Parents and Experts Share Their Tips for Happy, Productive Children with ASD

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All children learn differently, but this is especially true for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). As you discover the tools and techniques that work best for your child, everyday life can be challenging. So, what can you do to help your child with ASD feel happier and be more productive? ASD experts and caregivers (who are experts in their own right!) weigh in below.

Add Structure to Their Days by Using a Timer

Children with ASD depend on structure to get through their days. Using a timer during activities can help provide that sense of structure, but it’s difficult for any child, and especially one with ASD, to understand the abstract concept of time. Let’s face it, there’s a world of difference between looking at a clock and being able to say that it’s 3 o’clock and understanding “how long” 5 minutes is. This type of abstract thinking is difficult for all children, and can create a level of heightened anxiety for those with ASD.                                                    

According to Dr. Olive Healy, widely acclaimed for her work in the treatment of challenging behaviors and a lecturer in psychology at the National University of Ireland in Galway, “The passage of time is often difficult for such individuals to comprehend, and this can further impact expectation of an event, waiting for an activity to begin or end, waiting to receive a reward, sharing with others, apprehensiveness, impulsivity, on-task behavior and self-control.”

Time Timer®, with its simple red disk that disappears as time elapses, allows children to see and understand the passage of time. When the red disk vanishes, time is up. When children can look and see for themselves how much time they have left to complete a task, it empowers them to take ownership of their routines and transitions.

“Our grandson, who is six and has Asperger’s Syndrome, knew straight away how it worked!” one grandmother told us. “Alex has great trouble knowing how much time has elapsed and the visual movement of the time passing is an enormous help to him.”

Reduce Disruptive Behavior During Waiting Periods

As adults we can communicate using “later,” “soon,” “not now,” “in a few minutes” and a whole range of similar words and phrases. To a child with ASD, this might as well be someone speaking in a foreign language. It isn’t surprising that the results are so often confusion, frustration and even anger. But how do you translate an abstraction like elapsed time to a child when most adults would be hard-pressed to explain it to another adult? Setting the Time Timer® while you wait can help ease the frustration.

Dr. Olive Healy says, “Often persons with ASD will display very challenging behavior because they do not have the means to understand a delay in accessing reinforcement. They cannot understand how long they have to wait and they may not have any means of verbally mediating this time delay. This can be a huge challenge to teachers, parents and peers. It is a natural and everyday occurrence to have to wait, share, or experience delays or disruptions in activities. It is a vital skill for any person with ASD to learn how to deal effectively with such demands. Using the Time Timer can improve the quality of life of such individuals by allowing them to visually mediate the passage of time very easily. The Time Timer® is a device that has the potential to change the lives of many children, adolescents and adults.”

Minimize the Anxiety of Transitions

What about going from one activity to another? When it’s time for someone else’s turn with the game or computer, do your children or your students peacefully trade places or are you constantly forced to step in? Transitions can be even more difficult for children with ASD who depend on structure, as well as those prone to hyper-focus. They can grow anxious when required to transition from one activity to the next. Using the Time Timer® can significantly reduce this stress.                                   

Dr. Howard Shane, Director of the Center of Communications Enhancement at Children’s Hospital, Boston, focuses on enhancing the expression of people with communication disorders, particularly those with ASD. “We find that when children who have trouble with temporal concept can see time visually, it helps them to organize their day. If they can see how long they’re going to be working in a particular activity, this will often reduce their disruptive behavior,” he says.

One mother told us, “My autistic son has learned better turn taking and sharing by having the Time Timer® count down how much time he has to play with the computer or watch his favorite TV show.”              

Dr. Diane Twachtman-Cullen is a licensed speech-language pathologist specializing in ASD, and is the editor-in-chief of Autism Spectrum Quarterly. She says, “As a professional in the autism community, I am particularly thankful for the unassuming, yet ingenious device known as the Time Timer®, for it has helped to make the world more predictable, understandable, and comfortable for individuals with ASD. Clearly, that’s something for which we can all be thankful!”

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  • Heather Rogers