Time Sense and Autism

“Time Sense”

by Pamela Dean Bonta

Tim (name changed) was a thirteen year old boy in my autism class. He always wore his watch, could read both analog and digital time, could tell what time the events on his schedule occurred…yet frequently asked questions about time – how long until lunch? do I have to do math for ten minutes? how long is ten minutes anyway? He seemed to be obsessed with time, yet was unable to follow a simple schedule. He was often frustrated by his dependence on others, and his classmates were frustrated by his constant questioning.

Tim is not alone. Many students with special needs  seem to lack a sense of time. This can cause issues at home and at school, in following schedules, in developing life skills such as cooking, and in other areas. Time sense is such an integral part of a person’s day that it can be difficult to function socially, independently, academically, and behaviourally without it.

What exactly is ‘time sense’? It is the innate ability to know how long things will take and how much time has passed. There are two quick ways to find out if your child may have difficulties in this area. First, ask if s/he thinks it would take the same amount of time to peel an orange as it would to brush his/her teeth or to wash the supper dishes. If the child can’t tell, s/he may have trouble knowing how long things take. This causes difficulty in such things as planning appropriate time for homework completion or finishing lunch before lunchtime is over. Next, ask your child to close his/her eyes and tell you when s/he thinks one minute has passed. If he or she falls outside of the fifty to seventy second range, s/he may have difficulties in estimating the passage of time. Not having an intuitive sense of how much time has passed can cause difficulties with knowing when to stop one activity and begin another, i.e., instead of watching television for one hour, it turns into three or four hours.

Parents and teachers of children with a lack of time sense may ask themselves such questions as why can’t my child use a calendar? why can’t my child follow his schedule? why does my child not seem to know what day it is? By carefully examining a hierarchy of time sense skills, it usually becomes apparent that the child can’tdo those things because s/he is not yet ready for that skill level or is missing an earlier prerequisite skill. How can a child follow a multip-step,multi-day schedule if s/he does not yet have an understanding of first-then? How can a child tell what day yesterday was if s/he does not yet know the days of the week? How can a child tell that art will end in ten minutes at 2:00 if s/he cannot yet tell time? These are skills that some children have to be expressly taught. Tim,for example, had a good understanding of time terminology, could use a calendar and tell time and read a schedule, but lacked awareness of non-standard measurements of time and the ability to relate the time on his watch to events in his day. Once he learned these skills his questions diminished; as he continued to learn the next level of skills he could follow a complex schedule independently.

I hope you will find the following hierarchy of time sense skills useful. There are many resources available for teaching and learning each level of understanding. In my experience, careful, diligent examination of the hierarchy and implementation of training programs at the individual child’s level can alleviate frustration, develop the ability to relate events to previous experiences, and use previous knowledge about time to plan better. This will lead to good time management skills that will improve how your child functions at school and at home.

Hierarchy of Time Sense Skills
1.    Use non-standard measurements of time – long time, short time.
2.    Understand time related terms – yesterday, today, tomorrow, morning, afternoon, evening.
3.    Understand the passage of time – past, present, future.
4.    Use a calendar – days, weeks, months; read the names and abbreviations of each day and month.
5.    Tell exact time using a clock, including hour, minute, second; count to and recognize the numerals to 60.
6.    Tell time of daily events – wake up, start of school, suppertime.
7.    Indicate exact passage of time using a clock – 4:00-4:30 is 30 minutes or 1/2 hour; skip-count by 5.
8.    Relate exact passage of time to known timed events – e.g., tv show, gym class, recess, school day.
9.    Estimate time passed.

Find out more about autism and strengths with Temple Grandin in Calgary at “Keys to the Treasure Chest”

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