Autism and Waiting

I’ve briefly mentioned the difficulty of waiting for children on the autistic spectrum in previous blog posts but I think it’s worth a post unto itself.

Waiting is trying for all children.  Time seems to pass much more slowly when you’re little (think about how long summer holidays seemed as a child – I’m sure they used to last about three years).  But, for autistic kids, it’s even worse.

Children don’t have a very good concept of time.  ‘We’re leaving in half an hour,’ might as well be ‘we’re leaving when the purple monkey reaches the summit of the pterodactyl pillow’ for all the sense it makes to a young child and children with autism often have even less concept of time than their neurotypical counterparts.  Grounding any planned occasion in routine and concrete events can help to an extent (‘after lunch’, for example) but still causes issues (like the child constantly asking if it’s lunch time yet!).

Whilst I keep looking at the clock to see if it’s his bedtime yet…

Autistic children also often struggle to fill their time.  When Tyger is left to his own devices he’s miserable.  He needs to be told what to do: to have someone to instigate games.  It’s one of the reasons parents of children on the autistic spectrum often seem to allow so much screen time; watching videos and films is easy and passive for a child struggling to come up with ideas and video games already have a handy framework with rules and goals built in.   Without something like that Tyger simply doesn’t know what to do except…


That’s another problem for autistic kids made to wait; they can obsess over things like no other child.  If there’s something Tyger’s looking forward to it’s the only thing he is capable of thinking about.  It just churns round his head incessantly: over and over and over.

Lastly, children with autism have even worse impulse control than your average kid.  You know how much you want to touch a plate when a waiter tells you to be careful because it’s hot?  And you know how a child is likely to go ahead and actually touch it?  Well, there’s a good chance an autistic child will not just touch it but grab the Goram thing in both hands.

So, you end up with a child who doesn’t really understand how long they’ll have to wait, who can’t distract himself (or herself), who is restlessly obsessing over the thing they’re waiting for and can’t stop himself from acting out in reaction to all this.

And how much of our lives are spent waiting for something, especially children’s?  Whether it’s waiting for dinner, waiting for a friend to come round, waiting for a delivery, waiting for Christmas or a birthday or a holiday, waiting for school to finish, waiting for a ride at a theme park (one of the reasons for the passes often given to autistic or disabled kids), waiting for nicer weather…waiting, waiting, waiting.

And waiting and waiting.

It’s particularly tricky because most of the turmoil is happening inside the autistic child’s head so all onlookers see is the – often explosive – reaction to this frustrating assault, which looks an awful lot like a ‘spoilt brat’ having a ‘tantrum’.  At that point, autism parents end up in a no-win situation where they’re subject to the tuts and eye rolls of pearl-clutchers regardless of whether they leave their child to meltdown or try to head it off by – for instance – giving their child a tablet and headphones to keep them entertained until a meal arrives or until they reach the front of a queue.

And all this assumes the thing the child is waiting for is positive!  You can imagine how much worse it is when the wait is for vaccinations or a trip to the dentist or even bedtime.

Of course, these problems with waiting – just like autism itself – don’t go away as the child reaches adulthood.  I hate waiting.  I’ve mentioned before that I used to make calendars during November to countdown the time until December, when the advent calendar started.  I’m no better with waiting now, really.  I get restless, can’t settle on any task, obsess about the upcoming event over and over.  Whether it’s good or bad I’ll go over the possible outcomes in my mind constantly.

Waiting is as tortuous as ever, but at least I don’t show it outwardly so much these days (though, if I’m alone or just with the boys in the house and waiting for an Asda delivery, there are a number of stims that emerge).

Autistic children can’t help but show it and when you combine all the problems around waiting with lots of noise or crowds of people it’s no wonder they find it hard to cope.  Just try to remember that next time you see a child watching Peppa Pig on a tablet in a restaurant or playing Angry Birds on the bus!


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  1. Very good post. Hands up, until I had kids I alwsysfriwned upon children and ‘screen time’ but now with 2 (1 with dyspraxia) I totally hear you. A lot of the autism traits you mentioned are similar.


    1. Absolutely. There’s a lot of cross-over between various disorders, conditions, learning difficulties and mental health problems. Off the top of my head, there are similarities and co-morbidity between: autism, dyspraxia, dyslexia, OCD, Tourette’s, depression, hypermobility, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, depression, anxiety and various eating disorders!


  2. So interesting. Waiting for any child can feel like a lot longer than it is so it’s really interesting to read this aspect of it with autism. Thanks for linking up with #TwinklyTuesday


  3. i used to teach in an autistic school and waiting was one of the triggers that caused a lot of anxiety, when it came to relying on others, so we’d have a visual time table and fixed routines for those who needed them, then there would be a traffic accident, or lights not working, or the driver would turn up late for a trip etc etc, i’d carry timers, PECS boards, items to calm the anxiety (bits of string, certain toys etc) it was always about prepartaion #spectrumsunday


  4. I really need to get my hand on one of those sand timers! My little girl really struggles with waiting.. like you say they are constantly waiting if you say after lunch! She asks for her lunch then and there so she can get on with the plan! Lol!


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