Teaching the Concept of Time - Autism Awareness
Teaching time to those with autism

Teaching the Concept of Time

The importance of understanding and keeping time is all around us in our daily lives. Schedules, bedtime, mealtimes, cooking and baking, work, classes, concerts, movies, appointments, social gatherings, and using public transportation all involve timing. Not understanding time and how it works can make us late, rushed, not able to finish a task, miss out on an event, take too long to do something, lose a job, or ruin an otherwise potentially good day.

Many individuals can tell time but have difficulty managing time. The underlying problem may be not understanding the concept of time or how time relates to events.

Time itself is an abstract notion. To understand it better, you have to find ways to make it more concrete, tangible and visual.

Why are there difficulties in perceiving time in autistic individuals?

Deficits in short term or working memory can affect the ability to recall recent events. Individuals with a poor working memory are less able to consistently recreate time intervals. Timing relies on working memory, multitasking and planning, all of which are impaired in individuals with autism. Attention deficit may also affect the perception of time.

Having trouble perceiving the passage of time could underlie some of the cognitive impairments that characterize autism such as communication problems which could stem from tiny delays in the perception of speech, or from imprecise pairing of spoken words and gestures.

There are a number of studies that explore the perception of time for individuals with ASD. The Wiley Online Library recently did a systematic review of the different types of timing and time perception behavior that have been investigated in autism.

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Visual Supports for the Passage of Time and Tasks

There are a number of visual timer products available. The most popular one is the Time Timer. You don’t need to focus on, or understand a traditional clock face to successfully use a Time Timer. This innovative tool constantly reinforces the sense of elapsed time in order to promote better time management. You see and “feel” time elapse as the Time Timer’s red dial graphically shows you how much time is left.

1) Sand Timer – Sand timers come in a variety of sizes and time durations like 1 minute, 3 minutes, and 5 minutes. These can be great to use for quick tasks like brushing teeth, getting on a coat, or putting something away. When the sand runs downs to the other side, time is up.

2) Visual Apps – There are a number of timer apps now available including the Time Timer. Have a look here for time apps as well as other types of timers.

3) Making Your Own Time Tools – I used to make some of my own time tools to have better control of time. If a task was going well, I could extend the time using my own tools. How I did this was to make a cardboard strips and put a piece of Velcro across it. I then took poker chips and put Velcro on the back of those. I would then remove the chips off the strip as time was passing to show that a task was progressing. Another tool I used was the sit wheel. It’s a wheel on top of a circle that has a picture of someone sitting down. I would then move the top circle along to cover up the sitting pictures to show the passage of time.

4) Visual Schedules – A visual schedule is a great way to show the passage of time throughout the day. When a task/activity has passed, take it off the schedule and put it in an envelope, signalling that the time has passed and the task is over. You can also see what’s going to happen next which lessens anxiety by creating predictability.

5) Done Baskets – When a task is completed, there should be a concrete place to put the item or finished task to let a person know it’s over.

6) Calendars – Calendars are a great way to break down the days, weeks and months. My 23 year old son refers to the calendar a lot to understand when something exciting like a concert is coming up. He can count down how many days we are away from the event. He recently used the calendar to cope with a family visitor. He was counting down the days until they left (luckily, just to me). My daughter prefers a daily desk calendar. She tears off one page per day.

7) Digital Clocks – We had to give up on the analog clock in our home. This was just too hard a concept to teach. Digital time is understood by both of my children. My son wears a watch or carries a travel alarm clock with him. He knows at what time things should be happening throughout his day by looking at his watch, which gives him comfort.

What to Teach for the Concept of Time

Here are are a few suggestions of what to teach about the concept of time:

  • Teach the language of time for time frames – before, after, next, later, until
  • Teach yesterday, today and tomorrow for specific periods of time
  • Teach past, present and future to learn broader concepts of time
  • Teach the sequence of the days and months.
  • For months, also learn their numerical order – ex. December is the 12th month. February is the second month. Many dates are written out numerically on forms and statements.
  • Teach what a.m. and p.m mean.
  • How to count in one second increments (one – one thousand, two-two thousand etc.) . This is good for both waiting and calming.
  • Practice timing different events – how long it takes to put in a load of laundry, make a sandwich, sing a favorite song.
  • Set an alarm for reminders to do things at particular times.
  • Play a game – have the person estimate how long it will take to do a task, then time it to see how long it actually takes.
  • Build time into directions and schedules. For example, if bathtime is at 8:00 pm, twenty minutes before say, “Bathtime is in 2o minutes.” You can then set a Time Timer for 20 minutes to show this passage of time.

Why is Time Management Important?

Being able to engage independently in daily activities has an impact on quality of life. If a person can manage their time, they will have more choices, more options for activities, and more opportunities for successful social interactions. The less dependent a person is on others, the more choices and options they will have to do what they want in life. Learning about time will help with scheduling, efficiency, budgeting time, and prioritizing (what to do first, second etc.)

Time management across the lifespan will look different at each stage and will evolve from early childhood, middle childhood, adolescence into adulthood. The best book I have come across to teach these concepts for every stage is Teaching Time Management.

Be sure to dedicate time to teach this important part of executive functioning. A higher quality of life supports happiness and well-being.


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  1. Kate says:

    Hello, I work in a ASD class. They are struggling with the concept that the week is cyclical. I’ve thought about display our days of the week in a circle format but unsure if we should stick to
    purely learning the sequence? Any suggestions would be appreciated, even more so if there is any evidence to base it on

  2. Alison says:

    As an adult with self diagnosed PDA awareness of the passage of time, time management and unintentional procrastination are a constant incapacitator for me. Please does anybody have any self help/management tips to direct me to manage this as an adult/in the work place etc?

  3. Jennifer says:

    Great article! Thanks!

  4. Lynn says:

    I really liked  this post Maureen.  It was so helpful and provided such great examples and the importance of this skill .  Thank you so much!  My son loves his visual schedule but needs help understanding the passage of time and implications .  You have given me some great ideas of where to start—thank you

    • Lynn, I am so glad you liked the post. We’ve struggled for years with this concept so I’ve had to come with many ways to teach the passage of time and its implications. The Time Management book that I mentioned is the best I’ve seen on the topic.

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