Living in the “now”: Why time blindness is the other ADHD symptom
Time is often what stokes the fire of strife in the ADHD household – getting ready for school on time, handing in last-minute projects, and cramming for upcoming exams, are some of the stressors that frequently lead to conflict. Parents may sometimes think that this is intentional on behalf of their ADHD-diagnosed child, but it’s not; it’s actually a lesser-known symptom of ADHD.
Neurotypical people generally experience time as linear. For people with ADHD, it’s anything but. One woman with ADHD describes it as “In my brain, everything’s either now or not”. US-based ADHD expert, Dr Russell Barkley explains: “ADHD creates a blindness to time, or more accurately, a nearsightedness to the future. The further out the event lies, the less capable they are of dealing with it.”
What is time-blindness?
Time blindness is the inability to sense the passing of time, which makes life skills extremely difficult.
This means that people with ADHD tend to live in “time present” or now. “Time past” rarely enters their thinking, which is why “cause and effect” is not a useful disciplining tool with children who have ADHD. Neither do they let “time future” interfere with their now time, making them fun people to hang out with, as they are not burdened by the problems of tomorrow.
Naturally, the impact of this is different on a child with ADHD, compared to an adult. Barkley adds: “ADHD is destroying the timing and timeliness of human behaviour. The most devastating deficit in adult life that ADHD produces is a disruption in the fabric of time.”
With time blindness, people with ADHD:
• underestimate the time it takes to do tasks
• do things in the wrong order
• miss deadlines
• are unable to organise behaviours hierarchically to complete future tasks
• incorrectly assess how much time was spent on a task retrospectively
What causes it?
As reported in Psych Central, there are two factors that affect time perception:
1. The brain, which uses memory, attention, and dopamine to accurately predict time, and
2. The body’s circadian rhythm, or internal body clock, which is based on the earth’s rotation.
People with ADHD have a problem with both of these. Research suggests that this is caused by differences in the ADHD brain, including:
• blocked brain connection throughout the central nervous system, which controls how time is perceived
• altered frontal lobe activity, which affects the ability to estimate time
• differences in the prefrontal cortex and the pathways that control dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps signal pleasure and sustain motivation.
What can I do to help my child manage it more effectively?
Time blindness can have serious repercussions for people with ADHD, and you can help your child/ teen to build effective time management habits. Here are some treatment tips from healthcare professionals, parents and adults with ADHD:
Amphetamines and methylphenidate alter dopamine pathways and stimulate frontal lobe activity which improve the results of time-related tasks.
For ADHD families, mornings are usually the hardest part of the day, so ensure that your child gets the right amount of sleep, which greatly assists with the managing of time in the morning.
Your child is unaware of the passage of time, and by extension doesn’t know how long a task takes to complete. Time your child on a common task/ any task which leads to you running late. When your child (and you) knows how long a task takes, it will help with future planning.
Analog clocks make time more “visible”.
Dr Sharon Saline, also a US-based ADHD expert, suggests using visual timers, or analog clocks that display the passage of time in a countdown style.
This will help with noticing time and build consciousness of time passing.
Set a timer for your primary school child, for instance, for how long they plan to do a task for. Set the timer for 15 minutes to work with a 5-minute break when your child does homework.
Get your child into the habit of writing down their project deadline dates, appointments, addresses, and so forth in a small notebook or on their phones (not on a piece of paper).
Demonstrate to your teen that if he is playing a soccer match at 9 am, for instance, and it takes you 15 to get there, then you’ll need to leave home at 8:30 am. He needs to eat breakfast at 8 am, and he’ll need to prepare breakfast at 7:45 am, and so forth – the plan ends at wake-up time. Set alarms for all the steps.
Assume that you’ll be late for that appointment so double the time.
Listening to music has shown to help people ADHD perceive time. Background music can help your child to focus. Some parents have also compiled playlists with their child where one song is related to one activity. When the song ends and a new one begins, this is the cue the child should be doing something else.
For more on time blindness:
1. Green, R. (2022). ADHD Symptom Spotlight: Time Blindness. Very Well Mind [Online]. Accessed on 23 September 2022. Available from https://www.verywellmind.com/causes-and-symptoms-of-time-blindness-in-adhd-5216523 [VWM]
2. Harris, Z. (2015). Beating Time Blindness. Attention. 10:15 (20-21) Accessed on 26 September 2022. Available from
3. Mae, K. (2021). ‘Time Blindness’ And ADHD: There’s A Reason Your Kid Seems To Have Zero Concept Of Time. ScaryMommy [Online]. Accessed on 26 September 2022. Available from https://www.scarymommy.com/time-blindness-and-adhd-zero-concept-of-time [SM]
4. Maynard, S. (2022). “We Don’t See Time; We Feel It”. ADDitude [Online]. Accessed on 26 September 2022. Available from https://www.additudemag.com/does-anyone-know-what-time-it-is [ADD]
Neurodivergent. (2022). Barkley on ADHD and Time Blindness (5/30/09).
6. Sosnoski, K. (2022). How Does ADHD Affect Your Time Perception?. Psych Central [Online]. Accessed on 26 September 2022. Available from https://psychcentral.com/adhd/cutting-down-on-chronic-lateness-for-adults-with-adhd [PC]
7. Weissenberger, S., Schonova, K., Büttiker, P., Fazio, R., Vnukova, M., Stefano, G. B., & Ptacek, R. (2021). Time Perception is a Focal Symptom of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder in Adults. Medical Science Monitor: International Medical Journal of Experimental and Clinical Research, 27, e933766. https://doi.org/10.12659/MSM.933766