Autism and time management

Strategies for gauging time

By Dr. Cathryn Lehman, PhD
Dr. Cathryn Lehman, PhD

Today’s “Got Questions?” answer is by psychologist Cathryn Lehman, of the Center for Autism and Developmental Disorders, at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. The medical center is one of 14 sites in the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network.

I’ve been reading about studies suggesting that people who have autism have trouble gauging and tracking time. Boy oh boy, does this ever apply to me ever since I was a little kid! Do you have any tips or insights that can help?

Editor’s note: The following information is not meant to diagnose or treat and should not take the place of personal consultation, as appropriate, with a qualified healthcare professional and/or behavioral therapist.

Thanks for your question. It’s an interesting one that doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all answer.

It sounds like you’re referring to time perception, or how a person’s brain interprets and understands the passage of time. Time perception is a complex process. Evidence suggests that it involves the basal ganglia and cerebellar systems of the brain.

Researchers have long studied time perception in the general population. More recently, we’re seeing some research involving people on the autism spectrum.

Some of these investigators have proposed that perception of time is altered among many people who have autism. Interestingly, other researchers have found that time perception can be an area of strength for certain people on the spectrum. Some people affected by autism appear to excel at time reproduction. Time reproduction refers to an experimental task where someone reproduces the length of a cue they’re given. For example, you might be asked to press a buzzer for the same duration as a buzzer you’ve just heard.

Then there are the study findings you mention – that many people on the spectrum have difficulty gauging and tracking time. I certainly see this in my practice. I work with many people on the spectrum who have difficulty gauging and tracking time.

This can produce a range of challenges, from difficulty understanding concepts such as “tomorrow” or “last week” to greatly underestimating how much time it will take to complete a task. For some people, difficulty gauging the passage of time can even involve problems with following sequences and make sense of life events.

Here, are a few ideas that have helped my clients navigate the concept of time more effectively:

  • Become your own detective: Often, I’ll ask my clients to estimate how long they think an activity will take. After writing down their estimate, they time how long it actually takes them. In this way, they get a feel for whether they tend to overestimate or underestimate the time involved in completing a task. Consider keeping a chart or journal of these comparisons so that you calibrate your sense of time – which can differ between different types of activities.
  • Visual supports. For many people with autism, visual cues can be a great help for tracking time. This can involve something as simple as setting and periodically checking a timer with a moving dial or a clock with moving hands (an analog clock).
    • Another option is to create a visual schedule of your day, with pictures alongside the times of your appointments and other tasks. At our autism center, we sometimes draw or tape pictures of daily activities around the outside rim of an analogue clock. You might find that this can help you get a feel for how quickly events approach and how long they last.
  • Alarms and pop-up prompts. If you aren’t doing so already, consider joining the millions of people who rely on the alarm functions of a smart phone, computer, wristwatch or other device to remind them when it’s time to do something. I know I’d be lost without my computer’s pop-up reminders, which I set to start prompting me at 5-minute intervals starting 15 minutes before an appointment or task. This can be particularly helpful for recurring reminders such as a daily prompt when it’s time to pack up at work in time to catch your bus or train home.
  • Make it concrete. From your question, I infer that you grasp the basic concept of time. But for some people on the spectrum, this can be difficult. In my practice, I’ve found that it can help to use mental images appropriately matched to the person’s developmental level and interests. For example, some people respond best to everyday time markers such as, “We’ll do that after breakfast” (or lunch, recess, etc.). But others actually do best with rather academic explanations such as how the day’s passage reflects the earth’s rotation and position relative to the sun.

I hope these tips are helpful. We certainly need more research addressing this common challenge, with the goal of developing more effective interventions and accommodations.