Hurry Up and Wait!

By Jules Csillag


Inspired by my colleague Allison Brown’s post about waiting, I decided to delve deeper into this subject since waiting can be one of the trickiest things to do (at least for me!). As a strategy, wait time can be powerful for autistic children.  Also dubbed “the 30-second rule” or “the 45-second rule,” wait time refers to the idea of providing children with sufficient time to process information, particularly language.


Why to wait:

Research on autistic individuals shows that many have difficulty integrating information from multiple senses (e.g. listening and looking simultaneously), particularly when the auditory information is linguistic. Wait time, therefore, aims to provide students with enough time to process information (particularly linguistic information), to produce linguistic information, and to process information in novel situations (which necessarily include many social situations).


Wait time also allows for autistic individuals to separate the “signal” (i.e. important information) from the “noise” (i.e. irrelevant information), as studies suggest that autistic brains are both hypo- and hyper-connected when it comes to processing visual or auditory information. While this can require time, it also can mean that some individuals with autism are skilled at seeing or hearing details, that can be beneficial in many ways (e.g. for artists, musicians, designers, engineers, etc.).


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Scientists highlight that “the brain of a typical learner quickly allocates information-processing resources to the most salient information with minimal awareness on the part of the learner,” whereas individuals with autism require additional time to determine what is most salient or relevant. Wait time provides this time, although there are ways of supporting salience through visuals and routines as well.


Judy Endow, an autistic self-advocate, author, and social worker writes about having to “translate” visual thoughts into words. She writes, “Most of the time these days, after decades of practice, my speaking appears quite fluid, though sometimes a delay is still apparent. It is often hard to translate because the world of English words is much more limited than my visual thought.”


yellow hour glass timer with clock on top of it


How to wait:

  • Some activities naturally allow for processing time: crafts, sports, and science experiments often include pauses that do not feel contrived.
  • You can also “buy yourself time” by thinking out loud. You can model how you are thinking of solutions or what you are thinking about. For example, if you ask a math question, you can narrate, “I see the word ‘each’ so I think this is a multiplication problem, and that means I’ll set up my work like this…”(while drawing on the board).
  • Use timers– this can help you wait “long enough,” and it signals to students when you are ready to take their responses/questions.
  • Writing: whiteboards, post-its, or other means of writing provide students with time to think and generate new ideas, allows for all students to think at once (total participation!), and can therefore lead to increased participation.
  • Pause while you are speaking or lecturing. While it is not ideal to bombard students with language, sometimes teachers need to speak for a few minutes here and there. While speaking, pause to allow students to think about what you have said, without requiring a question or thought, but just to allow students’ brains to reload.

Share other “waiting” tricks in the comments!