Many autistic children experience some form of anxiety. Studies indicate that as many as 40% of autistic children also meet the criteria for anxiety disorder. One contributor to this may be differences in the perception of time between neurotypical and neurodivergent kids. Not understanding when something will start or end can cause confusion, stress, and frustration for autistic children. We would like to provide the following 4 ways that using a Time Timer can reduce this anxiety for autistic children and caregivers.
1. Waiting for Preferred Activities
It can be extremely difficult for a child to wait for their favorite activities. You may hear, “I’m bored!”, “I’ll never get it”, or “Is it time yet?”. Your child may be so overwhelmed that they melt down or shut down. If this sounds familiar, showing time can reduce your child’s anxiety and improve emotional regulation. Before using the Time Timer to help your child wait, it’s very important that you consider how long they can wait without experiencing significant anxiety. Set the Time Timer for less time than they can currently tolerate. For example, if your child can wait for one minute, set the Time Timer for 50 seconds to start. Ideally, provide your child with an alternative activity while they wait. They are able to see the red disappear and know that their opportunity to get their preferred activity is coming. It takes patience, but eventually, your child will be able to wait longer periods of time.
2. Non-Preferred Tasks
Non-preferred tasks such as chores, schoolwork, or maintaining personal hygiene can be overwhelming and extremely uncomfortable for neurodivergent children. Whether it’s too many steps, learning differences, sensory discomfort, medication issues, motor differences, or distraction, there are reasons why your child may be resistant to these tasks. Before using the Time Timer make sure to be curious as to why the task may be difficult and provide necessary accommodations and modifications. Using a Time Timer to show that the task will not last “forever” can help decrease anxiety and increase tolerance for non-preferred tasks. Again, consider the child’s baseline and increase the time slowly. If your child is overwhelmed when you ask them to clean their room, consider breaking down the task into simple visual steps according to their individual skill level. Also, consider their current ability to complete the task you are requesting. For example, your child may be able to put the Legos in the bin for one consecutive minute. Set the Time Timer for a little less than a minute and slowly increase the time and help your child as needed. Celebrate the success!
Transitioning from a preferred activity to a non-preferred activity can feel like asking to switch from eating cake to eating dirt—of course, they will have a reaction! One way to ease this transition is to create a step-down procedure to transition between tasks. Use the Time Timer to help the child have a visual of how much time is remaining in each task, as well as how much time is left until they get to engage in the preferred task again. This may require some trial and error to figure out the length and number of steps your child needs, and don’t forget to get your child’s input. When addressing transitions, consider the following:
4. Emotional Regulation
In neurotypical and neurodivergent children alike, anxiety often causes fast, shallow breaths and muscle tension. Breathing exercises can help, but may also feel “boring,” “too easy,” or “too difficult.” Using a Time Timer to establish a specific time frame to practice a breathing exercise can help with these objections. This technique can be sprinkled throughout the day and before non-preferred tasks and transitions. A simple breathing exercise is to inhale slowly through the nose for 4 counts and exhale for 6 counts (starting with 4 counts on the exhale if 6 is too difficult). For kids who benefit from visuals, you can use an Expansion Ball or the free Breath Ball app to follow along. Start with 1-minute and model the action yourself—you will also feel the benefits! You may also find gentle stretching helpful for you and your child. Consider reaching hands up to the ceiling to a count of 10 while taking deep breaths. Another fun activity is to pretend to be a turtle. Lift the shoulders up slowly while taking in a deep breath and bring down the shoulders to exhale. Of course, always consult your child’s qualified medical provider before starting any exercise.
YOU GOT THIS!
Holly and Audrey
About our Guest Authors
Holly Blanc Moses
Holly Blanc Moses is a licensed therapist who has supported neurodivergent children and families for over 23 years. She specializes in the areas of self-awareness, self-advocacy, anxiety, depression, and social interaction. Holly, her husband and two children are all neurodivergent. She’s the Mom/Psychologist Who Gets It.
Audrey Doidge is a licensed therapist who is passionate about helping neurodivergent (autism, ADHD, and those who don't fit into boxes) teens and adults thrive academically, socially, and personally. She provides support around emotional regulation, anxiety, social interaction, depression, school success, life transitions, and eating concerns.