The Neurotypical Obsession with Time

If you’ve heard one thing about autistics, it’s that we love a routine.

Professionals who work with people on the spectrum are famous for picture schedules, first-then boards, and adherence to routine. However, many autistics still struggle even when presented with this “routine” we allegedly cherish. Cue the transition items, social stories, timers, and prompts.

But, I realized something.

The neurotypical routine is bound by time.

Image is of a clock with a chain surrounding it. It reads "Shackled by time" and "The autistic OT" with the @NeuroClastic logo at the bottom

What makes a good routine?

A quick glance in the literature confirms that routines make us happier, healthier, and more satisfied with life. Researchers have found that routines help people to achieve what’s known as flow – being fully immersed in an activity with no concept of space, time, or anything around you.

However, when talking about a routine, time is ever-present.*
At 7, we:
At 7:30, we:
At 8, we:
At 8:23, we:

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Time-based routines are hell on our neurology; autistic routines are based on flow and sensory experience. I can lose myself for hours just watching the sunlight dancing between the leaves.

I love the warmth of my mug pressed against my lips, inhaling the rich scent of my black coffee.


I love the endless pattern of the beat of a song.

I love the flutter in my heart when my husband walks in the door at 3:30.

It’s not the 3:30 I need, it’s the interoceptive stimuli of my heart happy-flapping because he walks in the door.

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Routines, for me, are based on the experience of something. The completion of something. The beginning of something. Time is a structural barrier to these experiences.

If you disrupt my routine, it’s painful.

If I’m not done with the experience, and you rip it from me, I become fearful.

It makes it difficult for me to start, to engage, to lose myself.

It makes it impossible for me to tap into one of the most beautiful, immersive aspects of being autistic.

It denies me the opportunity to fully realize my identity.

Autistics move in their own time and space.

Yes, routines are important. But not in the way you think.

Let us stim. Let us be lost; when we seem lost to you, we are only finding ourselves. It may not make sense within the temporal constraints of a neurotypical society, but it’s a necessary experience for the divergent.

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5 Responses

  1. I didn’t realise other Autistics had trouble with the concept of time, too. If I have an appointment, for example, it’s a whole day event for me because I can’t structure my activities or start to work or anything because I am fearful that I’ll get lost in it and miss the time stamp that someone has given me for the appointment. I prefer days where time is only dictated to me by the setting of the sun and my tiredness. They are the perfect days.

    Even before I knew I was Autistic, it was clear that I experienced time very differently from the people around me.

  2. Thanks for the article. You gave me a lot to think about.

    You state that a neurotypical is shackled by time. It seems to me that they are more shackled by the clock, a device that measures time in increments. Is that basically what you’re saying here?

  3. I relate to this in a lot of ways as some one with adhd. I struggle recognizing time as even existing (might have something to do with PTSD also) so figuring out time sensitive tasks or how long I have spent and can spend on a task is really difficult. I tend to work better with looser reminders and lists of things I need to do or regular chores or errands I need do run so I can work it into the flow of that particular day. It feels like a leaf in a streem poping in and our of eddies as I flow down most of the time to me.

  4. I am 57 years old and am just finding out that I am autistic. I have always been obsessed with time and clock watching. I never realised until recent years that I was obsessed or that it drove other people around me crazy. I am always early for appointments, sometimes hours early. Then introduce 2 time constraints in the same day and its a full on stress attack. I will bail sometimes if I can or will just go through the anxiety and do all of it. Of course I am capable of doing it in the first place but I have to overcome my mind.

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