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  • Sarah Nannery

What's in a Timer?

We are an Alexa household. We have no less than 4 of the Amazon Echo devices - count them - 4 - one in the living room, one in our bedroom, one in our son's bedroom, and one in, yes, the bathroom.

With a husband who works in technology for a living, it was, perhaps, inevitable.

I suppose I should be thankful that I don't live in a house like The Jetsons, with gadgets waking me up every morning and a robot who vacuums... *eyes the iRumba knock-off charging in the corner* ...wait a minute...

In any case, despite the slightly alarming pervasiveness of technology in our apartment, there is one particular function of the Alexa devices that has proven truly indispensable as a parenting tool: the timer.

Now, a timer is not a complicated device. You certainly don't need a hunk of voice-activation internet technology to make use of a timer. All you need is a clock, or a watch, or a phone, or even the timer function on your microwave or stove, or one of those little ticking manual crank kitchen timers. We just happen to use Alexa for ours, and the hands-free interaction does count for something when you're running around with both a toddler and a baby in the house...

Another nice thing about the Alexa timer is that our son, now 4 years old, has learned to use it, too. He can, and does, set a timer just as easily as we do, using his voice and a learned set of commands.

So, what's so great about timers?

Timers are helpful for ANY toddler. Specifically when it comes to transitions. Almost all toddlers struggle with transitions - especially when that transition is away from something they enjoy doing, and/or toward something they enjoy, err, less.

But for a toddler with ASD, timers are not only helpful, they are essential. At least, for our toddler with ASD. :)

Timers do several things that help with ASD-specific brain structure:

  • They establish forewarning that a transition is coming.

When our son hears us set a timer, or when he sets one for himself, it establishes that, in the near future, there will be a change. The ASD brain is notoriously slow to adapt to change, so the advance warning that change is coming is immensely powerful in increasing the likelihood of accepting and navigating through the change. No surprises, the change was expected, the struggle anticipated and respected, and the transition is made smoother.

  • They remove arbitrary authority.

This is a wooly one. And perhaps controversial. No parent wants to yield their authority over to a device. Aren't kids supposed to learn to do what their parents tell them, and not to question or "talk back," out of respect and trust? Perhaps, but there is a difference between disrespecting authority and asking questions.

A young child who asks "why" he must do something is not necessarily being disrespectful - he is being curious, and wanting to learn. A young child with ASD may also be apt to ask even more questions, to glean every detail of the logical purpose for the desired behavior. My son asks questions ad nauseam when we tell him to do something new or that he hasn't been asked to do on many occasions before, not because he doesn't trust that we have his best interests at heart, or because he wants to disrespect our authority - but simply because he sees all the nooks and crannies of possibilities and he wants to get to the very bottom of why a particular behavior is required, so that he can be better prepared in future. (It can be hard for me to remember this at times, and sometimes I just have to tell him that he has to trust me and I will tell him why later.) On top of this, a young child with ASD may not recognize the subtle hierarchical relational nature at play underneath the interaction, and so does not realize that asking questions can be perceived as threatening to that hierarchy.

These two circumstances combine to make removing any perceived arbitrariness from the situation beneficial to success. "The timer is going off, so it is time to X," as opposed to "It is time to do X, because I said so." This way, the timer helps remove the endless "why" from the equation. I did not decide it was time to do X (even though I did when I set the timer), so I don't have to answer questions about why I made the decision.

  • They create a transparent, level playing field.

There are few things so clear and persistent as an ASD-brain's sense of justice.

When I tell my son that I need 5 more minutes - to finish my meal, to help his baby sister take a nap, to do whatever it is that is taking me away from him for those 5 minutes - he has Alexa set a timer for me.

This keeps me true to my word - the same way that it keeps him true to the schedule that we need to set with him to make sure we get through our day successfully - and creates a level of transparency and fairness that speaks directly to his true nature. My "5 minutes" can't stretch out to 10 minutes, I'm not patronizing him by saying I just need "one more minute," I am being clear and holding myself to the same standard that I expect from him.

Which makes it easier, in turn, for him to give us the same clear, fair respect.

  • They offer a sense of control.

For someone with ASD, life can often feel like it is spinning out of control. There are too many details -- too many trees in the forest -- we can't control them all, and yet we see them all individually, usually without being able to perceive of them all as one big picture.

It's hard to describe what this is like to someone who has not experienced it. It's like trying to hold onto sand. There are so many tiny little grains - each one seems equally important, and yet it is impossible to hold onto all of them.

You may be wondering what on earth a simple timer can do to assuage this feeling, but for a young child, whose life is already so much outside of his own control, simply knowing the structure in which his life is being held can offer a tremendous sense of control. It's like suddenly having a bucket for the sand - If I know that I have a 5"x5" bucket in which to put my sand, I will control the grains of sand I engage with in order to be successful within that controlled structure. If my son knows that he has 5 minutes of time in which to do something, he is more empowered to start and finish what he wants to do within that limit, and therefore be more in control of how he spends his time.


All of this to say, timers are incredibly useful for any toddler, and especially useful for a young child with ASD or ASD-like tendencies, due to the forewarning of change, removal of perceived arbitrary rules, sense of justice, and clear boundaries/structure they create.

Hup, there goes my timer. Writing time is over - let the play time begin! =D

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