Creating an actual sense of time

You often read that autistic people benefit from clarification of time. Quite rightly so. In this respect often only clocks, watches and alarm clocks in various shapes and sizes immediately spring to mind. Quite justifiably, because most of us are actually neurotypical thinkers. However, it makes us forget that it is exactly this widely used indication of time that is difficult to perceive for people with autism.

When we talk about ‘in 5 minutes’ (as visible on a clock) it usually implies a rather vague ‘not just yet, but soon’. We rarely mean that we will actually start in exactly 5 minutes. And when we agree to meet ‘at 12 o’clock’ (again visible on a clock) we tend to imply ‘around twelve o’clock’. The extent of the flexible period ‘around twelve o’clock’ depends upon the context. In the case of ‘the lesson is due to start around twelve’ the period is slightly less flexible than ‘I will be arriving in Italy around twelve o’clock’. Contextblindness, which is typical of the autistic brain, means that clarifying the concept of time to people with autism has to be approached in a different way.

Presenting the sequence of activities could offer a useful alternative. ‘You can play with Lego after the meal’, for example, could be a very clear indication, providing this sequence is accurate. Obviously such a statement would lead to uncertainty if there is a 10 minute delay waiting at the table after the meal or if teeth need to be cleaned in the meantime. The sequence will only instil calm and clarity if the information is correct. This method can be of particular benefit in many cases. It allows for a flexible approach to the concept of time.

Working with timers can also help explain the end of an activity. But remember: there are quite a few timers that only give a signal to objectify the end, in which case it is not mum or the teacher saying ‘all done!’, but a timer conveying the message. This particularly applies to kitchen timers or an alarm on a smartphone. You don’t actually see the time elapse. For some the end may arrive too suddenly in this case and still lead to problems. Moreover, it only represents the end of an activity, not its progress or specifically what will happen afterwards.

With an hourglass or countdown-timer such as the time-timer you can actually see the time elapse, which means that the end of the activity is communicated and doesn’t come as a surprise. Some people, however, are distracted by this and forget to concentrate on the task in hand. It is important, therefore, to always adopt an individual approach when deciding which tools to use for whom.

Very young children or people with learning disabilities and autism often find it difficult to interpret this kind of timer as ‘time’, making it quite tricky to use them as a means of explanation. Such cases mainly relate to people with the ability to understand at presentation level (see ComVoor). What we can also do to highlight the end of an activity for these young children is to adopt exactly the same approach each time. For example, setting a kitchen clock to go off 3 minutes before the end of an activity each time. This way the timer heralds that ‘it is almost time’. But we are always sticking to the same time, thus instilling a sense of predictability. As always it is important that the information should be accurate, i.e. that the activity stops after 3 minutes. The timer should not indicate 5 minutes every now and then, and 10 or 2 minutes on other occasions. At this early stage of development in a child it is important that exactly the same number of minutes are maintained each time. Its significance is conditioned in a gradual manner. This approach should only be used with people with impaired understanding.