The Trouble With Time…

Very late getting to linky-up Monday stuff today as the theme of ‘Education’ isn’t one I tend to write about very often – at least not in a motivational (Monday) or magical (moments) sort of way… 

So I’ve written this especially (awwwww…) : I hope it fits the bill!

When my son was very small the concept of time could be a very big issue for him. He found the grey areas surrounding time very frustrating and difficult to understand, because there were no literal meanings he could apply to terms like ‘they will be here in a little while’ or ‘we will be going out soon.’ Attending a National Autistic Society Early Birds group I was personally confused when they suggested using sand timers and cooking alarms to explain the concept of time, because these kinds of concrete measuring devices always seemed to me to create more problems than they resolved, locking stressed parents into fixed patterns of behaviour that, while reassuring for autistic children, could be impossible to negotiate in the real and ever-shifting world. Used for timing a sanction (‘the naughty step’) a timer can be a great positive reinforcer, but if used for something less rigid (i.e. a timed homework session) it can be a major negative, because it doesn’t relate to how much work is actually achieved in the allotted time and may prove to be an under-estimate, leading to more trouble and ‘meltdowns’ than it’s worth. 

I came to the conclusion that teaching my son, Ben, to tell the time for himself was the key to defining the concept of time, and that we could build from there to incorporate the abstract concept of ‘flexi-time’ or ‘grey time’, which would help him make sense of the ambiguous, non-literal phrases we tend to use on a daily basis about time. Again, I was confused by the NAS approach to this conundrum, which effectively suggested we should change the world to accommodate the child by eliminating the use of figurative speech, rather than helping the child develop the wider understanding to accommodate figurative language. In the short-term, and the home or classroom environment, clear, precise and literal language is obviously going to be less confusing and more reassuring, but the long-term goal has to focus on the child adapting to the real world rather than trying to bend the world to fit the child. I felt teaching Ben to tell the time would pay dividends in this area too, by providing him with visual examples of the crossover and interaction between figurative and literal language, so telling the time became a priority for us even before he started primary school.

Teaching Ben to tell the time was actually a lot easier than I imagined it would be. He was motivated to learn about time by his own need for consistency, so bought in to the process immediately, and liked the idea of having a skill that none of the other kids at pre-school had yet achieved. To further incentivise him, I built time-telling into our daily ‘Golden Time’ routines, included it as an achievable target on his star chart (I’ll explain that further some other time!) and devised a learning process that incorporated his favourite thing, which at that time was the old Hanna Barbera cartoon series Wacky Races.

Click for closer view
(Click for closer view)

This is a picture of the Wacky Races clock we made together on the PC and which still hangs in Ben’s bedroom today. This was made very easily using a clock I bought in Pound Stretcher for £1.99 and non-copyright pictures of the Wacky Races vehicles I downloaded from a fan site online. A half-hour or so flitting between a freeware photo editor and Microsoft Word saw the new clock face completed, and then all I had to do was size it to match the existing clock face, which probably took me longer than it did to take apart and reassemble the clock itself! It’s kept perfect time now for over twelve years, and while Ben has occasionally asked if he can replace it as it’s now a bit young for his room he has kindly, so far, deferred to my wish that he keep it for its sentimental value to yours truly!

It was a bonus for me that the Wacky Races vehicles were conveniently numbered one to ten, but it would be easy to take any cartoon character (or dinosaur, or whatever) and Photoshop the numbers one to twelve on them. On the downside, there was no eleven or twelve, so we used the Mean Machine (double zero) as eleven (Ben’s choice) and a picture of a crash between Penelope Pitstop and Dick Dastardly as our twelve. Ben, pedantic little beggar, made me write ‘12’ underneath the picture in pen after we’d finished the clock for clarity…

Working initially with hours and half-hours, then with quarter past’s and quarter too’s and then finally with the bits in between Ben learnt to tell the time in no time, if you’ll excuse the dreadful pun. We didn’t want to mess with the Wacky Races clock, so made a cardboard replica for teaching about ‘flexi-time’ which had an outer band shaded in various colours, so that (i.e.) the number twelve had a grey header that went from the nine to the three and was graduated to be lighter at the extremes.

I used this to explain to Ben that if somebody said they were coming at ‘around twelve o’clock’ it could mean quarter to twelve, quarter past twelve, or any of the points in between. I explained that they might have had problems with traffic making them late, or possibly overestimated the journey time which made them early. From that I could expand the concept out to make sense of terms like ‘one day soon’ or ‘maybe next week’ or whatever. In addition to the graduated clock I also demonstrated that time could seem to move at different speeds, giving him timed tasks to do that he really enjoyed to show that time could ‘fly by’ and taking advantage of his sanctions to demonstrate how a minute or two could seem to last much longer. While writing this, it occurred to me that elastic bands could be used effectively to show how time can be stretched or contracted, with the explanation that while an hour in ‘clock’ time is always the same there are situations in life where experienced time can seem different.

Offering Ben visual demonstrations of ‘flexi’ or ‘grey’ time paid huge dividends in many other aspects of our lives. Things like going to the park became much easier, because he had a point of reference he could apply to variables like queuing for the swings or taking turns, and he became less rigid in his thinking about things like mealtimes or homework activities. For a while he tipped completely the other way – taking umbrage at other children who didn’t take turns or queue nicely – but that as a problem was far easier to negotiate than meltdowns over literal interpretations that proved impossible to accommodate.

Oh. One final thought on time: getting your kids out of bed in the morning without the need for dynamite. This very noisy alarm clock cost me about ten quid on e-bay. It was money very well spent! Never underestimate just how useful your kid’s obsessions can be as tools of education or behavioural management – Ben wouldn’t necessarily listen to me, but when Muttley told him it was time to get up he always ready to leap into action!

muttley clock

An extra link up today with:


11 thoughts on “The Trouble With Time…”

  1. Now, when they grow up you do forget all the traumas of the little things like “quarter to the hour” (autistic or not that’s a tricky concept), and I love that Ben made you write 12 underneath in pen! However, as previously discussed elsewhere, we have all 3 teens alarm clocks ready and waiting for back to school, but I bet they all sleep through them … Getting the dynamite ready right now …

    1. Ahhhh… there’s the rub, see, you need carrot AND stick to begin with! A few more trips to the naughty step during the formative years and they would be less inclined to lay a-bed now… Yeah, right. Ask me why we always have to walk into TW on a Saturday night, ‘cos Ben’s made us miss the bus *whistle* Thanks for comment 🙂

  2. Lovely way of linking education in with likes. And some good ideas that can be applied to all children. Will think of creating my own clock for my son when he’s a bit older

  3. I love it!! i love the fact you made that clock face how ingenious (i am one lazy mummy) I really struggled to teach Beth the time i should of gone down this route!!

    I think this is a fab post and i am loving that you linked up with #MagicMoments x

    1. Thank you 🙂 As this theme seems to fit Both MM’s (Motivational Monday & Magic Moments) I’ll probably pick up where I left off next week! As I said, though, not sure ‘Magic Moments’ would fit most of my blogging activity, so don’t take it personally if I’m too grumpy to join in!

  4. What a fantastic post. You know I hadn’t thought about it before but I never thought of using timers or anything either – we just taught them the time. The difficulty is in accounting for people being late etc (and sounds like you did a great job of handling that). LOVE how you got my dinosaurs in there – we have a Toys Story 3 clock with Rex on for our boy, but had to take it down due to the ticking. No doubt he will end up with a digital clock like the others. I’m pinning this to my special needs board.

    Thank you for linking up

    1. Thank you :)… Rex clock: my own approach (if possible) would be to get your son to invest in the ticking as a positive – it could be Rex ‘breathing’ or counting how long your son sleeps… Point out how ‘soothing’ and relaxing the sound of a ticking clock can be… You could perhaps try leaving it at the far end of the room (or even in the hallway) or damping the sound by covering it at night initially, then gradually move it closer (?) The problem (IMO) with eradicating intrusive sensory stimuli is that it’s usually counter-productive – you just reinforce the idea of intrusive sounds as a negative and something to be eliminated, which is almost impossible in the wider world.

      As someone who can be distracted and ‘overloaded’- to the point of migraines and hot sweats by (i.e.) the sound of a bird singing outside a classroom I do know how hard it can be for autistic kids to cope with intrusive noise or visual stimuli, but I also know, from personal experience and parenting my son, that pushing at the boundaries always pays off in the long term 🙂

      1. That is great advice but currently his sleeping is the first thing we need to tackle to help all other areas and whilst we are working on this I don’t want another spanner in the works – but do know what you mean

  5. When my eldest (ASD) reached his teenage years I bought him a Star Wars clock that spoke to him and that worked a treat. With my eldest daughter the problem was her getting up too early so I got her a rabbit clock which slept (Eyes closed, ears down) until it was morning, She soon learnt that she shouldn’t get out of bed until her rabbit woke up and that was long before she could tell the time.
    I love the idea of making your own clock face though and can think of some excellent themes for my three little ones now, thanks.

    1. I love the sound of that rabbit clock – what a brilliant idea! And my son was really into ‘Reader Rabbit’ educational software at the time so it would have fitted in almost as well as his muttley clock did. Thanks for comment.

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