Time does not exist, it’s an illusion, a human construct existing only in our minds to conceptualize change intellectually. There is no past or future, that is if you subscribe to theories by scientists like Carlo Revelli.
For many parents with neurodiverse children, time feels very real. Watching a ticking clock after you’ve sent your child upstairs to brush their teeth, school starting in mere minutes, bestows upon time a dose of ultra reality. This is something parents with kids on the spectrum bring up time and again, so why do many children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) seem oblivious to time and what can be done about it?
Executive functioning and time management
“Time blindness” was the term used by Beatrice (Bea) Moise in her presentation for the Autism Parenting Summit (September 2021). A board-certified cognitive specialist and parenting coach, Bea listed time blindness or the inability to plan for, or keep in mind future events, as a symptom of executive dysfunction.
Research has confirmed executive function impairment in ASD in a meta-analysis (Demetriou et al., 2018) while another study (Brenner et al., 2015) emphasized the potential worth of temporal processing as an intermediate trait relevant to multiple neurodevelopmental disorders including autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
No idea of time
An increasing amount of research is highlighting difficulties surrounding transitions and awareness of time in children on the spectrum. A study (Poole et al., 2021) aptly titled: ‘No idea of time’: Parents report differences in autistic children’s behaviour relating to time in a mixed-methods study identified three key themes:
- Autistic children were challenged with regards to temporal knowledge—learning about time, how to use a clock, and time related language
- Kids on the spectrum had difficulty with prospection—preparation for upcoming events and future related thoughts
- Lastly, monotropism, the final theme ties in with the way in which autistic children view their time as precious—in order to get the most out of engagement in their (special) interests.
Exploring these themes, the study (Poole et al., 2021) found behaviors relating to time can have a major impact on autistic children and their families.
Being unaware of time and how it lapses may cause great difficulty when a transition from one setting or activity to the next is necessary. A child, who is oblivious to how time passes, may be taken by surprise when their half hour playing with a train set runs out. Engrossed in this favored activity it may feel like mere seconds passed, and then, without warning the demand of switching to a less favored activity is made.
What are visual timers?
A visual timer is considered by many as the ideal accommodation for time blindness. It is a device often recommended by therapists for those with executive dysfunction, ADHD and autism. A visual timer provides a visual reminder or visual reinforcement to create awareness of time.
It’s a great way to teach the concept of time to children with special needs. Many of these devices provide not only a visual reminder of time, an alarm also provides an auditory reminder to ensure the individual is aware of time and/or the lapse of a specific time period. Countdown features, different color lights, and pictures are great visuals that encourage awareness of time in younger children.
A visual reminder of time lapsing may be helpful when kids on the spectrum need to complete a time-sensitive activity. Many visual timers feature a red disk on an analog clock that gets smaller as time lapses. In a situation where keeping on task is the challenge, a specific visual timer, or time tracker, with lights assigned to each part of the task that needs to be completed works well.
Many parents of neurotypical children also use visual timer apps to limit screen time. An alarm, voice prompt or picture shows how time is running out—in this way kids become aware of the passage or lapse of time, and an hour time limit is no longer an abstract concept. As adults we also become “time blind” when we get on our screens; for children with limited temporal knowledge time limits are hard to obey when there are no visuals showing time running out.
For those who learn visually (many kids on the spectrum are visual learners) these timers provide the input they need to “see” the passage of time. For parents who need a visual example of how these timers could work for their children, this video by Time Timer provides a simple explanation.
There are many different types of visual timers, parents are in the best position to decide which would work best for their child and their family’s specific needs. Sensory issues should be one of the factors guiding the decision. For children with auditory processing challenges, especially hypersensitivity to sound, an alarm ticking or buzzing loudly would be distracting and disturbing.
Different types of visual timers
Visual timer apps are growing in popularity because they appeal to kids who love electronic devices. Read reviews and ask for opinions from other parents with kids on the spectrum for the best apps to test. Try a free app to see if it’s a good fit for your child, you can always upgrade if you need more features. The Educational App Store compares various apps, detailing the features of each to help parents decide which would be most appropriate for their child.
There are also many physical timers available to help your child become increasingly aware of time. These range from simple sand timers to visual timers that include pictures, lights, voice prompts, and alarms. Amazon stocks a large variety of visual timers; ask for advice from your occupational therapist or your child’s teacher before purchasing.
When should visual timers be used?
Sand timers can be used in the bathroom to let kids know how long they should be brushing their teeth or washing hands. Visual analog timers and time trackers can be used to create awareness of how much time a child is expected to spend on time-sensitive activities. Apps can be set on your child’s Ipad to limit screen time.
Visual timer apps and physical timers are especially useful for smoothing over those dreaded transitions. If your child is aware of what comes next—and the concept of when this will occur becomes less abstract—a lot of the anxiety caused by unknowns may be relieved. Many children on the spectrum thrive in structured, predictable environments. Visual timers take away uncertainty and provide a sense of control to children with special needs.
Using analog clocks around the home and using child friendly language when describing time also incorporates learning in everyday situations. My daughter looks at me like I’ve adopted a foreign language when I tell her that I’ll play for a quarter of an hour. But when I say I’ll play as long as a “My Little Pony” episode lasts she quickly voices her disapproval at the less than satisfactory time offered.
Even teachers agree that visual timers work well; these handy devices are often used in classrooms to show the duration of an activity or promote turn taking. For special needs kids a day at school may feel more predictable and safe when they can “see” the time they will be spending in class.
At home, many daily tasks and routines will flow smoothly when visual timers keep children on task and aware of the passage of time. When visual timers enable a more organized and harmonious household the temptation of timing everything may unfortunately steal moments of spontaneity.
There are many moments where time becomes irrelevant. Switching off timers for weekend cuddles and snuggles, and other special moments, will show your kids it’s okay to lose themselves in the wonder of life.
Artists often remark how interruption kills creativity; to a child lost in their special interest the constant ding of a timer is bound to be endlessly frustrating. There is a reason that time seems abstract to children, they do need unstructured free time or magical moments free from the constraints of time.
Brenner, L. A., Shih, V. H., Colich, N. L., Sugar, C. A., Bearden, C. E., & Dapretto, M. (2015). Time reproduction performance is associated with age and working memory in high-functioning youth with autism spectrum disorder. Autism research : official journal of the International Society for Autism Research, 8(1), 29–37. https://doi.org/10.1002/aur.1401.
Demetriou, E. A., Lampit, A., Quintana, D. S., Naismith, S. L., Song, Y., Pye, J. E., Hickie, I., & Guastella, A. J. (2018). Autism spectrum disorders: a meta-analysis of executive function. Molecular psychiatry, 23(5), 1198–1204. https://doi.org/10.1038/mp.2017.75
Poole, D., Gowen, E., Poliakoff, E., & Jones, L. A. (2021). ‘No idea of time’: Parents report differences in autistic children’s behaviour relating to time in a mixed-methods study. Autism : the international journal of research and practice, 25(6), 1797–1808. https://doi.org/10.1177/13623613211010014