Perspectives on time and the end of a busy week: Autism and Temporal Development

All of my weeks are busy – but this one has seemed more so. My head is spinning with things I might write about. I am flying about on different tangential thoughts and mapping out ideas, only to be interrupted by a seemingly more meaningful plan. And then, half-formed, this – as well – is interrupted by, by… I don’t know… by life!

Since I don’t seem to have more than a half-formed interrupted topic to share, it may be appropriate to write about processing, organization, and time. The cognitive process for children on the Autism spectrum is different – said plainly: they think differently. My own wild week can be seen as a practical example of the way that intense scheduling can have an impact on my own cognition and organization. My strategy for dealing with this has been to focus on the next task at hand, and not worry about all of the other things I have to do.

Although that is not quite the whole truth of the process. I have been preparing for the tasks ahead of time, in incremental steps. This in essence is a temporal understanding: organization of what needs to be done, the steps to be taken, the length of time it will take to accomplish them, and the ability to priorize tasks.

Time is a tricky thing in our house. Craig and I often joke, when one or the other of us queries about something we were planning, “I thought you were going to _____?!?” Invariably the response is, “Oh yes! I am planning to do that in my spare time!” This usually cracks us both up.

Sometimes I steal time… Shhhhhh- don’t tell!  I find a place where I can take some time to myself and where it won’t be missed. I used to get up extra early to accomplish tasks, but often I seem to add hours to the end of my day. It is a good thing (and not such a good thing) that I can run on little sleep.

And then there is H. I have taught him to tell time on an analogue clock six times now. I have taught him to be able to tell time to the hour, the half-hour, the quarter hour and to the minute. We have sung songs, made clocks out of paper plates, played games, moved our bodies like the hands of a clock, used visuals, timed activities, done clock puzzles, used a visual timer ( ), made a collection of timers and hourglasses, provided watches and other learning tools, and H even has a cool collection of pocket watches. It just doesn’t stick… he learns it… and then it is gone… it’s like his mind has some sort of teflon coating when it comes to this skill.

I used to think that the concepts didn’t stick because once it was accomplished I thought “Good… check!  ✔  That skill is learned! We can move on to other things!” and we would focus on another needed skill. The list is long. There are always a myriad of other things to practice, experience, explore and accomplish; so many that seem infinitely more important than telling time on an analogue clock. I thought that the reason it didn’t stick was because we weren’t doing a good enough job to reinforce the skill – and that if we just focused on it more consistently- then the skill would stay.

I was wrong… (Yes, I know! Again!)

There is wide acceptance that for people on the Autism spectrum there can be a challenge with Executive Functioning. Executive Function (EF) could possibly be defined as being a kind of behaviour governor – the mental function that is the overseer of our actions, and our understanding of cause and effect. EF is the moderator between our impulse and our actions as we interface with the rest of the world. It helps us plan ahead, organize and manage our time, problem solve, and reflect upon past, present, and future events, possibilities and consequences. Basically EF is the manager of our brain or the conductor of the mental function train…

So let me connect these ideas if I am able, by recapping. H is challenged with EF and also does not seem to be able retain the concept and skills of telling time. Well, when these two things are considered together – it actually makes sense that he is not retaining the skill. It was Michelle Garcia Winner (see link in Blogroll -➤) that I first heard mention this connection at her Social Thinking presentation on Organizing Strategies to Prepare for Homework and the Real World. This was a real “aha” moment! For H to retain the ability to understand time I believe we have to assist him in gaining skills and understanding about organizing, goal setting, breaking down larger jobs into a series of steps, and also priorizing tasks, combined with an understanding and a sense of the passage of time. Until some of these other temporal understandings have had the opportunity to develop, teaching him to read the clock – yet again – will likely be like teaching a child to turn the pages of a book and expecting that this will somehow help them to know how to read.

Don’t get me wrong… I am ready for round 7… ding ding… except that now I have a much deeper understanding of what it is that I am really teaching, and how large a task this will be.

I can’t help but wonder at this point, how often we might misunderstand or underestimate the skills involved in what we are teaching kids. This experience gives me a myriad of perspectives to consider the next time something doesn’t seem to stick.

Hmmmm…. I know that our next step will be use the Time Timer (visual timer) to work upon the sense of the passing of time…          – but I still kind of wish the solution was as magically simple as getting H this cool Star Trek clock.  Beam Me Up!!


30 Days of Autism is a project designed to fight stigma, promote civil rights, and increase understanding and acceptance for those who process and experience the world differently.

© Leah Kelley, Thirty Days of Autism, (2011)

About Leah Kelley, Ed.D.

Leah Kelley, M.Ed, Ed.D., Writer, Consultant, Activist, Speaker, and Educator, working with Teacher Candidates at UBC. Authors blog: 30 Days of Autism. Projects support social understanding, Neurodiversity paradigm, Disability Justice, and connecting Disability Studies in Education(DSE)to Educational Practice. Twitter: @leah_kelley Facebook: 30 Days of Autism: Leah Kelley
This entry was posted in Aspergers, Autism, Behaviour, executive function, Michelle Garcia Winner and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Perspectives on time and the end of a busy week: Autism and Temporal Development

  1. Margo says:

    Taken directly from

    MUST DO. Defined as tasks that MUST be actioned today. This means what it says. If the item could be actioned tomorrow instead of today without a significant downside, then it should not be in this category.

    SHOULD DO. Reserved for recurring daily tasks only, i.e. tasks that should be done every day. (But note that tasks that MUST be done every day should be in the first category). Non-recurring tasks are not permitted to be in this category.

    COULD DO. Everything else. These must be done in strict list order. If they become so urgent that they can’t wait any longer then they are transferred to the MUST DO category.


  2. Leah Kelley says:

    Yes!! Awesome! I use this system too Margo!! Thank you for adding this as a strategy 🙂


  3. Hi! Just found you through the SN blog hop. I found this to be an incredibly informative (and organized!) post. My son has Williams syndrome which shares some characteristerics with autism but is very different. This was really helpful for me in understanding the cognitive aspects of autism a bit better. Thank you!


  4. Stacie says:

    Great information! Glad I found you on Kat’s Cafe.


  5. Hi, I too just popped over from the Blog Hop to say hello.Great informative post!


  6. I use my Time Timer with my spectrum clients almost all the time because so many of them just don’t “get” time, especially analogue clocks! I made a blog post about it today if you want to check it out!


  7. Leah Kelley says:

    Thank you for your comment Barbara and the link to your post (above). I hope that others will pop on over to read it!


  8. Hi! I am an Aspie and I have two autistic sons. I have been obsessed with calenders and time my entire life. My sons are very high functioning but also have difficulty with the concept of time. I have found that my oldest son learns by logic and assiciation and my youngest by memorization. I think that one of the reasons time is such a difficult concept is because they don’t understand the neccessity for it and thus it isn’t important to them. I created a calander for transitioning and learned that my oldest began grasping the concept of time on a weekly scale first, then a daily scale and finally began asking questions regarding how many hours and min an activity takes. He basically taught himself the concept! Now our challenge is associating the numbers with clocks. One activity we used was objects instead of numbers at first. For example, two monsters representing the number two and so on. By slowly replacing the creatures with a number one at a time, it seem to maintain his interest and curiosity. I also made up silly stories about each set of creatures (which in turn helps with imaginative play). It seems to be working. Of course, every child is different and no it isn’t an overnight accomplishment but it might be worth a try! Thanks for sharing, I enjoy your blog.


  9. Thank you for all this information. I am a teacher, and occasionally have kids with Aspergers in my classroom. I am fascinated with the complexities of autism…thank you for sharing.


  10. Telling time and understanding the passage of time are two completely separate concepts. My son views his day as blocks/series of events. If you ask him what time he has “X” class, he has no idea, only that it is before or after “Y” class. Trying to help him understand the passage of time as he tries to complete tasks such as homework, chores, or computer/video game time has been extremely difficult. He refused to wear a watch due to SPD, won’t carry a cell phone to check the time (cell phones are a non-essential item-to quote him). He moves at one pace……slow. I’ve tried timers, schedules, apps, you name it….with little success. However, to my surprise, he IS using his school planner. That in and of itself is a HUGE victory. As he navigates the intricacies of high school and beyond, I can only hope that someday, he will see the importance of time.


  11. I was going to make a blog entry today about my poor time management. I’ll probably never get to it ( oh the irony lol) so I will make a comment here and refer you to another entry where have spoken about time and how I manage it.

    Oh, and to the above comment, yes…aboslutely. You are on the mark, We see time measured in a series of tasks and activities. That is why it’s so upsetting when our routine is off. It would be like coming into your environment and taking away anything and everything that allows you to tell time. Think about trying to navigate a day if someone did that? Would you be at work on time, or pick your kids up from school on time, or make dinner when it should be made? Would you not be terribly anxious and lost? This is how we feel when our routines are messed up. It’s not about control, as some think. It’s about coping. Every job performance review I’ve had said I was ‘slow’ but a good worker otherwise.


    • Leah Kelley says:

      I love the irony!! You are so funny!
      I will definitely check out your post! Thank you as well for sharing your experiences. I really appreciate your perspective and I always love it when you leave an insightful comment!!


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