My Child Has No Concept of Time Thanks To Autism

I realize that sometimes it’s simply difficult for some children to get a grasp of, but in Cameron’s (my son) case, he doesn’t get it in the slightest. For example, he never knows what to call each meal that he has… he knows that it is breakfast, lunch, or supper… but he has no idea which it is.  I know that it’s entirely possible that we’re simply not teaching it to him in a way that’ll sink in but for comparison’s sake, my 2 year old has a better grasp of it already.

After talking to his therapist about it, she confirmed that many people with Autism (especially children) have no concept of time… it’s just something that is beyond their realm of understanding. For my son, everything is either happening, or it happened yesterday or it will just be “soon”. There is no specific date or time it happened, just “yesterday” or “soon.”

We’ve shown him calendars, we’ve shown him digital clocks… but nothing will get through to him. He’s been out of school for a month now and yet he still tells us about each of his classmate’s birthdays as if they happened yesterday. In fact, he says “yesterday, it was my friends birthday!”

In contrast though, funny enough, he is fascinated with months… he asks us “is it July now?” despite having no concept of what day or how many days has gone by. He asks purely for the sake of his curiosity, not because he understands that one month is different from another.

I’ve done a lot of reading up on Autism since my son’s diagnosis but I have to say that I’ve yet to see any articles or studies on an Autistic’s understanding on the concepts of time.  Is the therapist right? Will it be years before my son is able to get the basics on time? Will he ever?

What are your experiences with Autism and the concept of time?

About Stuart Duncan

My name is Stuart Duncan, creator of My oldest son (Cameron) has Autism while my younger son (Tyler) does not. I am a work from home web developer with a background in radio. I do my very best to stay educated and do what ever is necessary to ensure my children have the tools they need to thrive. I share my stories and experiences in an effort to further grow and strengthen the online Autism community and to promote Autism Understanding and Acceptance.

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7 Responses to My Child Has No Concept of Time Thanks To Autism

  1. Tammy Patrick July 21, 2010 at 6:56 pm #

    My DD is 7 & still very confused about time. We have to use visual schedules; these help her particularly if there is a change in routine.


  2. BlueNight July 21, 2010 at 9:20 pm #

    As a person with Aspergers, when I entered the workforce I realized I did not know the numbers of the spring and summer months. I knew September was the 9th month, because that was the month of my birth, but is May or July the 6th month? I forced myself to memorize them, over the course of about a week.

    As to Cameron: since people like me are logically intuitive, but incapable of understanding the physical world except through the lens of science, you may have to build his sense of time from the very basics, matching concepts to concrete mental pictures:

    Start with a day. A day is a measurement of the Earth’s rotation, as described by the sun’s relative position in the sky. Noon is when the sun is directly “above” us, and midnight is the exact opposite. The sundial is a tool that was invented to track the time of day using shadow. (At this point, build a sundial with him, and have him mark the shadow on the ground or with chalk at noon and other hours during the day.)

    Months were originally based on the phases of the moon. Weeks are marked by the moon’s quarter phase changes; it takes four weeks from full moon to full moon.

    As for seconds, choose a place for him to run to and back, and time him.

    Emphasize at some point that what he is seeing are measurements of time, and not time itself. Time is like a river; you can measure its depth, but the water that is here now is not the water that was here before. (Being at an actual river may help.)

  3. Lynn July 21, 2010 at 10:37 pm #

    Audrey has enormous difficulty with this and we have tried various strategies to help her. She doesn’t understand elapsed time at all…if you tell her something will happen “soon” or “later” you might as well be saying a million years from now. This causes her great upset when you are talking about something preferred that she is going to get later. Audrey does the same thing as Cameron…everything just happened or happened “yesterday”. I always respond “that was a long time ago” but she doesn’t get it.

    I love Blue Night’s suggestions because Audrey is every into the moon’s phases, etc….but she may still be a little young to put it all together.

  4. Stuart Duncan July 22, 2010 at 3:01 pm #

    Yeah, sun dials might be beyond my 4 year old (who turns 5 in 3 days by the way).

    However, I do get what you all mean by finding other methods.

    For example, Cameron’s been counting down the “sleeps” until his birthday. He knows when it’s day time, and night time and that his sleeps divide the days. So in 3 sleeps, he turns 5.

    Since writing this and talking to people, I’ve encountered many people who’ve never really thought about the concept of time being foreign to people with Autism. I wonder why it’s not discussed more.

    Perhaps this is a big part of what helped Einstein? Maybe once he grasped the concept of time in his own way, he was able to understand it to a greater degree than most people… just a thought.

  5. BlueNight July 22, 2010 at 10:20 pm #

    Time is essentially sequential, and I find I have a VERY hard time with anything sequential unless I understand it on a functional level first. As a logically intuitive person, sequence and consequence are most understandable to me in math and the alphabet.

    I don’t remember having difficulty with time, but I do remember being excited by the concepts of other days in relation to today. “Today is the yesterday of tomorrow!” I would exclaim proudly, to my mother’s delight, and then, “Today is the tomorrow of yesterday!”

    Science illustrations can sometimes penetrate where words cannot. Time may be visualised as a spiral. Take an extra-long white shoelace and wrap it around a consistent-width cylinder, such as a smooth-sided water bottle. Make sure it touches, but does not overlap. Color one “side” of the spiral with a black marker and leave the other white. When you unwrap it, you have a series of days and nights.

  6. Adelaide Dupont July 29, 2010 at 8:13 pm #

    Australian Lindsay Weekes has written about Autistic Standard Time.

    Marion Blackmore first came up with the concept.

  7. emilynghiem September 6, 2017 at 8:12 pm #

    Is your son visually oriented, as a visual learner? Are there favorite items or toys he does remember as different? If you can find objects he distinguishes, even cartoon characters or dolls that have different names/personalities or words they say that he quotes. Then can you make a set of drawers, tubs, closet or cabinet locations around the house “in a series” and label both the toy/object and the storage site with the same NAME of the day of the week. Then each day, he gets to play with that toy and take it out and put in back in the place that corresponds to that DAY. Would that help build a neurological pattern, to enforce over and over repetitively, until he memorizes it? His reward for memorizing it, is he gets to pick a new set of toys to use for the weekly game. Woujld something like that work that is visual and labeled? To go over and over?

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