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Help autistic children manage changes to routines with TomTag visual supports

My autistic son Tom (the inspiration for TomTag visual schedules) struggles with changes to his routines. His autism means that he perceives the world differently to other people. For him, the world can often seem a strange, unpredictable, and confusing place. It is understandable why he craves the stability and predictability of repetitive routines and activities, and the comfort of familiar food.  However, as a wise man once said, the only constant in life is change. Learning how to be flexible and less rigid about routines is a crucial life skill. It is one that Tom has developed over the years, with the help of visual supports.

Visual schedules are a great tool for teaching flexibility around changes to routines.  This may seem surprising – surely a schedule means sticking to a repetitive routine? However, it’s not the visual schedule that makes changes to a routine difficult but the way it is used.⁣

In this blog, I’d like to share with you an approach you can use with TomTag visual schedules to help your child be less rigid and more tolerant of changes to their routines.

Use a schedulered tomtag button holder with symbols in sequence for morning routine

Make sure that your child understands how their schedule works and uses it regularly. If your child doesn’t  understand their schedule or use it regularly then it is unrealistic to expect them to deal with changes to it.

Need some support  introducing visual schedules ? The TomTag Show me how:Timetables and routines guide can help. 

I am flexibleGrey button holder showing buttons for change of routine activity

A TomTag I am flexible tag is a great way to introduce your child to changes to routines when used alongside their normal routine tag. Using the format ‘instead of ‘  …  ‘I am flexible’…  is a simple visual way to familarise your child with a proposed change in their routine.

Words can have a powerful effect.  I am flexible is a positive affirmation that will  give your child  a sense of achievement and boost their self esteem.

 

Start with positive changesred and grey tomTag button holders showing symbols for changes to routines

Start with something positive, for example, a change to a preferred activity or food choice.

In the examples shown- sand play instead of inside play, fish fingers instead of pizza (go with the preferred activities/ food choices for your child!)

Start with a change that is not upsetting. This also reinforces the idea that a change does not always have to be negative.

Giving initial warningsTwo purple and one grey TomTag button holders showing symbols for a morning routine with a change of activity

Although the aim is to get to a stage when you don’t have to give warnings  about changes – life is unpredictable after all – you shouldn’t expect your child to immediately accept changes without doing the necessary groundwork. 

Like all new skills, the best way to learn is to break the skill down into small sequential steps. 

  • Refer to their morning schedule tag and show them the proposed change. In this example, if their morning routine shows inside play then show them the I am flexible tag with the new play activity at the earliest opportunity e.g. before breakfast.
  •  Ask them to change the activity on their schedule to the new activity themselves. Our symbol packs include 2 copies of every symbol so you don’t have to worry about running out of symbols. Their morning schedule tag now shows the new activity.
  • Keep the I am flexible tag handy. Depending on your child’s level of understanding, a short verbal explanation of why the change has taken place would also be helpful.
  • Give another warning just before the changed activity happens. Show your child the I am flexible tag to reinforce your verbal warning. This will help them remember the change and prepare for it.

Praise and encouragementA golden star in a green box saying well done.

Praise your child specifically for handling the change well using supportive positive statements like, “I like how well you managed it when we changed the schedules” or “Change can be hard, but you are doing a great job!”

Saying “You are so brave handling that change in the schedule without getting upset!”  is particularly useful if your child is very anxious about change.

Try not to say “See it wasn’t so bad was it!” as this could belittle your child’s genuine feelings of anxiety about changes and make them feel anxious about having these feelings. 

Fade the warnings

Once your child can manage changes to their routines with warnings, start moving the warnings nearer to the time when the actual change is going to happen. 

So in the example tags  I have used above, you could move the warning about the change of play activity to later in the morning. 

Be consistent

Make sure that your child’s schedule is always accurate.

Being prepared makes changes to routines so much easier to manage. It also keeps the schedule consistent so your child knows they can rely on it.

I hope you find  this approach useful in helping your child learn to accept and manage changes to their routine.

Want to make your own schedules, routines and I am flexible tags like the ones shown in the examples here or need more advice before getting started on introducing routines or changes to routines? Take a look at the resources below or get in touch with Clare via our contact page.

Resources

  • cover image for product sticker pack early years

    Early years activities

  • Early Years Home toolkit

  • product cover image for minikit morning & evening

    I know what to expect – morning and evening

  • cover image what to expect at home kit

    I know what to expect at home

  • cover pic for early years kit

    I know what to expect Early Years

  • Primary Home toolkit

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Games for Children with Autism – 5 Fun TomTag Activities

Plastic tags showing examples of games for children with autism

Play is one of the main ways that children learn and develop. There’s no reason why children with autism who use visual supports are any different. So why not bring play and fun games for children with autism into your visual supports too. To them they’re playing games, but you know that they’re getting some occupational therapy, speech activities and thinking skills thrown in. Games may also help children with autism engage more readily with using their visual supports. It’s a win-win!!

Here’s some of our ideas you could use to help your child engage with TomTag. 

#1  Indoor I- Spy.

Colouful plastic tags showing examples of an indoor I-Spy gameStuck indoors? Why not encourage language and memory skills with a fun indoor I -Spy game.

Instructions:

🌈Ask you child to choose a colour tag and room in the house.

👀Can they look round that room and find, name or point to items that are the same colour?

✔Click a reward button into the tag for each item found.

😊Praise them for their effort and move onto another colour and room.

In the examples shown, we used stickers (rooms and stars) from our In the house sticker pack. We drew the other symbols onto blank stickers. 

#2 Outdoor I-Spy

Colourful plasticm tags showing examples for an outdoor I-Spy gameUse your daily walk to play  I- Spy and spot things you may see in your city, town or village using a personalised TomTag checklist.

TomTag is also super portable and robust – ideal for taking with you when you’re out and about!

Instructions:

🗨Ask your child to suggest things they are likely to see on their walk – perhaps they can guess what order they will spot them in!

✍Make up the checklist together – we’ve used stickers from our Out and About sticker pack but you can just as easily draw or write on some blank stickers.

👀 On your walk, encourage your child to spot the things, find it on their tag and turn the button over. This shows  they’ve seen that thing.

🧐Praise them for keeping their eyes open and being a good detective.  

#3 Feelings & Emotions Charades

Colourful plastic tags showing images of feelings and emotions Help your child understand, recognise and express their feelings and emotions with a simple game of charades.

No Oscar winning performances required!

Instructions:

💬Talk to your child about the feelings and emotions included in the game – choose ones that your child needs some help with.

🤏 Jumble up the feelings and emotions symbol buttons and ask your child to choose one for you.

😀Act out the feeling or emotion shown. Can they guess it? If so, pop it in the tag otherwise have another go.

🔁Swap places and ask your child to act out the feeling or emotion for you to guess.

We’ve used symbol stickers from our Feelings and Emotions sticker pack but you can easily draw or write on blank stickers.

#4 Categories and Pairs

Colourful ploastic tags showing examples ot items that belong togetherDevelop vocabulary with a game of categories or matching pairs

Instructions:

▶Categories

🤏Choose a category. For example, things to wear.

🧦Ask your child to find all the symbol buttons showing things that can be worn and click them into the tag.

🚿Repeat with a different category, e.g. things I need to do in a morning.

▶Pairs

🧼💧Ask your child to find the items that go together e.g. what do I need to clean my teeth or wash my hands?

We’ve used symbol stickers from our self-care sticker pack, but you can easily draw or write on blank stickers.

#5 Sequencing skills

Colourful plastic tags showing daily activity sequencesPractice sequencing skills with a simple game of “what happens next”.

This game can also help reinforce familiar daily routines so it’s a win-win for everyone!

Here’s how to play the TomTag way.

🤏Choose an activity sequence

🤔Jumble up the symbol buttons and ask your child to find the one they think they should come first, second etc.

✔Click them into the tag into that order and ask them to check it is correct.

🗣Call out an activity and ask them to find it in the tag and turn the button over to show they have completed the activity.

Depending on your child’s ability, you could take out a few of the steps and build up to the longer 6-step sequence. We’ve used symbol stickers from our two popular mini-kits: teeth brushing and morning and evening routine.      

                                                                                                                              

Do you have any tips for games you can play with your TomTag? Please let us know in the comments below.

Useful resources

  • cover image sticker pack out & about

    Out & about

  • cover image sticker pack feelings & emotions

    Feelings & emotions

  • cover image sticker pack self care

    Self care

  • cover image sticker pack in the house

    In the house

  • cover image sticker pack blank stickers

    Blank stickers

  • Blank buttons – pack of 40

 

 

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Autism and anxiety in lockdown – sweating it out!

Exercise routine

This year’s World Autism Awareness Week takes place against the backdrop of a global pandemic. With a third of the global population under lockdown our daily lives have been dramatically changed. Forced to remain in our houses and adapt to new circumstances, many of us will be feeling bewildered, frustrated and anxious.

Sweating it out!

The anxiety many of us are now experiencing around these unprecedented changes gives us an insight into how many young people with autism, like my son Tom, experience an unwanted change of plan – it’s fraught with worry, it’s out of anything we could have predicted and it’s not what we wanted.

Our ‘new normal’ in these strange and unsettling times is very much how he feels all the time. Imagine having to deal with that level of anxiety every single day!

So, given everyone’s heightened levels of anxiety how can you manage autism and anxiety in a lockdown?

We’d like to share some daily strategies which we are using to support Tom’s mental health during this lockdown period. We’ve called it the SWEAT approach – let’s sweat this one out!

tips for good mental health
Daily SWEAT

Socialise – maintain social connections

Tom misses his dad, grandparents and college friends. Thankfully technology makes it relatively easy to keep connected. However, just as in normal social situations, we’re careful not to put demands on him to socialise virtually either.  We offer him a choice of how he stays connected and how often he wants to have contact.

Work – provide structure and routine

written timetable
Tom’s written weekly timetable

Routines and rituals help establish stability and order for children and young people with autism like Tom.

Like many young people with autism Tom struggles with flexible thinking. That means he finds it difficult to adjust and readjust to changes in his routine and this can cause him anxiety. A useful strategy has been to highlight what has stayed the same and what has changed. This reassures him that even with all the uncertainty some things, like his college work, mealtimes and bedtime routines, remain the same.

Keeping familiar routines going as much as possible is therefore important to provide structure and reassurance. Tom accesses his college work and sessions with his speech therapist, English tutor and German teacher online. A simple written visual schedule shows him what to expect each day and can help navigate these confusing times. You can also create symbol-based home visual schedules quickly and easily with TomTag.

However, it’s important not to set the bar to high! Be mindful that there will be days when the ‘home-schooling’ isn’t done and instead it is just a day of being together. An example of this was during the recent warm weather when we abandoned the schedule and went for a family walk.

Emotions – share worries and concerns

talking at table
Discussing concerns

Set aside time each day to talk about worries and concerns. Try to contain your own anxieties around the current situation because this anxiety gets transferred to our children. Now more than ever our autistic children need patience and support from the people they love.

Tom, like all of us, is naturally worried about events and this is amplified by worries about whether he is catching or spreading the disease.

We keep news coverage to a minimum and explain things in a clear and consistent manner using language appropriate to his level of understanding.

Making a wish list, where we write down all the things we want to do after the pandemic has passed, is also working well – though at the moment, it mostly revolves around football and Swiss trains!

Active – encourage physical activities

Keeping active is good for both our physical and mental well being. Tom has a daily fitness programme and he’s set up an exercise challenge with his speech therapist.

using exercise bike
Tom training hard!

Focusing on activities and encouraging him to do some chores – like washing the car and helping his sister deliver essential shopping to his self-isolating grandparents and other vulnerable members of the community – provides positive reinforcement that is so vital to keep up his self-esteem, confidence and sense of purpose.

Time alone – relax with special interests

reading book
Spending time alone

Build in lots of down time, together with time to indulge special interests. With all the family thrust together it’s important for mental well being that we all carve out some time for ourselves.

It’s a difficult time for all of us particularly for children with autism and anxiety. Hopefully by following these strategies we can sweat out this lockdown period.

What tips can you share that make this lockdown period more manageable and less stressful in your house?

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Home visual schedules for children with autism -TomTag tips

At the present time, we’re all facing unprecedented uncertainty. Now that schools are closed and we are stuck at home, families like ours are under a lot of stress. For children with autism, like Tom, this is a highly confusing and anxious time. Using a visual schedule at home will help to build a sense of consistency, predictability and security for him. In this blog we discuss the reasons why home visual schedules can help children with autism and how you can get started with using them.

Why should you use visual schedules at home?

Visual schedules at home can help you to communicate to your child when activities or events will happen throughout their day.

They use a sequence of drawings, symbols, text or pictures to show what a child is expected to do.

The more children can anticipate what is happening, the safer and more secure they will feel in these rapidly changing times.

Tips for creating home visual schedules

Here are some of our tips which we have taken from our Show me guide – visual timetables, Schedules and Routines.

We call it the TomTag 4 P’s approach!

Plan

Notebook and pencil for planning schedules
Planning is key

Depending on your child’s developmental age, sit down each evening and try and plan out a rough schedule for the next day. Decide which activities for the day or part of the day you want to show. Choose the length of the schedule that you think will be appropriate for your child and adjust as necessary.

A simple daily visual schedule could include some education, fun activities and chill time (for them and you!) to help give some meaning and purpose to the day. If you’re interested in creating or using educational resources have a look at Twinkl and Education.com.

Try to replicate some elements of your child’s typical day. For example, encourage them to get dressed, brush their teeth, eat breakfast, etc. You could use a mini schedule to target these specific skills by breaking down a single activity into smaller steps.

Symbols showing a bedtime routine
Example of an evening routine using Widgit symbols

Make sure the schedule includes things like bedtime, time for exercise and meals. You could also consider giving children a chore or job to do to help them feel useful. This could be as simple as clearing the table or putting away their clothes.

Setting aside time every day to do a family activity that you know helps everyone in times of stress is also important. This could be watching a movie or playing a game.

Worried about challenging behaviour?

Try starting with activities that your child usually does willingly. It makes sense to structure the day so that harder tasks are done first when children are likely to be more rested. After schoolwork or chores are complete you can follow with easier tasks as a reward for accomplishing the harder tasks.

Prepare

Boy playing with lego as shown on his visual schedule

A home visual timetable or schedule doesn’t have to be complicated– a simple written, maybe colour-coded, chart pinned on the wall so your children can see it and refer to it will do the trick. 

There’s lots of examples of visual schedules and timetables online to copy or download. For a quick and easy way to create home visual schedules our TomTag Primary Home toolkit or Early Years Home toolkit are great options.

Prompt

Most children will be used to seeing a visual timetable and prompts at school to show them what to expect during the day. Introduce a visual schedule at home using the following steps:

  • Cue your child with a brief verbal instruction when its time for an activity to begin e.g. “check your schedule”
  • Gently guide them to look at it or place it in their hands and prompt them to look at the next activity picture
  • Using the least amount of words, describe the activity e.g. get dressed
  • Help them do the activity or model how to do it.
  • Praise them for completing the activity
  • Cue them to check their schedule again so they can move smoothly onto the next activity.
  • Fade the prompts one your child learns how to follow the schedule

Patience

Keep prompting, praising and be patient!

It may take some time but it’s also important to acknowledge the pressure we’re all under. If the schedule goes pear-shaped, take a break and try again another time.

 

Helpful resources

Widgit Online offers a free 21 day trial that would be perfect for creating your own visual schedules for kids to use at home.

Five Minute Mum is a great blog offering lots of ideas for keeping children occupied during the day.

Recommended TomTag products

  • cover image for product sticker pack early years

    Early years activities

  • Early Years Home toolkit

  • product cover image for minikit morning & evening

    I know what to expect – morning and evening

  • cover image what to expect at home kit

    I know what to expect at home

  • cover pic for early years kit

    I know what to expect Early Years

  • Primary Home toolkit

Maybe you have a tip on how best to use visual schedules at home? Please get in touch or leave a comment below.

 

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Going Away – help with planning and preparation

Does your child get anxious about school trips, days out or family holidays?

My son has autism and any trip away from home can be a challenging prospect. This is because like many children with autism, he struggles with routine changes, sensory issues and an intolerance of uncertainty.

However, over the years we’ve learnt that with planning and preparation, days out and holidays can be enjoyed rather than endured. We’d like to share our top tips in order to help other parents and carers facing similar issues.

Plan, plan and plan again! 

  • Try searching for ‘autism friendly’ holidays or days out. The National Autistic Society has a list of companies and organisations who hold an Autism Friendly Award.
  • Contact hotels or venues to explain your circumstances and your child’s needs – if they don’t seem supportive then look elsewhere.
  • Check out a destination or venue in advance. If possible make a pre-visit or get a map and consider any potential trigger areas and quiet zones you could head to in case of a meltdown.
  • Practice unusual events such as packing and unpacking a suitcase. A packing checklist is a great way to involve your child in holiday preparations and encourages independence.
  • Use visual schedules to show your child what to expect on the holiday, give structure to their day, and help with transitions between activities.
  • Social stories are a useful way to explain what ‘going on holiday’ actually means. Depending on your child’s language ability, you can discuss what concerns they have about the holiday or trip and then work with them to come up with a list of possible solutions.
  • If you’re travelling by plane, check the airport website to see if they offer any visual guides or booklets. Manchester and Gatwick have excellent guides and many UK airports now offer autism specific page on their websites.  You may also be able to request a wristband or lanyard which entitles you to use the fast-track lanes at security or access quiet waiting rooms. Alternatively, you might want to make your own visual schedule for the airport to explain the process.

Hope for the best, prepare for the worst

However well you plan there’s no guarantee that unexpected events , such as delays won’t occur. It’s a good idea to have a ‘distraction’ pack to hand. A bag containing snacks, music or noise-cancelling headphones, games or entertainment devices to head off any potentially challenging behaviour.

Consider a form of identification such as a card or ID holder attached to your child’s clothing (such as a belt loop) just in case they wander off or become lost. This should give their name, your contact details and any medical requirements. Even if your child is capable of providing this information themselves, in a new and stressful setting this will be much harder.

Helpful resources

We used the kit I know what to expect going away to make the checklists and schedules shown.

The National Autistic Society have some helpful fact sheets with information about school trips and going on holiday.

 A really  informative blog Autism and UK airports – improving assistance for passengers with autism  has a brilliant summary of what’s  available at UK airports.

  • cover image what to expect going away

    I know what to expect going away

  • cover image sticker pack staying away from home

    Staying away from home

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Autism Awareness Week 2017

The world can be a daunting, confusing and stressful place for children with autism and particularly so when they are at school.  

In support of World Autism Awareness Week and the NAS focus on raising awareness, understanding and acceptance of autism at school, we’ve put together some tips on how TomTag visual resources can support pupils with autism in the classroom, help classroom management and make school a more positive and calmer experience for everyone!

TomTag toolkits provide a very simple and effective way of creating personalised visual supports without any time-consuming laminating, printing or Velcro involved. They are convenient for teachers and support assistants to create and neat, portable and robust for pupils to use.

A TomTag I know what to expect at school kit is extremely versatile – here are some ideas for how it might be used.

Do you have pupils who become anxious and stressed about what is going to happen during the school day?

Create a visual timetable of the child’s school day to help guide and remind them of what will be happening. Start by choosing symbols from the school timetable pack that show what lessons and activities are planned and expected throughout each day. Place these into a TomTag coloured tag in the order in which they will happen, using one or more tags for each day, depending on how many different items you need to list. 

When a child knows what to expect, the routine becomes easier to understand and they will be less anxious about it, helping them to concentrate and focus on their work. 

Do you have pupils who become stressed or upset if there’s a change of plan?

Using a visual timetable helps a child to understand about how the same things happen consistently each day or week but it can also be a useful tool to show when something out of the ordinary is going to take place.

With TomTag’s unique click-in button system, adding or changing symbols to show that a new or different activity or event should be expected is quick and easy. Adapting an existing schedule in this way will help the child prepare for and understand the changes and reduce the likelihood of them being stressed or upset by events.

WAAW OFFER 2: My school day mini-kit reduced from £3.5 to £2.50 

Do you have pupils who struggle to understand what is expected of them?

When children are told what they need to do, it’s not always easy for them to hold onto that verbal information and recall it accurately. We can reinforce our language and improve this communication by creating a visual checklist that shows the child the steps they need to take to complete the task required.

They can refer back to this list as often as they need and could even remove each button from the tag once the step is complete to give a visual indicator that it has been done. Our verbal instructions don’t need to be repeated as often and the child can work much more independently, improving their confidence and self-esteem.

WAAW Offer 3: My school kit stickers to help with organisation, only £1 (usually £3.50)

Do you have pupils who struggle with transitions between classroom activities?


One of the simplest ways that TomTag can be used is with the FIRST-THEN or NOW-NEXT concepts. Choose the symbols that represent the activities that need to be completed. Often the first is a less preferred activity (eg writing work) and the second a more preferred one (eg playtime).

Place these symbols in a tag along with the FIRST and THEN or NOW and NEXT prompts. The symbols can represent a simple sequence, separate tasks or a task and reward. The expectations are then clear and understandable, sequences and time concepts can be learnt and anxieties about or resistance to transitions are reduced.

WAAW Offer 4: First-Then mini-kit reduced from £7 to £5

Do you have pupils who constantly need reminding how to behave?

In the TomTag School Timetable sticker pack, we’ve included a range of symbols to help with behaviour management in the classroom (eg. take turns, personal space, kind hands, sit nicely, etc.). These can be used to help remind individual children or the whole class about appropriate behaviour and teach them about boundaries and rules.

Don’t forget to reinforce good behaviour by using the ‘Good work’ symbol, awarding a gold star sticker or reminding them to ask for help if needed. 

WAAW Offer 5: Feeling and emotions stickers only £4 (usually £6)

 

Check out all our other TomTag products for home, school and out & about on our main website pages.

Don’t forget to follow our Facebook page too where we’ll be highlighted one of our WAAW special offers each day this week to coincide with World Autism Awareness Week 27 March – 2 April 2017.

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Building a positive teaching assistant relationship

National Teaching Assistants Day recognises the valuable contribution that over 240,000 teaching assistants (TAs) make to the education and support of pupils in schools across the UK.

Most TAs are employed to support pupils with special educational needs (SEN) either working with a child one-to-one or in a small group to reinforce what has been learned earlier from the teacher; others have more general classroom responsibilities.

I have met many TAs over the years as they have supported my son, who has autism and language impairment, during his journey through mainstream school. From this experience, these are my top tips  for building a good parent/TA relationship.

Sharing information

Share information about your child’s strengths, interests, likes and dislikes with the TA as much as possible. My son loves trains and lorries so letting his TA know what inspired him helped her incorporate those interests into his writing and maths tasks. By sharing his dislike of noisy, crowded rooms she could suggest alternative, quieter activities we could use whenever he became overwhelmed in such situations.

Communication strategy

Decide how you will communicate and agree a way that works best for both of you. A weekly phone call might be sufficient for some whereas others may prefer more regular emails, texts or paper-based contact.

diary_webWhen my son was in primary school and had just one TA I found a home/school contact book to be most useful. This was used daily to share information about his activities, issues or events at home or school. That Beautiful mind have a super home/communications book that’s simple to use and quick to fill in!

Now that he is in secondary school with a number of TAs, I find regular emails to each assistant to be the most effective and efficient means of communication. 

 

Understand responsibilities

Recognise that whilst the teaching assistant is supporting your child, the teacher has the responsibility for what happens in their classroom.

Qualified teachers are responsible for children’s learning so it’s important to ask the teacher and SENCO how your child’s TA is being deployed in the classroom to get the best from your child. Find out what training the TA has had to provide the support your child needs too.

If you are concerned about your child’s progress don’t blame the TA but speak directly to your child’s teacher and SENCO about your concerns.
TT thank you

Appreciation

Everyone likes to feel valued. Don’t forget to tell your TA how much you appreciate their support; a handwritten card and small gift at the end of the year is a nice token of gratitude!

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Interest or obsession – a matter of perspective

The recent 175th anniversary of the issue of the Penny Black postage stamp took me back to my childhood and the joys of stamp collecting. For me this was a hobby, a pleasant way to pass the time and a special interest I could share with my dad.

Interest or obsession?

eddies
Eddie Stobart collection

Most people have interests and hobbies. For children with autism however the term ‘special interest’ implies more than a run of the mill hobby – usually that they have an obsession with a particular object, topic or collection.

Having interests is generally a good thing for most people but when they become obsessions then they can interfere with quality of life.

Managing special interests

Over the course of his childhood my son Tom, who is autistic, has had a range of special interests, including:

RUBY GLOOM 6 023
Train spotting!
  • Thomas the Tank Engine
  • Traffic lights
  • Eddie Stobart lorries
  • TinTin
  • Number cards
  • Flags
  • Trains

As a family we’ve always engaged with Tom’s various interests and tried to view them as his way of expressing himself. We’ve used them as a stepping stone to expand activities, encourage his learning and promote his communication skills.

However, as many parents know from experience, managing special interests before they morph into all-consuming obsessions is one of the many balancing acts of parenting a child on the spectrum.

Obsessions – good or bad?

Unlike my interest in stamp collecting, Tom’s special interests fulfill a number of specific needs for him. His current interest is trains and the positive effects of this include:

  • Gives him enjoyment and makes him feel happy.
  • Acts as a comforter and a coping mechanism. When he is overwhelmed or anxious he likes to immerse himself in thoughts about trains.
  • Allows him to connect with other people in social situations as he uses his interest in trains to start conversations.

It is when Tom is anxious that we see the difficulties that his special interests can cause:

  • It’s difficult to communicate with him as all he wants to talk about is trains.
  • Undermines his ability to learn at school as all his thinking time is taken up with thoughts about trains.
  • Isolates him from peers who do not want to talk about or listen to a monologue about trains.
  • Can affect family relationships as he only wants to participate in activities which revolve around his special interest.

Tips for managing special interests

It’s not generally realistic (or necessarily desirable) to remove the special interest. The best approach is to try to manage the special interest so that it does not take over everyday life.

These are some of the strategies we’ve tried to follow:

Set limits

clockTom can talk about or view videos and pictures of trains on the computer at certain times of the day e.g. when he gets home from school but only after finishing his homework or between certain hours at the weekend.

Make it predictable

Making sure that Tom can clearly access what he needs during these limited times or preparing him well in advance if it’s not going to be possible help to significantly reduce anxiety levels (his and mine!).

Encourage communication

notebook & pencilReduce the dependence on the special interest as a comfort when there are worries or anxieties by encouraging other means of communication. We set up a feelings book so that Tom can record any worries he has and we have a designated adult at school that he knows he can talk to about any issues that arise during the school day.

{Using this idea with Tom sparked the design of our TomTag Feelings Notebook which has now been added to our range of products – see links below}

Teach conversation skills

With the help of Tom’s speech and language therapist, we’re working on developing conversation skills to support his understanding of topic management and how to read the signs that people have become bored or disinterested in his train talk!

If you’d like more information or advice about this topic, Ambitious about Autism have an informative article on managing obsessions and the National Autistic society also has some practical advice on understanding behaviour and obsessions.

In the meantime, I would love to hear your experiences of managing special interests and any tips you could share.

  • cover image feelings notebook extra stickers

    Extra sticker sheets for Feelings Notebook

  • cover image sticker pack feelings & emotions

    Feelings & emotions

  • cover image download feelings tag

    Feelings tag-o-meter

  • cover image for feelings bundle product

    I can do it – feelings bundle

  • I can do it – manage my feelings

  • cover image for share how I feel minikit product

    I can do it – share how I feel

  • cover image product feelings notebook

    My TomTag Feelings Notebook

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10 ways to have fun with occupational therapy

Occupational Therapy Week took place last week and it prompted me to reflect on the occupational therapy (OT) my son has received over the past few years. Gulp… it’s also focused my mind on the amount of money I’ve spent on buying OT resources!

The main emphasis for my son has been Sensory Integration Therapy  to help him cope with his sensory difficulties, with activities focusing on developing gross and fine motor skills and his sensory perception (i.e. touch, body awareness, balance, auditory & visual skills).

Naturally some activities and resources have proved more successful than others so we thought it would be helpful to select our TOP 10 to share with you.

1. HUG & TUG

hug and tug

This simple exercise can calm anxiety, increase concentration and help develop fine motor skills. Just needs two hands and can be done at any time!

Visit the Handle Institute page for details of the exercise.

 2. SCOOTER BOARD

At his last school my son cut quite a dash scooting along the corridor propelled by his arms! Great for building up shoulder stability and core strength.

Sensory Direct have some reasonably priced boards.

3. ANIMAL ACTION CARDS

card exercise  1

Make a set of cards showing different animal walks then take it in turns to choose a card and complete the exercise shown on it. Try dog walks, bunny hops, kangaroo jumps, crab walks – whatever takes your fancy. Great for building upper body strength and a sense of humour!

This is a good activity to do with siblings and as a rainy day or birthday party game.

Stuck for ideas? Pop over to the blog Pinning With Purpose for some good tips on how to make your own animal exercise cards.

4. TIME SHOCK

time shock puzzle

Have you got a steady hand? This frantic beat-the-clock game is great for developing fine motor skills and also uses visual memory.

The aim of the game is to place the shapes in the matching slot before the time runs out. Need nerves of steel though and can get competitive!

5. POP-UP TUNNEL

play tunnel

Crawling helps develop shoulder stability which is important for writing skills. This simple item also offers hours of fun playing peek-a-boo which encourages eye contact.

IKEA, Tesco, ELC and the like all have similar versions.

6. PUTTY

Great for developing hand muscle strength. You could even try making your own putty.

Fledglings have are some lovely reasonably-priced Rainbow Putty which comes in a variety of different colours and is colour-coded to indicate the level of resistance.

7. HIDDEN TREASURE

sensory bean box

Fill a tub with rice or another pulse and hide small objects such as toy cars, figurines or sweets. Great to develop fine motor skills and another fun party game.

8. SWING

cuddle swing

Swinging is good for vestibular movement. My son particularly liked this cuddle swing.

They can be expensive to buy so here’s some tips on how to make your own cuddle swing and there’s even some ideas for versions that don’t need attaching to the ceiling.

9. CRAFT ACTIVITY

There are plenty of options here – we chose to make our own dominoe game using card, craft foam, marker pens and stickers.

There were lots of opportunities to practice fine motor skills with all that cutting, sticking and drawing and we all enjoyed playing the finished result.

10. CHEWY TUBE

chewy aid

Our bright red T-shaped Chewy Tube saved many a shirt cuff and tie being shredded! Very resilient and helps develop chewing skills as well as reducing anxiety. Fledglings and Rosy & Bo  both have a good range of oral motor aids to choose from.

 

Find out more about what occupational therapsits do and how occupational therapy can hep by visiting the British Association of Occupatinal Therapists website www.cot.co.uk

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Teach a child to pack for school

single tag sample
Choose a day when they only need a few items

How do you teach a reluctant child how to pack their own bag with all the right things they need for the day ahead and to bring it all home again?

Clare, whose own children learnt this important skill with TomTag, recommends the following simple steps:

1. Select one day when there are not many items to take to school. Use only one tag from the TomTag pack to make a list of the relevant items and activities for that day.

2. Set aside some time the night before to pack the bag with your child and attach TomTag to their bag. Praise your child for remembering and packing everything they need for the day.

3. Ask your child to repack their bag at school using TomTag as a reminder of what to bring home. Check their bag when they return from school and praise them when they have been successful in bringing the correct items home.

4. Ask the child to pack their bag on their own for the same day using TomTag as a visual reminder of what items are needed. Then check their bag for them. Praise your child’s success. If something is forgotten, refer back to the tag and repack.

5. Ask your child to repack their bag at school using TomTag as a reminder of what to bring home. Check their bag when they return from school and praise them when they have been successful in bringing the correct items home.

School bag packed6. Your child packs their own bag using TomTag as a visual reminder and does not have it checked. Praise your child’s success.

7. Choose another more complicated day and repeat the process. Gradually build up to a full week and using the full TomTag set on the child’s bag.

Packing their school bag independently, being organised and taking responsibility for their belongings are great life skills for all children to learn but are especially important for those with additional or special needs. TomTag uses only picture cues so it’s easy for any child to use.

Product recommendation:

  • I can do it – pack my bag for school

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    School morning routines