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Overcoming Time Perception Difficulties in Autism Spectrum Disorders

written by: KLeeBanks • edited by: Linda Richter • updated: 10/28/2010

Children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), particularly Asperger’s syndrome, often struggle with the concept of time. They easily become confused about when to transition to the next activity. These children need structured schedules, visual schedules, and organizational aids.

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    Introduction

    Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) comprise a group of pervasive developmental disorders that delay a child’s development primarily in the areas of communication and socialization. Depending on where a child is on the autism spectrum, he or she may experience additional problems, such as repetitive behaviors, sensory issues, poor motor coordination, and compulsive insistence on sameness. [1] This last trait is particularly prevalent with children who have Asperger’s syndrome, also considered “high-functioning" autism. It is this insistence on sameness and resistance to change in a schedule that translates into difficulties with time perception in autism spectrum disorders. [2]

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    Time Perception Difficulties

    Children with autism, especially Asperger’s syndrome, typically insist on a rigid schedule that remains the same from one day to the next. They usually don’t process changes in their schedules well, as this becomes a “sensory overload" for them, which in turn triggers anxiety and behavioral issues. These children prefer sameness, strict adherence to a set schedule, and closure of one task before moving onto the next task. [3] This particular difficulty, also known as “executive dysfunction," involves the child’s inability to comprehend time, organize his or her thoughts around task completion, and execute or complete an activity within a specified time constraint. In other words, the child struggles with “planning, flexibility, organization, and self-monitoring." [4] In order to help children with autism be successful in school and in their home lives, they need assistance overcoming the challenge represented by these time perception difficulties.

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    Overcoming the Challenge

    Parents, teachers, and other professionals can help children with ASD overcome this challenge of time and scheduling difficulties by employing significant intervention strategies. Some of them may include the following:

    • Provide a consistent, reliable schedule, with minimal transitions and free from distractions – as much as possible.
    • Use a visual schedule, such as a whiteboard or checklist, to keep the child on task and aware of his or her daily activities.
    • Give the child written directions instead of verbal prompts.
    • Print a calendar for the child with task timelines and due dates.
    • Provide separate color-coded folders for the child to keep his/her assignments and course information, and keep these in the same place at home and at school. Also keep separate “Assignments Due" and “Completed Assignments" folders.
    • Allow the child to use a timer to keep him or her aware of time allotted for each task.
    • Teach the child to prioritize assignments and other tasks, and give him or her a checklist to keep track of completed assignments/tasks.
    • Provide the child with extra time to complete tasks – either an early start, or “chunk" longer assignments into more manageable deadlines.
    • Use bright markers to write due dates at the top of assignments.
    • Teach older students how to use time management software.
    • Assign peers to take study notes.

    [3][4][5]

    Examples of Visual Schedules and Organizational Aids (By Permission and courtesy of autism consultant Susan Stokes and the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, ref. 5)

    First-Then Sequence Schedule 

    Visual Schedule on Whiteboard 

    Visual Schedule on Picture Cards 

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    Conclusion

    Children who receive diagnoses along the autism spectrum often experience time perception difficulties. They struggle to comprehend time, such as how much time a specific task requires for completion. These children also want to stick to the same daily schedule and routine, and they experience anxiety when unexpected changes occur in their typical schedule. In order to help them overcome this challenge, parents, teachers, and other professionals can employ various intervention strategies. Some of these include visual schedules and calendars, timers, and written directions instead of verbal prompts, among many other viable strategies.

    References/Resources

    [1] Autism-Help.org. Characteristics of Autism. Retrieved from http://www.autism-help.org/autism-characteristics-signs.htm

    [2] Autism-Help.org. Characteristics of Asperger’s Syndrome. Retrieved from http://www.autism-help.org/aspergers-characteristics-signs.htm

    [3] Special Education Services-Autism: Intervention and Strategies for Success. Children with Asperger’s Syndrome: Characteristics/Learning Styles and Intervention Strategies. Retrieved from http://www.specialed.us/autism/asper/asper12.html

    [4] LD Online. Lazy Kid or Executive Dysfunction? Retrieved from http://www.ldonline.org/article/Lazy_Kid_or_Executive_Dysfunction%3F

    [5] Special Education Services- Autism: Intervention and Strategies for Success.Visual Schedules. Retrieved from http://www.specialed.us/autism/structure/str11.htm