. I frequently rearrange the position of my legs, or bounce one leg on the floor. I pick my fingers almost constantly, and fiddle with my hands in other ways a lot, too. I click and chatter my teeth together all the time (I get pretty bad TMJD symptoms as a result).
  • Touching. I spend a lot of time touching things around me. Any small objects get picked up and fiddled with – anything disposable will probably be destroyed (I leave a trail of ripped-up shreds of paper everywhere I go). I tap on surfaces a lot, and generally grab and touch my surroundings all the time.

Enjoyment

These are stims which are simply pleasant. Unlike the above stims, I don’t feel uncomfortable if I’m not doing them. It’s just that I can get sucked into doing them for a long time and don’t want to stop.

  • Sounds. Probably the most common. Certain sounds make me feel incredibly calm and relaxed. Mostly they’re things like, tapping, scratching, crinkling, rustling. One of my favourites is the sound of someone shuffling through a box of jigsaw puzzle pieces. When I’m doing a jigsaw along with someone else and they are shuffling through the pieces, I end up distracted to the point of not being able to concentrate, because it makes me so sleepy and relaxed. I also like making these sounds myself. But because of the relaxing nature, I prefer when I’m not the one making them – so that I can flop and enjoy the sound without physical effort.
  • Tactile/movement. I’m not quite sure how to describe these but they are definitely a category of their own. Certain specific movements of objects are really enjoyable. A simple example would be clicking a pen (although that’s not really one of my favourites). But also other things which have a clicky mechanism, like doing and undoing a clip or latch of some kind, or pushing something in and out of a clicking holder.

Anxiety

These are stims which help me handle and process anxiety. When I’m anxious, my usual ‘grounding’ stims aren’t enough. So I do different, more intense things in order to process.

  • Impact. Hitting things. Generally myself, but it’s not self-harm in the sense of wanting to hurt myself. It’s more that: I need to punch something, and a pillow doesn’t provide enough resistance to be satisfying, and so my leg is the best target.
  • Movement. I usually need to be pacing when I’m anxious, because if I’m sitting still I lose track of my body. I’m also likely to start waving or flapping my arms. It’s like I become even more distanced from my body than I usually am, so the input has to be more intense to have the same effect.
  • Tension. I find ways to make certain muscles or parts of my body tense. I often pull my hair – by grabbing a fistful and squeezing so that it makes even pressure over my scalp. I twist and wring my hands and fingers together, often squeezing and crushing as hard as I can. I will also grip and crush objects around me if they’re available.