‘Waiting’ is often a trigger for behaviours which can be perceived as challenging. There are many occasions throughout the school day when students are expected to wait, for example:

  • Waiting to access a preferred activity or item
  • Waiting for the bus in the morning and in the afternoon
  • Standing in line to wait to leave the classroom e.g. to go to the next class
  • Waiting for lunch to be served
  • Waiting for classmates to finish dinner before everyone can leave the dining hall
  • Waiting for everyone to sit down for an activity before it can begin e.g. Circle time, Assembly

Reasons why waiting may be difficult for students with autism

  • Time is an abstract concept. Some students with autism find it difficult to understand the concept of time and so when asked to wait, they may not know whether they will be waiting for 1 minute or several hours. If told verbally how long they will have to wait, it still may be meaningless for them if they do not understand the difference between 1 minute and 1 hour.
  • The student may not understand the reason for waiting. It is important to make activities meaningful for students with autism. When asked to wait, the reason for waiting is often not explained and so the student does not see the point in waiting and subsequently refuses. This can lead to behaviours which appear to be impulsive and disruptive e.g. not standing in line at the door; leaving the dining hall before permission is given.
  • Reduced social awareness. Some students with autism may not understand why they have to wait for others due to their limited understanding of social rules. E.g. explaining that it is ‘polite’ to wait for others to finish before leaving the dinner table may not be meaningful for the student with autism, or they may not understand why it takes others longer to eat dinner.
  • Boredom. Students are often asked to wait without being engaged in any other activity. Many students with autism like to be engaged in some form of activity as it gives the time structure and purpose. If they are unsure what they are supposed to do while waiting, it can cause self-stimulatory behaviours or impulsive behaviours, such as leaving the line.

Teaching the skill of waiting

  • Visual timers: use a visual timer to show the student how long he/she is expected to wait. Be aware that as soon as the timer is finished, waiting should end as any extension may cause the student further confusion. See photographs of visual timers. Also see an example of a countdown strip and our video on how to use them
  • Countdown strips: There are many different types of countdown strips but the overall aim is to show the student visually how long he/she is expected to wait. Examples of countdown strips are traffic light systems or numerical scales. Click here for the video explanations or here for the downloadable resources.
  • Distractors: Provide the student with activities while waiting. These only need to be short simple activities which are motivating for the student and possibly incorporate the student’s interest. Examples may include taking apart/putting together Lego, looking at favourite photos in an album.
  • Graded teaching: gradually increase the time the student is expected to wait and ensure it is an achievable time for the student.
  • Generalisation: teach waiting in a one-to-one ‘artificial’ scenario before generalising the skill to a real scenario.
  • Reinforce: Ensure to always positively reinforce any appropriate waiting across environments. See reinforcement section