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How Counting to 20 Can Help Your Child with Autism

April 30, 2021

Counting to 20 was my go-to strategy over my 30-year career working with children with disabilities. I used the 20-count to help children with many situations including waiting, transitioning, desensitization, and reinforcement. 

How Counting to 20 Can Help Your Child with Autism

Counting out loud has been a strategy used and taught in child-rearing and education for centuries. Many different counting approaches are regularly used when engaging children. Most of them focus on short counts from 3-10. Many plans focus on behavior management in a punitive fashion such as, “You better be cleaned up by the time I count to 3.” 

I chose to use counting more as a supportive, skill-building, and communication strategy. I further expanded my counting to 20 as opposed to lower numbers because I found this number gave me more flexibility in how, why, and for how long I use the counting strategy.   While lasting longer than the 3-10 count variety, it was also not so long that it inhibited use for quicker interactions.

I found that using 20 each and every time I need a counting strategy gave the children a consistent process which helped them make predictions about what was occurring. They knew that after 20 was spoken the activity would be over. Whether that was a relief or a disappointment depended on the activity. The consistency of the count was the key, and most of the time it yielded high levels of cooperative, calm engagement. 

The interesting twist is that counting to 20 can be done at a variety of speeds, making the count last less than 5 seconds or up to 30 minutes. While the 20-count remains consistent and reliable in the actual spoken or written numbers, it can be widely varied in the length of time it takes or situations for which it is used. The variability gives the 20-count greater flexibility than specifically-set timers or short counts. I am happy to share how I adjusted my use of the 20-count for waiting, transitioning, desensitization, and reinforcement.


Help children tolerate waiting by counting in a rhythmic manner. You can use a variety of speeds depending on the length of the wait. If the wait is short, count quickly. If the wait is longer, count slower. If the wait is indefinite, count slower at first then quicken the pace towards the end. If an interruption or distraction occurs while counting, the speed and rhythm of the count can be adjusted to accommodate for the interruption.


Structure around cleaning-up or preparing to transition is often necessary for our autistic kids. A very rhythmic 20-count can be used to give kids the cue they need to focus their attention on making the transition in a timely manner. Adding a tap or a clap may help set the rhythm.


Helping autistic children learn to wear a new item, tolerate a new activity, or remain in a new location can be a challenge. Children with autism often become stuck in a habit of only wearing or doing the same things they already know. After investigating and concluding that their resistance is not sensory or health-related, it is understood that these children are resistant to the unpredictable nature of the new item, activity, or place. 

In these circumstances, an escalating series of 20 counts can help the children become better able to accept the new situation. The following is an example of encouraging a child to wear a hat.

The novel situation

Place the hat on the child’s head, not necessarily the right way. A new hat could just light touching the head. Hold the hat in this spot for the quickest count of 20 you can speak. You may say the numbers so fast they aren’t very intelligible but always end with a clear “Nineteen, twenty.” Celebrate the 20 by removing the item and indicating that you are finished with the interaction. Move on to something else the child enjoys without much attention to what just occurred. Remain attentive and positively engaged in what is happening next. 

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Repeated exposure

Approach the child again a little while later and repeat the process described above. Quick and harmless! Repeat this several more times until the child shows no distress over your speedy encounter. Then, repeat it again several more times but, begin to slow your count a little each time. You may say the first five numbers fast, then say the next seven numbers slightly slower, the last six numbers fast again, ending with a slow, clear “Nineteen, twenty.” Mix it up, but always say a clear “Nineteen, twenty” to emphasize the counting is finished. 

Increasing expectations

Begin to have the child accept slightly more appropriate expectations. Place the hat actually around the head. Repeat this level of expectation with the quick-ish counting until the child shows no distress over the process. Then increase the expectation until he or she is actually wearing the hat correctly. Repeat several times until the child shows no distress at this level.

Encouraging distraction 

Begin to slow your count more and use a consistent pace. As you develop a rhythmic count, begin to encourage the child to play while wearing the hat. When you are done counting, speak your 20 clearly so the child knows you are finished and wait for the child to disengage from the activity or remove the hat independently. Do not prompt disengagement or removal of the hat. You may find that the child independently adjusts to the new situation at this level.

Adapting and accepting

Place the hat on the child without introducing the 20-count and see how long he or she tolerates the situation. Usually by this time, the child is already desensitized and cooperatively accepts the now not-so-new circumstances. Focus your engagement and the child’s attention on the play activity.

If the child begins to show a lack of tolerance, introduce a 20-count that matches their sense of unease. Help the child end the situation calmly, if possible. If you wait for a tantrum, you teach the child to throw a tantrum to get out of things. Let the 20 be the release, not the crying. If a child does begin to cry – that’s okay!  Still, end with the “TWENTY!” this will let the child know that the expectation is to wait for “twenty” and will give him or her the consistency and predictability he or she needs to understand the parameters. Follow up by focusing your interaction and the child’s attention on the play activity.


Reinforcement systems are most effective when the child is attentively engaged in each of the moments when he or she earns points towards a reward. Using the 20-count is an irregular system of reinforcement. It is not timed or rhythmical by design. Give the child points when the child needs some enticement to remain engaged. The points are given throughout the timeframe as needed. And when the points are given, pair a positive comment with each point.  The following scenario is an example that could happen at school: 

Reinforcing Brooklyn

“Wow Brooklyn, thank you for coming to the table. What are you working toward today? Oh, nice, you are choosing to play on the computer when we are done with our lesson. I like the way you walked over here (point 1), and you are sitting so nice in your chair (point 2) and I like how quickly you chose what you were working toward (point 3).”  Mr. Berry has reinforced Brooklyn effectively for simply coming to the lesson and has positively primed the child with 3 points, right away, to cooperatively engage in the lesson. 

After a few minutes of engagement, during a natural pause in instruction, Brooklyn receives another few points and has specific positive behaviors highlighted by Mr. Berry: “Brooklyn, I like how you are sitting in your chair (point 4), and you are looking at your paper (point 5). You wrote in the lines” (point 6).  When the child answers a direct question, Mr. Berry gives point 7.

As Mr. Berry continues the lesson and interacts with other students, Brooklyn works quite well for another 10 minutes without any reinforcement.  When Brooklyn begins turning away from the table and flapping his paper, Mr. Berry takes that as a cue that Brooklyn needs more reinforcement. 

Instead of reprimanding the child for lack of participation, Mr. Berry redirects the child’s attention. “Wow, look here,” he says, directing Brooklyn’s focus to the number chart. “You have been doing so well for 10 minutes! (points 8 and 9), and you wrote one sentence (point 10), you are holding your pencil correctly (point 11), and I really like how you are listening to me now (point 12).” 

“Let’s see,” Mr. Berry says, counting the rest of the points, “only 8 more points to go before its computer time. Can you write your name for number 13?”  Brooklyn engages and Mr. Berry gives point number 13. 

The lesson continues for another ten minutes, with Brooklyn receiving numbers 15-18 intermittently. As the lesson ends Mr. Berry specifically points out one more correct behavior and gives point 19 then asks, “Hey you did such a great job, can I have a high five?” Giving point 20, Mr. Berry releases Brooklyn to the computer. 

This sort of intermittent reinforcement is very successful and allows for as many or as few support exchanges as are needed. It is preferential to allow children to get used to engaging in activities without looking for constant external praise. Extending the time between giving points but still using a full 20-count with points given intermittently worked wonderfully for me.

I hope using the 20-count in the ways discussed in this article will be a support to you and your children too.


This article was featured in Issue 118 – Reframing Education in the New Normal

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