How Sand Timers Can Help Autistic Children
One tool that can help autistic children to deal with time-related issues is a sand timer. A sand timer is a simple device that consists of two glass bulbs connected by a narrow tube, filled with sand that flows from one bulb to the other. Sand timers can be bought in a range of different durations, such as one minute, three minutes, or up to thirty minutes, depending on the size and amount of sand.
Autistic children often need support and specific teaching to understand and manage time. They may struggle to follow routines, complete tasks, transition between activities, or cope with changes. These challenges can cause stress, anxiety, frustration, and meltdowns for the child, these may start being labelled as challenging behaviour.
Sand timers can provide a visual and tangible way for autistic children to see and feel the passage of time. Unlike traditional clocks or digital timers, sand timers do not require the child to understand numbers or symbols. They can simply watch the sand move from one bulb to the other, and see how much time is left or how much time has passed.
What can Sand Timers be used for?
Sand timers can be used for various purposes in school and at home, such as:
- Setting expectations and boundaries. Sand timers can help autistic children to know what is expected of them and how long they have to do something. For example, a sand timer can be used to indicate how long the child has to brush their teeth, do their homework, play with a toy, or wait for their turn. This should be used when there is a clear time need i.e getting ready for school, the bedtime routine or finishing an activity i.e in the park.
- Promoting independence and self-regulation. Sand timers can help children to develop their sense of time and responsibility. For example, a sand timer can be used to encourage the child to start or finish a task on their own, without relying on constant reminders or prompts from others.
- Supporting transitions and changes. Sand timers can help autistic children to prepare for and cope with transitions and changes in their daily routines. For example, a sand timer can be used to warn the child that an activity is about to end or that they need to switch to a different activity. This can reduce the anxiety and resistance that often accompany transitions and changes.
- Reducing stress and meltdowns. Sand timers can help children (ASC or SEMH) to calm down and relax when they are feeling overwhelmed or upset. For example, a sand timer can be used to provide a break or a timeout for the child when they need some space or time to themselves. The sand timer can also serve as a distraction or a soothing object for the child to focus on.
What should I consider when choosing a sand timer?
Sand timers are widely available in different sizes, colours, and shapes. They are also relatively inexpensive and easy to use. However, some things to consider when using sand timers are:
- Choosing the right duration. The duration of the sand timer should match the age and ability of the child, as well as the purpose and context of the activity. For example, younger children or children with shorter attention spans may benefit from shorter durations, while older children or children who need more time to process information may benefit from longer durations.
- Using clear and consistent cues. The child should be taught what the sand timer means and what they are supposed to do when it starts or ends. For example, you can use verbal cues (such as “When the sand runs out, it’s time to stop playing”), visual cues (such as pointing at the sand timer), or physical cues (such as tapping the child’s shoulder) to communicate with the child.
- Providing positive reinforcement. The child should be praised or rewarded for following the sand timer and completing the activity. For example, you can use verbal praise (such as “Good job! You finished your homework before the sand ran out”), social praise (such as giving a high-five or a hug), or tangible rewards (such as a favoured activity to motivate the child.
- Being flexible and adaptable. The caregiver should be prepared to adjust the use of the sand timer according to the child’s needs and preferences. For example, some children may prefer certain colours or shapes of sand timers over others, while some children may need more or less time than what the sand timer indicates.
- Honouring the timer. The minute you don’t honour the timer by extending the time or stopping an activity before the timer finishes you destroy the value you are trying to develop.
What situations & activities can timers be useful for?
Here are some examples of when a sand timer could be useful to help a child understand expectations:
- Transitioning between activities. A 3-5 minute timer can help signal when it’s time to switch from one engaging activity to the next, like from play-doh to outdoor play.
- Turn-taking. A 5-10 minute timer can ensure the child doesn’t hoard a favoured toy and learns to wait their turn.
- Self-regulation. A timer set for deep breathing exercises (e.g. 4 breaths in, 4 breaths out for 30 seconds) can aid calming techniques.
- Focusing attention. Placing a 5 minute timer in view during circle time or lessons provides a visual cue to maintain focus.
- Cause and effect. Manipulating the sand through the timer gives a tangible representation of elapsed time and reinforces the effect of their actions.
- Warning for transitions. Setting a 5 minute timer before transitioning to a less preferred activity (e.g. before leaving the playground) provides advance notice.
- Praise and rewards. Linking a timer to natural breaks in between preferred activities provides motivation.
- Routines. Consistent use of timers within routines (e.g. 5 minutes of play then 5 minutes of schoolwork) creates predictable schedules.
What are the arguments against using sand timers?
Sand timers can be helpful for some autistic children, but they may not work for everyone. Some possible arguments against using sand timers for autistic children are:
- Sand timers may not be accurate or reliable. Depending on the quality and size of the sand timer, the sand may flow at different speeds or get stuck in the tube. This can make the sand timer inconsistent or inaccurate, which can confuse or frustrate the child.
- Sand timers can be used to control not give control.
- Sand timers may not match the child’s perception of time. Some autistic children may have a different sense of time than neurotypical children, and may not understand or relate to the concept of minutes or seconds. For them, watching the sand flow may not help them grasp how much time has passed or how much time is left.
- Sand timers may not be flexible or adaptable. Some autistic children may need more or less time than what the sand timer indicates, depending on their mood, energy level, interest, or ability. For example, some children may need more time to finish a task or calm down, while some children may get bored or restless if they have to wait too long. Using a fixed duration of time may not suit their individual needs or preferences.
- Sand timers may cause anxiety or pressure. Some children may feel stressed or pressured by watching the sand run out, especially if they are not ready to end or change an activity. This can make them anxious, resistant, or defiant, and may lead to meltdowns or tantrums.
- Sand timers may not be appropriate for all situations or activities. Some activities may not have a clear start or end point, or may vary in length depending on various factors. For example, reading a book, playing a game, or having a conversation may not have a fixed duration of time. Using a sand timer for these activities may interrupt the natural flow or enjoyment of the activity.
These are some possible arguments against using sand timers for autistic children. However, this does not mean that sand timers are useless or harmful for all autistic children. Sand timers can still be beneficial for some children, as long as they are used appropriately and effectively. The key is to find out what works best for each child and adjust the use of sand timers accordingly.
Sand timers are not a magic solution for all time-related problems that children with autism face. They are just one of many tools that can help them learn and grow. However, when used appropriately and effectively, sand timers can make a positive difference in the lives of children with autism and their caregivers.