Setting Expectations For Neurodivergent Children + A Timer Tip For All Parents

authors of What To Say Next By Sarah and Larry Nannery
authors of What To Say Next
Sarah Nannery is Director of Development for Autism Programming at Drexel University. She holds a master’s degree in conflict transformation, and was recently diagnosed with Autism. Larry Nannery is a technology consultant, with experience in organizational change and life coaching along with a lifelong love of communication.
How To Help Neurodivergent Kids Set Expectations + A Handy Timer Tip

One of the most helpful sets of tools for a parent with ASD, or the parent of a child with ASD, is setting expectations. Not just your child's expectations but your own as well.

These tools are helpful for any parent but especially parents of toddlers. From an autism lens, setting the right expectations can mean the difference between a perfectly easy and well-ordered type of day and a chaotic, meltdown-ridden, emotional-roller-coaster type of day.

Why setting expectations can help create a smooth day.

With so much of our brainpower focused on the details and diverted from the bigger picture, it can be hard for me (and my son) to find the "why" that sustains us through any number of seemingly small hardships along the way. Life can often feel like it is spinning out of control. There are too many details that we can't control, and yet we see them all individually, usually without being able to perceive them all as part of 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 on to sand. There are so many tiny little grains—each one seems equally important, and yet it is impossible to hold on to all of them.

Setting expectations mitigates some of this lack of control. Simply knowing the structure in which my life is being held—even if just for the day or for the next few hours—can offer a tremendous sense of clarity. It's like suddenly having a bucket for the sand. If I know that I have a 5-by-5-inch 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.

So, for example, if we ask our son to put down his tablet, and he doesn't know why or for how long, and he had no prior expectation of having to stop using it, he is much less willing to cooperate. However, if we had already set a 15-minute time limit when he picked up the tablet, and he hears the timer go off, he will put it down of his own accord because his expectations were clear, and now he is in control of his own destiny.


How timers can help create structure & ease transitions.

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.

There are several things that timers do to help with an ASD brain, in particular:

1. They establish forewarning that a transition is coming.

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 successfully through the change.

2. They remove arbitrary authority.

A young child who asks why he must do something is not necessarily being disrespectful; he is being curious and wants to learn. A young child with ASD may be apt to ask even more questions than usual, 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, not because he doesn't trust or respect us but simply because he sees all the nooks and crannies of possibilities and he wants to get to the bottom of why a particular behavior is desired so that he can be better prepared in the future.

On top of this, a young child with ASD may not recognize the subtle hierarchical relational nature at play underneath an interaction, and so does not realize that asking questions of authority figures can be perceived as threatening to that hierarchy.

These two circumstances combine to make removing any potential arbitrariness from the situation beneficial to success. "The timer is going off, so it is time to get ready for school," as opposed to "It's time to get ready for school because I said so."


3. They create a transparent, level playing field.

There are few things so clear and persistent as an autistic person's sense of justice. When I tell my son that I need five more minutes—to finish my meal, to help his baby sister take a nap, etc.—he sets 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. It creates a level of transparency and fairness that speaks directly to his true nature. My "five minutes" can't stretch out to 10 minutes any more than his can, and I'm not patronizing him by saying that I "just need one more minute" when really it's going to be five times that. 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.

4. They offer a sense of control.

As much as it might feel the opposite to someone who is neurotypical, setting a timer and knowing how much time in which I have to do what I am currently doing gives me a tremendous sense of relief, knowledge, and control over my actions.

Instead of careening through chaotic unknown variables in uncharted space, my son has the boundaries of a spaceship—the timer—to allow him to explore safely.

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