In My Words: Living at the Speed of Autism 

In this column distributed by the Elon University Writers Syndicate, Senior Lecturer Greg Hlavaty writes about the lessons he has learned from his son, who has autism. The column appeared in The Greensboro News & Record, the Burlington Times-News and other news outlets.

By Greg Hlavaty 

When my son Rowan was eight years old, he was diagnosed as autistic, something that should have been obvious given his aversion to hand-dryers and his proclivity for completing puzzles face-down. The doctor cautioned that Rowan would need more time to process things in school, but I soon realized that my son not only thought but moved on a different pattern of time, one that was slower and frequently at odds with the norms of modern childhood.

Greg Hlavaty, senior lecturer in English

In Rowan’s early years, I’d yet to hear of “crip time,” a term used by disability activists and scholars to describe their uneasy relationship to various modes of modern life. In her book “Feminist, Queer, Crip,” Alison Kafer explains that crip time recognizes that “expectations of ‘how long things take’ are based on very particular minds and bodies.” Not surprisingly, those “very particular minds” seldom include the timelines of autistic people like my son.

Normally, I’m part of the problem — hurry up! We’ll be late! — but on a recent kayaking trip in Charleston, South Carolina, I let Rowan set the pace. A lover of wildlife, he’d brought a camera to capture shore birds and alligators, and we paddled out from the cove in silence, hearing nothing more than our paddles dipping in the water.

To my right, an anhinga landed on a bare pine branch. I pointed at the bird, and Rowan unrolled the dry bag and readied the camera. I resisted the urge to whisper advice to him, to tell him to hurry before the bird flew away.

My concern was needless. He lined up the shot with an unstudied professionalism.

“Got him,” Rowan said.

We paddled slowly, sometimes drifting to watch concentric circles on the lake’s surface. He can watch water move for a very long time. Rather than incessantly paddling, I imitated him, finding a hypnotic value in the water’s rings.

Rowan pointed out a baby alligator floating beneath a tree branch near shore. Its head barely broke the water’s surface. He reminded me that we’d passed plenty of them the day before (I’d seen none) and that all you had to do was look.

Even at a slower pace, I couldn’t see the details he could, but the very act of trying to see like him challenged my mental rut and made me aware just how much I’d been missing in our hurried daily life.

These days, one might dismiss my experience as another mindfulness pitch, but paddling at my son’s pace required a more drastic mental shift. Letting him lead gave him authority, a rare experience for someone who is used to people pushing him aside to accomplish tasks faster.

I admit I sometimes felt frustrated with the experience, but I also saw the world a little more as he must see it. Colors were brighter, sounds clearer. I became more attuned to subtle nuances in nature, which meant I no longer needed overwhelming stimulants—a phone, a social media timeline–to be entertained.

And so, I wondered: What would the world look like if we sometimes lived at the speed of autism?

It’s intended to be a frightening question, and not one that I pose lightly. Autism is a spectrum disorder that can carry a variety of challenges—some quite severe–for both the autistic person and their caregivers. From my experience, most people tend to treat autistic people as if they are simply not there, an obstacle to rush around.

Perhaps the time has come to lose our condescension toward neurodiverse individuals and instead ask if we can share their mindset—crip time, if you like–for a little while. People in the disability community are so used to molding themselves to meet normative time expectations, but voluntarily entering crip time would, as Kafer suggests, “[bend] the clock to meet disabled bodies and minds.”

That mental switch requires significant effort, but with work, we could all be a little more accommodating toward people with differing abilities. We might find that the time we perceive as lost is simply disguised, an alligator floating below a tree branch, a camouflaged gift waiting to be appreciated, slowly, and with care.

Views expressed in this column are the author’s own and not necessarily those of Elon University.