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The Time Timer: A Multifaceted Equal Opportunity Executive Function Support

Posted by Jenna Ahern on


Meet Mary: She is 15 years old, president of her class, a cheerleader, and an A student. After school and cheerleading practice, she volunteers at a daycare center. On Saturdays she tutors a nineth-grade student in science. Despite a very busy schedule, Mary deftly manages all of her activities. How does Mary do it? Hint: Mary has a well-developed and efficient executive function (EF) system. 

Meet Ian: He is 16 years old and works in a grocery store on weekends. He was in a couple of afterschool clubs but had to drop them when his grades began to decline. Ian is quite disorganized, and frequently forgets to take home the materials he needs to complete assignments. He also has difficulty finishing his homework in a timely manner. Long-term assignments are especially difficult for Ian, as he typically waits until the last minute, and then works haphazardly to complete them. What’s going on with Ian? Hint: Ian’s organizational problems signal executive system dysfunction.  


Given the significance of the EF system in overall functioning, it is important to define what it is, delineate the major skills under its control, and consider what can be done to support it when needed.    

I have always referred to the EF system, which is comprised of a set of cognitive processes housed in the frontal lobe of the brain, as the High Priestess of the cognitive system; the executive overseer of organized, goal-directed behavior.  There are many important executive skills subsumed under this heading, including organization, planning, time management, self-regulation, response inhibition, emotional control, self-management, and working memory.   

Before considering ways to address some of these skills, three things are important to note:  

    1. Executive functioning begins at birth with the most basic of processes—that of self-regulation—and the EF system is not fully developed until the individual reaches approximately 25 years of age. 
    2. There is wide variation in executive functioning among typical people, and well-documented deficits in those with such conditions as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and ADHD.  
    3. One would be hard-pressed to find a more suitable and versatile tool to shore-up executive functioning than the Time Timer. 

Consider its use in time management and planning. Children with ASD have an amorphous, indefinite sense of time. So, when they are presented with an assignment in a subject they dislike—say, 10 subtraction examples in math—they often rebel, likely thinking that it will take “forever” to complete the assignment. Enter: The Time Timer. Set it to five-minute intervals at various points throughout the day and remind the student, at each interval, that they only need to work on the math assignment until the red on the Time Timer disappears. This not only establishes clear beginnings and endings, but also enables the student to see that math won’t last “forever.” When this process is well-established, gradually increase the time on the Time Timer or the number of examples the student is required to complete in the allotted time. 

Adults with disabilities in work settings can also benefit from using the Time Timer to help gauge the amount of time needed to complete routine tasks, and also to help them anticipate break time. Making things more concrete can also help to reduce anxiety. 

To use the Time Timer for planning purposes, help the older child or adolescent determine the number of time intervals they think they’ll need to complete an assignment by the end of the day. Set the Time Timer accordingly, making adjustments, with student input, as needed. 

The Time Timer can also be a valuable aid in the “homework wars” for all children and adolescents, especially those with ADHD who are easily distracted. By setting the Time Timer to intervals of 15 or 20 minutes of work time, followed by a 10-minute break (also demarcated on the timer), children and adolescents can learn to become more efficient in completing their homework assignments.     

The Time Timer is also a great tool for response inhibition. For example, for students with ASD who ask repetitive questions, set the Time Timer for 10 minutes and tell them that when the red on the clock disappears, you will answer three (or four) questions. Gradually increase the amount of time on the timer to 15-minute, 20-minute, or greater intervals until the students are better able to inhibit asking repetitive questions. 

The Time Timer can also be used for emotional control in very young typical children or in those with disabilities such as ASD and ADHD. For example, when a sibling at home or a peer in school has a toy that a child with autism desires, and they are told to wait for their turn, emotional dysregulation (i.e., tantrum) is often the rule, rather than the exception. The same is true when the child desires something and is told to wait because Mom or Dad is on the telephone. NEWSFLASH: To very young children and those with disabilities, the word wait, more often than not, means never; hence, the perfect set-up for a meltdown. Simply setting the Time Timer to the wait-time interval (start small or it won’t work!), children can learn what the concept of waiting means as well as how to control their emotions in the process. Furthermore, gradually increasing the wait-time interval over the course of several days or weeks, can help children develop important self-management skills. 


The foregoing examples are just a few of the myriad ways in which the Time Timer can be used to shore-up a weak or immature executive system in typical individuals, as well as an impaired EF system in those with disabilities. I have found use of this tool to be so successful that if I were asked to give up all of the tools I use to treat individuals with ASD except for one, I would retain the Time Timer, as it is a second-to-none device for helping individuals to better understand an increasingly complex world and hence, to function with greater competence within it.     


About the Author 

Dr. Diane Twachtman-Cullen is a licensed speech-language pathologist specializing in autism spectrum disorders. She holds an M.A. in speech-language pathology, a Sixth-Year Diploma in early childhood education, and a Ph.D. in special education. She served for 11 years as editor-in-chief of Autism Spectrum Quarterly and has provided workshops and seminars internationally on autism. She is also the author of numerous chapters and articles on communication issues in autism, and four books: A Passion to Believe: Autism and the Facilitated Communication Phenomenon; Trevor Trevor; How to be a Para Pro: A Comprehensive Training Manual for Paraprofessionals; and The IEP from A to Z: How to Create Meaningful and Measurable Goals and Objectives (co-authored by Jennifer Twachtman-Bassett). Dr. Twachtman-Cullen is a present member and past co-chairperson of the Panel of Professional Advisors of the Autism Society (of America). Most recently, she served on the Autism Society’s ABA Commission. She continues to provide services on behalf of children with autism. 



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