When is something going to happen? Kids often put us on the spot and responses of “later” and “soon” are really abstract concepts of time.
Later, soon, wait…
Q: “When are we going swimming?”
Q: “When will dinner be ready?”
Q: “I want to leave now!”
A: “Just wait a minute.”
They are not concrete answers. “Later” could mean anything from in 5 minutes to 4 months and “soon” could be just a second away or in 15 minutes.
These answers can be confusing for a child with autism, particularly when what they are asking for is highly desirable. Responding with a “later” or “soon” rarely works as an effective strategy to support their understanding.
So how can we manage this when it is not well understood by individuals with autism? The answer, visuals.
It might involve teaching concrete time concepts such as the days of the week and months of the year, building calendar skills (weekly, monthly, yearly), analogue and digital time and anchoring this on key events in a day, using a schedule of visuals to show how time passes as we check off activities and events. But essentially, it comes down to using visuals. Drawing, writing or putting a visual or remnant of the requested event or activity on some kind of schedule or calendar can be incredibly helpful in support understanding and/or alleviating any of the stress an individual with autism might be experiencing if they are unsure about what is happening and when.
One of my students requests to go home intermittently throughout the day. Aside from delving more deeply into the communicative purpose for why he is doing this, placing a photo of his mum on his daily schedule at home time and acknowledging that number 8 is time for home enables us to better support his understanding that home time is happening later on, and a certain number of events needs to happen before that (for example we still have to do 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7). He accepts that this is the case and we are able to redirect him to the current activity easily.
If we didn’t acknowledge his request and provide him with information about when it would happen…. Cue one very distressed, confused and disengaged little boy.