Time Timer®: An Essential Tool for Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder

By: Diane Twachtman-Cullen, Ph.D., CCC-SLP

The use of visual supports is an integral part of best-practice intervention for individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) because they help to facilitate understanding and provide structure and stability in a rapidly moving, ever-changing world. Visual supports run the gamut from small representational objects and pictures to how-to templates and color-coded teaching tools. Among the myriad visuals that can help to concretize a confusing environment for those on the autism spectrum is the ingenious and versatile Time Timer. 

The ‘Gold Standard’ in Visual Support 

Time is amorphous. It “flies” when you’re having fun, and it “drags” when you’re bored or involved in a non-preferred activity. Hence, one’s perception of time is situation-specific and dependent upon internal factors such as level of interest. Need more proof? Ask any toddler who has requested a cookie when Mommy was on the telephone the meaning of wait, later, or in a minute, and he or she will likely respond: “NEVER!”. That could explain why people with ASD get upset when they request a cookie, a desired toy, or computer time and are told to wait. Enter: The Time Timer 

The ingenuity of the Time Timer lies in its visual depiction of time. For example, the Time Timer not only displays specific time periods allocated for various purposes—for example, five or 15 minutes to complete a task or take a break—it also shows the actual passage of time, since the red area gets smaller and smaller as time passes. Furthermore, it does this in a way that makes sense to visual learners. Specifically, when time is displayed spatially, the individual with ASD quickly learns that a lot of red means a lot of time remaining to complete a task or wait for a break. Conversely, a little bit of red means just a little bit of time remaining. Watching the red disappear is especially reinforcing to the child or young adult with autism working on a non-preferred activity that backs up to a desired break. 

All of that said, the true genius of the Time Timer is that it is so much more than a visual timing device. It is, in fact, an outstanding teaching tool that offers a perfect fit for learners with ASD at all ages—hence, the reason I call it the ‘Gold Standard’ in visual supports. Below are some teaching tips for using the Time Timer to teach important concepts and skills. 

Executive Function Teaching Tool Extraordinaire 

Executive function (EF) is a critical brain process that oversees organized, goal-directed behavior. It is well-known that people with ASD have difficulty with many of the important skills within the executive function system. Below are some of the ways in which the Time Timer can provide support for learning critical EF skills. 

Time Management. 

To teach the person with autism to understand the amount of time allocated to complete a non-preferred activity or wait for a preferred one, set the timer for a brief amount of time—say, five or seven minutes in the early stages of teaching. Then, direct his or her attention to the gradually disappearing red (e.g., “Look! Just a little bit of red is left, and then it will be time for computer.”). Continue this procedure over a period of several days, gradually increasing the amount of time allocated for completing the non-preferred task, which also increases the amount of wait time for the preferred activity. And remember to follow this simple, but critically important rule: Increase time segments gradually and be sure to direct the individual’s attention to the receding red area. 

Concretize Amorphous Concepts.

When the individual becomes used to how the Time Timer works, you can begin to use vague words like wait and later, and expressions like in a little while if you “define” them by setting the timer for a brief amount of time in the early stages of teaching and then gradually increase the wait time. 

Ease Transitions and Foster Future Orientation

Transitioning from one activity or setting to another is often difficult for individuals with ASD. A young man with autism once told me that he felt “stuck in the present.” The Time Timer is an ideal tool for easing transitions and establishing a future orientation because it demarcates clear beginnings and endings and enables the person to anticipate an impending change in activity or setting. Being able to anticipate change helps to reduce the anxiety that is endemic in ASD. 

Foster Response Inhibition.

Impulsivity, or blurting out, is a well-known characteristic of many individuals with ASD. Sometimes this is manifested as asking the same question repeatedly. To help the individual to inhibit the urge to ask repetitive questions, over a period of several days, set the Time Timer for small amounts of gradually-increasing segments of time—for example, three, five, seven, ten, 15 minutes, etc., and tell him or her that you will answer the question when all the red disappears. Be sure to follow the gradual-increase-in-time rule discussed earlier. 

Promote Self-Regulation and the Monitoring of Behavior

These two interrelated tasks are among the most important and elusive EF skills for individuals with ASD. They require goal-directed persistence, sustained attention, and anticipatory skills in addition to the skills already discussed. The Time Timer is an ideal tool for this purpose as it provides real-time visual support thereby functioning as a kind of external executive function system. 

I have barely scratched the surface regarding the number of ways in which the Time Timer can be used for teaching important concepts and skills. Were it not for space requirements, I would continue to extol its virtues by discussing the ways in which it can be used for behavior management, vocational training, workplace support, and even in the teaching of important pragmatic communication skills such as learning how to negotiate. I have chosen to focus on the skills of the executive function system because they are critically important in both academic and vocational settings. 

Final Thoughts 

I have been a vocal proponent of the Time Timer since its inception many years ago, when there was only one model and size available, and it had just a single function. Since then, it has only gotten better, evolving into many different models, looks, and sizes, and sporting important new “bells and whistles” in terms of function. This outstanding teaching tool has enhanced the quality of life for individuals with ASD by enabling them to better understand the world and to function with greater independence and competence within it. In my opinion, it is indeed the ‘Gold Standard’ in visual supports. 

Dr. Diane Twachtman-Cullen is a licensed speech-language pathologist specializing in autism spectrum disorders. She holds an M.A. in speech-language pathology, a Sixth-Year Diploma in early childhood education, and a Ph.D. in special education. She served for 11 years as editor-in-chief of Autism Spectrum Quarterly and has provided workshops and seminars internationally on autism. She is also the author of numerous chapters and articles on communication issues in autism, and four books: A Passion to Believe: Autism and the Facilitated Communication PhenomenonTrevor TrevorHow to be a Para Pro: A Comprehensive Training Manual for Paraprofessionals; and The IEP from A to Z: How to Create Meaningful and Measurable Goals and Objectives (co-authored by Jennifer Twachtman-Bassett). Dr. Twachtman-Cullen is a present member and past co-chairperson of the Panel of Professional Advisors of the Autism Society (of America). She continues to provide services on behalf of children with autism.

Time Timer: An Essential Tool for Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder

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