Time management is an important concept to consider when supporting individuals on the autism spectrum. Because time management and executive functioning skills (e.g., emotional regulation, impulse control, self-monitoring, working memory, organization, and planning, initiating, and prioritizing tasks1) can be challenging for those with autism, several best practices for improving abilities in these areas include:
- Establishing SMART goals
- Structured work systems (SWSs)
- Visual organization and planning skills
- Daily checklists and personal schedules
- Sticky notes, timers, and task prioritization
- Setting deadlines, using breaks, and limiting distractions
By assisting those on the spectrum in developing a strong foundation for time management and executive functioning skills, individuals will be better prepared for long-term success in all aspects of their life–including personal goals, daily endeavors, and work activities.
1. Establishing SMART goals
SMART goals are goals that are intentionally specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-oriented.2 Such goals help clarify the most important tasks and priorities to focus on and work towards. We've created a downloadable printout with sample SMART goals that can be used with those on the autism spectrum.
Specific strategies that may be useful when aiding in the development of SMART goals include:
- Assessing one’s current level of ability (e.g., Leo can work on a task at his desk for 15 minutes before needing a break)
- Setting clear goals with specific numerical values (e.g., Emma will work on homework for 20 minutes each afternoon before going outside to play with her friends)
- Establishing a method for collecting, measuring, analyzing, and monitoring the achievement and progress towards goals over time (e.g., using a graph or chart to record the number of tasks and chores completed from a checklist throughout the day)
When SMART goals are established and adhered to, significant strides towards one’s goals for daily living can be achieved.
2. Structured Work Systems (SWSs)
Structured work systems (SWSs) are another effective approach to supporting individuals on the autism spectrum in improving their time management and executive functioning (EF) skills. SWSs are designed to assist those with autism in working independently and finishing tasks fully (i.e., completing from start to finish).
There are four specific areas that SWSs focus on and emphasize3:
- Organizing and prioritizing tasks based on relative importance while determining how much work is expected and required during a set, predetermined, and specific period of time
- Establishing criteria for task completion and visualizing progress over time (e.g., consider using a daily task checklist with visuals that can be completed by the end of the day–and create graphs to track data, trends, progress, and gains over time)
- Defining which tasks are to be done within a certain time frame (e.g., Harry will finish all of the tasks on his personal checklist by the end of the work day at 5:00 p.m.)
- Planning for what happens after tasks are complete (e.g., After Kendra completes her daily task checklist for the day, she is then free to use any remaining time for preferred activities and personal hobbies).
Structured work systems help the individual know exactly what is expected of them, how to approach each task, and when to focus on specific daily activities. In time, SWSs assist learners in gaining and achieving independence skills that will last a lifetime.
3. Visual Organization and Planning Skills
There are many ways to support the development of effective organization and planning skills among those on the autism spectrum, and organization is a particularly important skill to hone as it supports individuals throughout their entire lives. Planning ahead and organizing tasks provides clarity, direction, and consistency for each learner.
A common strategy for supporting organization and planning is visual instruction (which can be adapted to fit the needs of the individual accordingly). Visual instructions provide learners with developmentally-appropriate cues to signal task completion. A preschool student, for instance, may use visual instructions in the form of red, yellow, and green cue cards. Each card represents the amount of time left for certain classroom activities and assists in a smooth transition from one activity to the next.
During play time an instructor can provide the student with:
- a green card (symbolizing that play time has begun)
- and then transition to a yellow card when 5 minutes of play time remain (to illustrate that the current activity is about to end and the next one will begin shortly thereafter).
- When play time is over, the instructor places the red card in front of the learner and removes the toys used during play time to help the child transition to the next task or activity.
This form of visual instruction is especially helpful for those who do not understand the concept of time or numerical numbers yet.
4. Daily Checklists and Personal Schedules
Developing daily checklists and personal schedules is, perhaps, one of the most effective approaches for supporting time management and executive functioning skills among those with autism. Similar to visual instructions, daily checklists and personal schedules provide individuals with representations of their tasks for the day in a visual format.
While there are many types of personal schedules and checklists that can be created depending on the age–and current ability level–of the learner, a few specific ideas are as follows:
- Using picture symbols, particularly for children who are not of reading age yet, to illustrate various classroom activities that will take place throughout the day (e.g., art class, nap time, recess, lunch, etc.)
- Providing schedules of daily routines to allow for visualization of the tasks one is to complete (e.g., brushing teeth, washing hands, packing lunch, attending school, going to swim practice, eating dinner, getting ready for bed, etc.)
- Developing peel-and-stick activity schedules for use at home or during school (e.g., such schedules can include words or picture symbols of each task and activity that is to be completed–along with velcro to allow for removal of each task from the visual schedule once finished)
- Creating chore boards with symbolic task cards to give learners a visual blueprint of the activities they must finish before earning a reward (e.g., complete homework before earning play time, a special outing, or a new toy)
5. Sticky Notes, Timers, and Task Prioritization
Sticky notes, timers, and task prioritization are three additional approaches for improving time management and executive functioning skills among those on the autism spectrum.
Sticky notes can be used as prompts in salient locations (i.e., at home, work, or school) to remind individuals of specific tasks that should occur in those places. To demonstrate, a sticky note can be placed on the bathroom mirror to remind a child to wash their hands after going to the bathroom. Similarly, sticky notes can also be useful for professionals in the workplace by providing reminders for important tasks, such as making a company phone call after returning from lunch.
Timers, especially visual ones, can assist in time management by aiding individuals in working on a set task for a predetermined amount of time.4 The parents of a 7-year-old elementary school student may, for instance, decide to set a 30-minute timer for their child to assist in the completion of after-school reading time. If the child has engaged in reading for the full 30-minutes once the time is up (i.e., the timer goes off), then TV time is earned.
Prioritizing tasks based on their relative level of importance is another essential skill for time management. If one does not know what task or activity is the most important to focus on, it will be difficult to make meaningful strides towards long-term goals and success. Task prioritization can be established by creating a list of the most important activities to complete throughout the day. Selecting three tasks that are of top priority can help minimize distractions while providing meaningful progress towards the end goal.
6. Setting Deadlines, Using Breaks, and Limiting Distractions
Finally, setting personal deadlines, using breaks, and limiting distractions throughout the day gives individuals on the autism spectrum an opportunity to focus on the most important and essential tasks at hand. Personal deadlines can act as motivating factors when a task or activity must be completed by a certain time. Accomplishing difficult tasks first (i.e., before easier ones) can help ensure that even unpleasant work throughout the day gets done.
Sprinkling in breaks and limiting distractions while work is taking place helps individuals shift their focus (and direct their attention) in a more productive manner. If distractions are limited and the learner knows they will get a break from their current activity after 15 minutes of focused attention, then tasks throughout the day can be prioritized in a structured and well-developed manner to accomplish the end goal and direct work towards the most important tasks.
Developing strong time management and executive functioning skills must be a primary focus for those on the autism spectrum as these skills aid in productivity, prioritization, attention, and organization skills that will last a lifetime. While many with autism may struggle to hone their skills and competencies in these areas, such challenges can often be overcome by implementing one or more of the strategies discussed above.
Question for Readers
Which methods of time management have you found effective with individuals on the autism spectrum? (See the Comments section below to post your answer!)
- Hall, Laura J. 2018. Autism Spectrum Disorders: From Theory to Practice. 3rd ed. NY, NY: Pearson.