Using a timer to improve attention of children with autism

Attention deficit is a common problem found in children with autism. It is not uncommon that these children would not be able to complete tasks independently. Constant reminders are required from parents or teachers in order to make sure they sustain tasks or activities. For example, when a parent asks a child to change their clothes, the child may stop after he/she has put on underpants and may need reminders for him/her to remember to put on pants. In order to tackle these problems, a timer is one way we can effectively help them to improve their attention and independence.

Preparations

First, parents should get a child friendly timer/visual timer. A child friendly timer uses a pictorial format to indicate the passing of the time. Children can see the reduction in time clearly. Parents can purchase these timers directly on their phone. Digital (number based) timers are not suggested to start with as children may find it too abstract to understand. Powerful reinforcers which can motivate the child to practice should be on hand too.

Details

First, parents should get a child friendly timer/visual timer. A child friendly timer uses a pictorial format to indicate the passing of the time. Children can see the reduction in time clearly. Parents can purchase these timers directly on their phone. Digital (number based) timers are not suggested to start with as children may find it too abstract to understand. Powerful reinforcers which can motivate the child to practice should be on hand too.

First step: The child should understand that he needs to stop the timer before it rings. Parents can set the timer to 10 seconds and instruct the child to stop the timer before it goes off. If the child does not understand, parents should prompt the child directly. After the child has stopped the timer, parents should praise the child immediately and state clearly that he is “faster” than the timer and then deliver the reinforcer to the child.

Break down

  1. Simple tasks are recommended at the beginning stage such as tidying up a few pieces of blocks. These kinds of tasks are simple and parents can prompt the child easily.
  2. When the child understands that he/she is faster than the timer, parents can vary the tasks that they require the child to do. Parent should remember the tasks that they assign the child to do should be something that they have skills and be able to complete independently. If the child does not possess any of the skills to complete the tasks, then it should not be done in this practice.
  3. When the child understands being fast as a concept, parents can start to increase the duration or amount of work that they require the child to complete. In the beginning, the task may only require a few seconds to complete. Later on, the task may take a few minutes or longer. Our end goal is for the child to be able to complete tasks that they should do in their everyday routines or activities such as getting changed or brushing teeth before the timer rings.
  4. It is important for parents to use reinforcers at the beginning stage. When a good fast habit has been built, parents can start to fade the timer and the reinforcement.
 
 

Kan Wong

M.Sc., CPBA-AP
BCBA, Program Director

Information provided by:

Ms. Lai-Kan Wong is a Certified Progressive Behavior Analyst (Autism Professional), a Board Certified Behavior Analyst, and holds a Master of Science in Applied Behavior Analysis. She embarked on her journey with Autism Partnership in 2001. Over the years, she has gained extensive experience working with children across different settings, including individual therapy sessions, small group training, and ABA classrooms. Ms. Wong is now responsible for overseeing Autism Partnership centers in Hong Kong, Beijing, and Shanghai, and she provides clinical support to consultants in different offices.

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