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How Using a Timer Helps My Son on the Autism Spectrum

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This morning, my son was fully engaged in play with his Millennium Falcon. He was Han Solo with his trusted co-pilot Chewbacca by his side as he ran around the room pretending to fly through the galaxy. So when I told him it was time to get into the car to go to school, he wasn’t totally on board with the idea. In other words, he completely refused. “No, Mommy!”

My husband walked into the room and said, “Barclay, in two minutes it’s time to get into the car.” He then had my son tap the start button on his iPhone timer. When the timer went off, Barclay set down his spaceship, tapped the end button on his Dad’s iPhone timer, grabbed his backpack and walked to the car. Yep, it was that easy!

Now let me pause for a moment and clarify something. To use the word “easy” in relation to anything with my child is often hyperbole. My son has ADHD and autism spectrum disorder and even the smallest of transitions can become battles without systems in place. Even then, it’s often unpredictable. But we have found over the last few months that using timers with our son has been life-changing across a variety of settings. Maybe these tips can help you discover ways to use timers with your child.

Areas Where a Timer Can Be Helpful


For a transition from a preferred activity to a non-preferred activity, as in the example above, the use of a timer helps. Children with autism often have low frustration tolerance, so a timer can give them the opportunity to prepare for a transition. We use timers with my son prior to most transitions such as meal times, bath times, or as in the example, the transition of getting into the car.

Cooperative Play

My son struggles with “sharing.” Concepts such as “fair” don’t mean anything to him. To expect him to share because it’s the right thing to do is too abstract a concept. But he understands routines. Using a timer during cooperative play and the terms, “your turn” and “my turn,” give him concrete concepts. He will hand a toy over to a peer with the use of a timer nearly every time.

Completing Tasks

When we expect my son to complete a task such as clean up toys, or finish a meal, we often use a timer as well. Instead of having him clean his entire room, which is overwhelming, we clean for a limited number of minutes. We also use a timer for routines such as teeth brushing and showering. His therapists use a timer in therapy. They will have him work for five minutes, then give a 10-minute break. He has much more success in therapy knowing what to expect.

Steps to Using a Timer

  1.  Make sure to tell your child they have “x” number of minutes before they must do what you’ve requested.
  2. Have your child set the timer.
  3. Make sure your child verbally acknowledges the timer, or if your child is nonverbal they attempt to make eye contact, so they understand the expectation.
  4. If possible, have the timer visible.
  5. Before the timer goes off, give a warning, such as, “you have one more minute.”
  6. When the timer ends, have your child turn it off.
  7. Make sure your child does what you’ve requested each time you use the timer. Consistency is key!

I hope these tips and suggestions help you think of ways to incorporate the use of timers effectively to help your child be more successful and your home run more smoothly!

Getty image by IuriiSokolov.

Originally published: April 13, 2020
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