How to Make Waiting Easier for Children with Autism

Waiting is difficult for many adults. Whether it is waiting for food to be served, waiting to be called into the doctor’s office, or waiting in a long line of traffic, few enjoy waiting. When we look at waiting from a child's perspective, it can become even less appealing.

The concept of units of time typically develops later in childhood, which means that a five-minute wait may seem never-ending to a young child. Waiting can be problematic for several reasons. The inability to tolerate waiting can cause frustration for both caregivers and children, limit family outings, and create negative behavior patterns to decrease problem behavior. Fortunately, there are ways we can help foster the development of this essential skill.

First, we should consider the age of the child and the length of the waiting time when setting our expectations. While a ten-year-old may be able to wait for something quietly for ten minutes, it would not be realistic to expect the same of a three-year-old without adding some support.

Here are some ideas for all ages:

Have a Special Waiting Toy or Activity Ready

Even as adults, it is rare that we sit and wait without occupying ourselves with something else to do. We might talk to others, flip through a magazine or book, or play on our phones more frequently. It makes sense, then, that children will be more successful at waiting if we give them something to do. You may give your child many things to do, such as providing them with a toy or activity that they do not have frequent access to or giving them a task to help them pass the time.

For example, if your child wants attention while you are busy, you could invite them to help dry the dishes as you wash them, stack clothes as you do laundry, or sit beside you and color as you work on the computer. Inviting your child to join can be especially useful with younger children who love to help.

If your child is more inclined to play on their own, you could have a secret stash of toys that get rotated or create a running list of activities to choose from. A fun way to list activities is to write each activity on a popsicle stick. When your child is waiting, hand them the cup of activities listed on popsicle sticks and ask them to pull out a stick. If you are out in public, something small that they can fidget with, like an old set of keys or a stress ball, might be helpful.

Play Waiting Games

Along similar lines, a quick game can help occupy a waiting child.
Examples of games include:
  • I-Spy
    • In this game, your child tries to guess what objects you see in your surroundings based on hints that are given
  • Letter and Number Games
    • “What sound does ‘apple’ start with?”
    • “How many chairs do you see?"
  • Simon Says
    • Following directions such as, “Simon says, point to your ears!” or “Simon says, stand on one foot!”
The bonus is that each of these games helps practice other skills as well! For even younger children, try getting them to sing along to a favorite song while they wait with you.

Use Visual Cues

If you can predict how long the child must wait, you could try using a set amount of items, such as stickers or small tokens, to help the child understand and predict how much longer they must wait. For example, if you know that it will be ten more minutes until dinner is ready, start by giving your child a sticker every two minutes that pass. When five stickers your child earns five stickers, dinner is done. Visual cues may help your child understand the passing of time. To make this simpler, try setting a timer on your phone and letting them watch the numbers count down in real-time.

Incorporate Verbal Cues

Sometimes it can be easier to wait when we know what to expect. Using specific phrases with waiting times can help a child understand that they will not be getting what they want right at that moment. Example phrases include, “we need to wait a little while,” “just a minute,” or “we’ll get there and/or do that soon.”

One way to practice verbal cues at home is by creating opportunities to practice waiting. Start with small increments of time, work your way up, and use your “waiting signal” to solidify the concept. Give your child lots of praise and whatever they were waiting for as soon as the time is up. For older children, try relating the length of time to something they are familiar with. For example, “this will take about as long as a trip to Grandma’s house.”

While not all of these ideas will work for every child, a few will hopefully be a good fit for your family and help make waiting a little bit easier for everyone!