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Visual Timers for Autism: All You Need to Know

March 28, 2024

Some may say that time does not exist, that it’s an illusion, a human construct existing only in our minds. For many parents with autistic children, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Watching a ticking clock after you’ve sent your child upstairs to brush their teeth, school starting in mere minutes, makes time feel incredibly real.

This is something parents with kids on the spectrum bring up time and again, so why do many children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) seem oblivious to time, and what can be done about it? Visual timers for autism are one way to help, and here’s all you need to know about them.

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The Benefits of Visual Supports for Autism

Autism and time perception

Recent research is shedding light on the struggles children with autism face when it comes to understanding time and transitioning between activities. One study identified three main challenges: 

  • difficulties with grasping time concepts and using clocks,
  • trouble preparing for future events, and 
  • seeing time as valuable, particularly when engrossed in special interests.

These time-related behaviors can significantly impact autistic children and their families, making it important to find practical solutions like using visual timers to help them manage transitions and develop executive function skills.

So, what steps can caregivers take to address time-related difficulties in autistic children? According to experts, incorporating visual timers can play a crucial role in helping them develop and sustain executive function skills effectively.

What are visual timers?

Many consider a visual timer the ideal accommodation for time blindness. Therapists often recommend it for those with executive dysfunction, ADHD, and autism. They offer both visual and auditory reminders to enhance time awareness

Visual timers typically use visual cues, such as colors, shapes, or moving graphics, to represent the passage of time and help users understand how much time remains for a particular activity or task.

They can be beneficial for individuals who may struggle with traditional time management methods or have difficulty understanding abstract concepts like time.


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Benefits of using visual timers for autism

Using visual timers can offer significant advantages for autistic children in managing their time effectively and improving task completion. Here are some of the most important benefits of using visual timers.

Visual timers teach the concept of time

Visual timers are helpful tools for teaching time concepts to children with special needs. They provide both visual cues and auditory alerts, which assist in time comprehension. 

Ultimately, visual timers promote independence and task completion. Countdown features, different color lights, and pictures are great visuals that encourage awareness of time in younger children.

They’re great for time-sensitive tasks

A visual reminder of time lapsing may be helpful when kids on the spectrum need to complete a time-sensitive activity. Many visual timers feature a red disk on an analog clock that gets smaller as time lapses.

In a situation where staying on task is challenging, a specific visual timer or time tracker with lights assigned to each part of the task that needs to be completed works well. 

They can help with managing screen time

Many parents of neurotypical children also use visual timer apps to limit screen time. An alarm, voice prompt, or picture shows how time is running out. This way, kids become aware of the passage of time, and an hour time limit is no longer an abstract concept.

As adults, we also become “time blind” when we get on our screens. For children with limited temporal knowledge, time limits are hard to obey when there are no visuals showing time running out.

They’re helpful for visual learners

Many kids on the spectrum are visual learners. For those who learn visually, visual timers provide the input they need to “see” the passage of time.

For parents who need a visual example of how these timers could work for their children, this video by Time Timer provides a simple explanation.

They can be used at home and at school

Even teachers agree that visual timers work well. These handy devices are often used in classrooms to show the duration of an activity or promote turn-taking. For special needs kids, a day at school may feel more predictable and safe when they can “see” the time they will be spending in class.

At home, many daily tasks and routines will flow smoothly when visual timers keep children on task and aware of the passage of time. When visual timers enable a more organized and harmonious household, the temptation of timing everything may, unfortunately, steal moments of spontaneity.

Types of visual timers

There are many different types of visual timers, and parents are in the best position to decide which would work best for their child and their family’s specific needs. Sensory issues, for example, should be one factor guiding the decision.

For children with auditory processing challenges, especially hypersensitivity to sound, an alarm ticking or buzzing loudly would be distracting and disturbing.

Visual timer apps

Visual timer apps are growing in popularity because they appeal to kids who love electronic devices. Read reviews and ask for opinions from other parents with kids on the spectrum for the best apps to test.

Try a free app to see if it’s a good fit for your child. If your child seems to enjoy using it, you can always upgrade if you need more features.

Physical timers

In addition to timer apps, there are, of course, many physical timers available to help your child become increasingly aware of time. These range from simple sand timers to visual timers that include pictures, lights, voice prompts, and alarms.

There’s a large variety of visual timers available online and in stores. Ask for advice from your occupational therapist or your child’s teacher before purchasing.

When and how should visual timers be used?

Sand timers can be used in the bathroom to let kids know how long they should be brushing their teeth or washing their hands.

Visual analog timers and time trackers can be used to create awareness of how much time a child is expected to spend on time-sensitive activities. Apps can be set on your child’s iPad to limit screen time.

Visual timer apps and physical timers are especially useful for smoothing over those dreaded transitions. If your child is aware of what comes next – and the concept of when this will occur becomes less abstract – a lot of the anxiety caused by unknowns may be relieved. 

A boy using a sand timer while studying
https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/visual-timer-benefits/

Many children on the spectrum thrive in structured, predictable environments. Visual timers take away uncertainty and provide a sense of control to children with special needs.

Using analog clocks around the home and using child-friendly language when describing time also incorporates learning in everyday situations.

My daughter looks at me like I’ve adopted a foreign language when I tell her that I’ll play for a quarter of an hour. But when I say I’ll play as long as a “My Little Pony” episode lasts, she quickly voices her disapproval at the less-than-satisfactory time offered.

Don’t forget the value of free time

There are many moments when time becomes irrelevant. Switching off timers for weekend cuddles and snuggles and other special moments will show your kids that it’s okay to lose themselves in the wonder of life. 

Artists often remark on how interruption kills creativity. To a child lost in their special interest, the constant ding of a timer is bound to be endlessly frustrating. There is a reason that time seems abstract to children – they do need unstructured free time or magical moments free from the constraints of time.

FAQs

Q: Why are visual timers good for autism?

A: Visual timers are beneficial for autism because they offer a concrete representation of time passing, aiding in understanding and managing time. They provide a structured and predictable way to transition between activities, reducing anxiety and promoting independence.

Q: What is an example of a visual timer?

A: An example of a visual timer is a clock with a shrinking red disk that represents the passing of time. As time elapses, the disk gradually becomes smaller, providing a visual indication of the remaining time for a task or activity.

Q: Why is screen time bad for children with autism?

A: Too much screen time can be harmful for kids with autism because it might worsen sensory issues and make it harder for them to learn how to interact with others. Also, spending a lot of time in front of screens can make it tough for them to pay attention and control their behavior.

Q: When should I start using a visual timer?

A: You can start using a visual timer as soon as your child begins to understand basic concepts like time and schedules. Introducing it early can help establish routines and promote time management skills.

References: 

Brenner, L. A., Shih, V. H., Colich, N. L., Sugar, C. A., Bearden, C. E., & Dapretto, M. (2015). Time reproduction performance is associated with age and working memory in high-functioning youth with autism spectrum disorder. Autism research : official journal of the International Society for Autism Research, 8(1), 29–37. https://doi.org/10.1002/aur.1401.

Demetriou, E. A., Lampit, A., Quintana, D. S., Naismith, S. L., Song, Y., Pye, J. E., Hickie, I., & Guastella, A. J. (2018). Autism spectrum disorders: a meta-analysis of executive function. Molecular psychiatry, 23(5), 1198–1204. https://doi.org/10.1038/mp.2017.75

Poole, D., Gowen, E., Poliakoff, E., & Jones, L. A. (2021). ‘No idea of time’: Parents report differences in autistic children’s behaviour relating to time in a mixed-methods study. Autism : the international journal of research and practice, 25(6), 1797–1808. https://doi.org/10.1177/13623613211010014

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