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Making pancakes with children with autism

tomtag holders set up with instruction symbols for pancake recipe

Pancake day – it’s one of our favourite days of the year! 

Tom loves pancakes and helping to make them. With inspiration from this great visual recipe guide from Widgit Software we’ve set up TomTag with appropriate visual prompts so he can follow the recipe with me. There’s definitely no prompts needed for eating them!

 

First we get out all the equipment 

pancake equipment list on TomTag and items displayed

 

and then the ingredients 

 

pancake ingredients listed on TomTag and items displayed

 

 

 

Then it’s time to follow the recipe

 

pancake recipe

 

before choosing our favourite topping

 

pancake toppings choices listed on TomTag and items displayed

 

Have fun making your pancakes – I know we did, yum-yum!!

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Cooking – TomTag life skills

bread on grill tray being put into ovenBeing able to create quick and healthy hot meals becomes increasingly important as children get older and need to learn skills for independent or supported living. Following simple recipes provides opportunities to work on reading and listening skills, sequencing, nutrition, hygiene and learning to use kitchen tools.

The key thing to remember is to start with recipes that are simple enough to follow with limited assistance, building up slowly to add in more complex skills over time.

We’ve looked at preparing some non-cook simple meals for breakfast, snacks and lunches in our Simple Meals blog using symbols from our Food & Drink Basics pack.

With the additional symbols included in our Food & Drink Extended sticker pack, more confident or experienced learners can learn to prepare, cook and serve simple hot meals such as beans on toast, cheese on toast, hot sandwiches and egg recipes.  This sticker pack is available as a stand-alone item or included in the In the Kitchen and Independent Living kits.

Cooking – learning life skills with TomTag

washing hands under running water from tagHygiene

Don’t forget to use the opportunity to teach or reinforce rules about hygiene in the kitchen. We’ve included symbols for washing hands and wearing an apron but you could also use blank stickers to add reminders to wipe worktops or store food in the fridge, or use some of the symbols from our domestic chores Clean & Tidy pack.


tomtag shopping list with trolley and shopping bagPreparation

Show the images for the utensils and food that will be needed to create the recipe you have chosen and check you have everything listed before you begin.

You might also want to incorporate a shopping trip as part of your preparation to find all the ingredients you will need. The My Shopping List sticker pack and Help at the Shops kit would be useful here. For more shopping with TomTag tips, read our Shopping Life Skill blog.


tomtag with symbols for cutting food and preparing fruit Kitchen safety

There are lots of skills required in the kitchen besides dealing with the food itself. Knowing how to turn cookers and ovens on and off correctly, taking appropriate precautions with hot equipment, learning safe use of sharp knifes and other utensils are all essential skills to be learnt before a young person can be left to cook unsupervised.

Build on these skills gradually and move on to the next stage only when the individual is ready and capable of showing the necessary responsibility.


tin of heinz beans with toast, butter and 2 tomtags overlaid with symbols to make beans on toastChoosing recipes

Using a set of TomTag button holders and the symbols we’ve included in our Extended pack, you can quickly create step-by-step instructions for numerous simple recipes such as beans on toast, soup, sandwiches, eggs (scrambled, fried or boiled), cheese on toast and pasta with sauce.


tomas carving turkey at christmasServe it up

Be sure to give compliments and praise and encourage them to keep building on their skills. Let them be the first to taste what they’ve made and ask for suggestions of what they’d like to try next.

Serving and sharing meals with others offers opportunities for practising communication and social skills too.


 

Resources

Jamie Oliver’s Simple Cooking Skills website has a simple and visual layout and many of the recipes even include step-by-step photo illustrations.

Cooking with Autism also have a useful site with easy to follow recipes written in simple language.

Free to download from Widgit Symbols is this accessible symbol-supported recipe sheet for making pancakes

 

  • cover image sticker pack at the shops

    At the shops

  • cover image sticker pack clean & tidy

    Clean & tidy

  • cover image sticker pack food drink basics

    Food & drink basics

  • cover image sticker pack food and drink extended

    Food & drink extended

  • cover image download going shopping

    Going shopping

  • I can do it – in the kitchen

  • I can do it – independent living

  • cover image sticker pack in the house

    In the house

  • cover image sticker pack my shopping list

    My shopping list

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Simple meals – TomTag Life Skills

I’ll never forget the first time Tom made his own jammy toast. Okay, so there was more jam on the kitchen worktop than the toast, but the pride I could see on his face made the cleaning up instantly forgettable.

And the ‘nomination for the life skill that has made the most positive difference to my life to date‘ goes to …. drum roll, please …. Tom making his own hot chocolate on school mornings! I gain a few precious moments to enjoy my breakfast cuppa whilst it’s still relatively hot!

It’s sad but true that man (or boy) cannot live on jammy toast and hot chocolate alone. However, learning to make simple meals, a favourite hot drink or snack is a great starting point for developing independent life skills for older children or young adults with autism.

Visual supports and guides make teaching these vital life skills so much easier and our TomTag Food and Drink Basics sticker pack is designed specifically to help with this task.

Here’s some of the ways we’d suggest for using this pack:

  • Step-by-step sequencing instructions for making breakfast, snacks, simple lunches or hot drinks. 
  • List the food choices available to your child for breakfast, lunch and snacks. 
  • List each family member’s food preference as a reminder to those preparing the food. 

Whichever way you choose, here’s a few simple tips to follow.

simple meals, choosing the right task, widgit symbol for cut with knifeChoosing the right tasks

Choose tasks that are appropriate to your child’s developmental level. Starter tasks might include washing fruit, cutting soft vegetables with plastic knives or spreading butter on toast (and work surfaces!).

Move on later to more complex tasks requiring greater motor skills, concentration and focus such as using a peeler, chopping with sharper knives or boiling a kettle.

 


simple meals, talking points, widgit symbol for snackTalking points, an opportunity for learning

Having children help make simple meals in the kitchen provides a natural opportunity for learning on a range of topics.

Teaching children to wash their hands and kitchen surfaces before preparing food or showing them safe ways to use knives helps them to understand the importance of kitchen safety and hygiene.

Practice reading and maths skills by comparing packet labels and counting or measuring out ingredients.

Talk about the effects our choice of food has on our health and lifestyle. Try out the NHS Change4Life Sugar Swaps app for a fun way to find out how much sugar is in our food and drinks.


simple meals, foodie fun, widgit symbol for fruit saladA recipe for foodie fun

Research shows that repeated exposure to food increases a child’s willingness to eat. On average, children might need over a dozen exposures to a food before ever putting it in their mouth, even more for a child with sensory issues around food.

Cooking meals therefore provides low pressure, fun, sensory experiences. If children associate food with enjoyable experiences, they’re more likely to be receptive to trying new foods and eating healthily. Involving children in meal choices and preparation of simple meals can help to improve their eating habits and establish a healthy relationship with food.

Cookie cutters are brilliant for turning boring sandwiches into enticing nibbles. A selection of different coloured fruits or vegetables look great laid out to make a rainbow.

This play-dough cafe we set up when Tom was younger was a really fun way to engage him with the experience of food preparation. Tom plays the role of both chef and waiter, helping to develop his communication and social skills too. 

Listen out for my most favourite comment of all from Tomas at the end “Please mummy, can we make our own food?”!


simple meals, praise, widgit symbol for washing upPraise, encouragement and letting go of the mess stress!

Be sure to give compliments, praise and lots of encouragement to your child to keep building on their skills. Let them be the first to taste what they’ve made and ask for suggestions of what they’d like to try next.

Having kids help out often means a bit more mess to clear up afterwards. Try to be patient and allow for a little extra mess whilst they’re still learning.
 


Resources for simple meals

Get free visual recipe sheets for tasty treats and snacks from The Autism helper.

Cheeriosmilkandspoon is Sarah’s personal blog account of parenting a child with food aversions and eating challenges.

  • cover image sticker pack food drink basics

    Food & drink basics

  • cover image sticker pack food and drink extended

    Food & drink extended

  • I can do it – in the kitchen

  • I can do it – independent living

 

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Cooking skills for children with autism and sensory issues

text cooking skills for children with autism and sensory issues. 2 images of Tom preparing and cooking meals

Tom loves to cook and takes a keen interest in meal choice and preparation. We’re immensely proud that he achieved a Jamie Oliver BTEC Home Cooking Skills qualification with the help of two highly skilled and intuitive cooking teachers at school and lots of practice at home.

Learning cooking skills not only benefits a child’s health and well-being but also builds their confidence and independence and boosts life skills in other areas, such as maths, communication and social skills.

Tom has autism, sensory issues, and movement difficulties and finds following instructions tricky; a mixture of challenges that doesn’t naturally suggest a recipe for success in the kitchen! So what happened?

His success certainly didn’t happen overnight. He took many small steps over quite a length of time. We encouraged him through his special interests (like making lorry and number shaped biscuits) and took cues from him as to when he was ready to try new things. There was a lot of planning and preparation and a good-sized dollop of patience!

Are you anxious or worried that similar sensory or motor challenges will make it difficult for your child to help in the kitchen? Does the idea of cooking with your autistic child fill you with dread?!

Be prepared to give lots of physical or visual demonstration, plenty of practice and, above all, be patient. Manage sensory triggers and start with fun cooking activities that match your child’s level of interest and ability. We think you’ll be amazed at how much your child will be able to learn, how creative they can be and maybe even the new foods they might try! 

Sensory issues

Cooking skills, Tom cooking onions in a frying pan, steam coming off, wiping head. Text overlay "frying onions - an intense sensory experience!"Cooking creates a lot of strong sensory experiences like noise, smells and mess that will affect children in different ways.

For sensory defensive children (like Tom), certain textures, smells and tastes when handling and preparing food can trigger a negative reaction. Other children who are sensory seekers are more likely to be distracted by trying to satisfy their sensory needs e.g. chewing or constantly wiping their hands. This lack of awareness can be dangerous when working in a kitchen.

It’s therefore crucial to identify your child’s triggers before inviting them into the kitchen and think about appropriate adjustments you can make in order to avoid meltdowns or bad associations with cooking in the future.

Tips to alleviate sensory issues in the kitchen

  • Keeping a record of your child’s reactions to sensations will help you prepare dishes that do not include any of these triggers. You can use a simple diary or notebook (like our TomTag Feelings Notebook) to jot down your child’s sensory triggers as well as record your child’s culinary successes.
  • Arranging food or utensils is a mess-free food activity for children who love order but aren’t ready for touching food. Let them collect and organise the ingredients, line muffin tins or set the table.
  • Exposing a younger child to play situations with various textures like magic sand, slime or play-dough can help to desensitize them to food-type textures.
  • Try using thin non-latex medical gloves to avoid skin touching food directly.
  • Onion goggles (they really are a thing!) can protect eyes from the chemicals that make our eyes water. A normal pair of swimming goggles would probably work just as well!
  • Consider the utensils you use if your child is sensitive to sound e.g. replace metal mixing bowls and spoons with wooden or plastic.
  • Offer a long spoon to create a greater distance if your child has food phobias.
  • Provide access to sensory props like chewing aids or textured towels so that your child’s sensory needs are supported and managed in a controlled manner.

Motor challenges

cooking skills, banana being cut with a knife on a chopping board. Text reads "Cooking tasks exercise a wide range of gross and fine motor skillsTom found holding knives and other utensils difficult as the small muscles in his hands didn’t always do what he wanted them to do. He also lacked strength and coordination in his arms which affected his ability to cut, chop, peel or grate. Applying the appropriate pressure for different activities (such as slicing bread as opposed to a banana) was also an issue.

Tips to support children with motor challenges in the kitchen

  • Getting the right utensils can make a huge difference. Try supersized cookie cutters to compensate for clumsy fingers or look for child-friendly kitchen knives – we love the look of this simple Ikea set.
  • Practice fine motor skills by tearing herbs and lettuce or rubbing butter and flour into a breadcrumb texture (using the ‘rubbing in’ technique for making pastry and crumbles).
  • For cutting practice, start with easy to cut food that your child likes to eat. Soft fruit and cooked soft vegetables such as strawberries, banana, potatoes and carrots are ideal.
  • There are lots of activities around cooking that involve using different muscles. Mixing is a relatively safe and fun activity. Try pancake batter, dressings or sauces and for added fun you can even try shaking them in a jar!

Following instructions

cooking skills, young girl stirring baking mixture with wooden spoon. Text reads "start with the basics"Children learn best by example and in small steps. 

Start by teaching the basic techniques such as cutting and mixing before moving onto the bigger tasks like following a recipe.
Stand next to your child and ask them to copy you step by step. Hand over hand support can help with movement and pressure issues.

Having a relaxed and fun atmosphere is the best way to teach new kitchen skills. Find a time to cook when everyone is happy and calm. Tackling cooking when you’re trying to get dinner on the table or your child is hungry will only lead to frustration and tears – yours and theirs!

Resources for cooking skills

Deborah French is a mother of four children, including 2 with special needs. Deborah’s wonderful book The Cookbook for Children with Special Needs introduces children to the fundamentals of food preparation, healthy eating and cookery skills.

In this interview with the BBC good food guide, Deborah talks about her experiences as a mother, cook and writer and her remarkable journey from parenting two children with special needs to becoming an author of multiple books.  

To find out more about using visual prompts like TomTag to help your child build confidence and develop their cooking skills, follow the link to our next blog Simple Meals – TomTag Life Skills.

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TomTag Life Skill – staying safe

With this month playing host to Safer Internet Day we’ve some tips on helping our kids stay safe in the home, looking at both online and physical safety.

Safe online

safe online image

With an almost daily diet of stories about the negative impact of the internet and new technology on children and young people, it’s easy to forget the positive aspects: the ability to learn, to connect with others, to be creative.

Safer Internet Day (February 11th) offers an ideal opportunity for parents and carers to start a conversation with their children about online safety. By teaching children to understand and navigate the risks you can help them to have a safer and more positive experience online.

Start by reading these tips for parents from the UK Safer Internet Centre and explore the many other fantastic resources on the site.

This article from the Guardian takes a interesting look at how the internet can be a great learning tool and includes some really simple ideas for changing how we approach our children’s use of it.

Drawing up a family agreement that all the family sign up to is a useful way to help everyone make better decisions and display appropriate behaviour. Here’s a great example from Digizen.org.

You can also find a wealth of information and advice on the subject from CEOP’s ThinkuKnow website.

Safe at home

Of course, we’ve all been consciously protecting our children from harm from the moment they were born but we have a responsibility to teach them the skills to keep themselves safe too.

Talking about potential dangers as part of everyday conversation and using games to teach what to do will really help to prepare your child for emergency situations without scaring them.

Play the ‘What if’ game

What if … the smoke alarm sounded?

What if … you cut yourself badly?

What if … someone came to the house when no-one else was home?

You’ll get a feel for how your child would react in a real emergency and can guide them to how they might deal with it.

Using some of the blank stickers you’ll find in each TomTag sticker pack, draw or write a list of safety rules and apply each sticker to a blank button. Put the buttons into a TomTag holder and hang or stick it up (eg. on the fridge) where it will be seen every day.


Hold a scavenger hunt

Once you’ve played the What If game and discussed ideas about how to deal with different situations, does everyone in the house know where to find the things they might need to deal with an emergency? Where’s the first-aid kit, keys to open doors, fire blanket, emergency phone numbers? Give each child a TomTag with some items on it that they need to find and let them race to be the first to find everything on their list.

Teach your child how to use what’s in the first aid kit too to treat minor injuries. The British Red Cross have a great web resource to help children aged 6-11 learn life saving first aid.


Make an escape plan

Every household should have an emergency escape plan in case of fire. Hopefully you will never need to use it but having a plan will prevent delay and help you to escape faster if you need to. Anyone can ask for a free Home Fire Safety Check from their local fire service.

Don’t forget that a weekly test of your smoke alarm is the simplest and easiest way to help prevent fire emergencies.

Give your child a clip-board and pen and let them pretend to be a safety inspector. Ask them to look around the house for safety features and hazards and let them help you fix any deficiencies.


 

Know your numbers

Make sure everyone knows the number for emergency services and try role-playing a call so that they know what they might be asked.

Teach children their home address and telephone number so that they can give it if they need to call the emergency services (also useful if they get lost when out of the house!).

Keep a list of names and numbers of friends, neighbours, family doctor, etc. by the door or telephone in case of emergencies, particularly if your child is old enough to be left at home alone.

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Sign up for your bravery booster bundle!

Finding your brave – Children’s Mental Health Week

Day 5: What does ‘finding your brave’ mean for a child with autism?

What does ‘finding your brave’ mean for YOUR child? We hope you’ve found some useful advice in our series this week to help you answer that question and support your child and their mental health.

Here’s a summary with links to each of the blogs in this series :

  1. Explain to your child what bravery means and how it relates to their life and their personal challenges – What is bravery?
  2. Turn detective and get a deeper understanding of your child’s fears, worries and anxieties and the thoughts that are holding them back – What are you scared of?
  3. Choose some support tools and create strategies to help reduce uncertainties, learn social skills and aid communication – Overcoming fears – getting closer to brave
  4. Acknowledge and celebrate your child’s bravery in all its forms to boost their self-esteem, confidence and mental health – How does being brave make us feel?

Would you like a bit of help to get started?

sign up for bravery boosters button

Click the button above to sign up now and we’ll email you our bravery boosters bundle!

You’ll receive a guide to developing good emotional intelligence that you can download and print, a video guide to using a feelings diary and a discount code to use when you purchase any Feelings and Emotional support products. A selection of these products have been featured in our ‘finding your brave’ series. 

  • 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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How does being brave make us feel?

boy stood on stacked logs with text how does brave make you feel

Finding your brave – Children’s Mental Health Week

Day 4: What does ‘finding your brave’ mean for a child with autism?

It’s time to celebrate!

As we’ve talked about earlier, many children with autism show their bravery in the everyday acts of dealing with life. Recognising and celebrating this bravery is just as important, if not more so, as acknowledging it for the ‘big’ brave events.

Showing your child how to see and celebrate their bravery in the seemingly smaller things boosts their self-esteem, confidence and mental health. Congratulating your child on each brave step (big or small) helps them feel good about themselves and they can learn to find courage to do bigger things.

If you’ve missed any of the series so far, you can recap here: 

How does being brave make us feel?

Bravery often doesn’t feel like bravery. It can feel like butterflies in your tummy, sweaty hands, racing thoughts or maybe a moment of intense focus and concentration. It’s only after being brave that we feel proud, happy and confident – that elusive ‘I feel good’ feeling! When we are brave we can have fun, meet new people, share a new experience and boost our mental health and well-being.

Bravery can mean so many things: big and small. As a parent of a child with autism, it’s often hard not to compare them with their typically developing peers and their acts of bravery. Others may have learnt to ride a bike, play a musical instrument or been picked for the school football team whilst your child is struggling to put on their shoes, hold a pencil or sleep through the night. 

Everyday heroes

Getting dressed, going to school or keeping calm when there is a change to routine are all examples of bravery if you have anxiety, sensory difficulties or struggle with flexible thinking. 

Take time each day to note down an instance when your child has been brave. We use our TomTag Feelings notebook to record these moments but you could also write each moment on a note and pop them into a note jar. Simply pausing and recording these moments highlights the experience of being brave making it more likely to reinforce positive memories. Using a notebook, note jar or similar will help you and your child to revisit and reflect on the ‘brave moment’ entries when similar challenges arise in the future. Together with your child you can build a bravery chain, link by link.

Its also important to reassure your child that not feeling brave is okay and that other children will often feel this way too. This is another time when it can be helpful to use a visual feelings scale (like TomTag’s Share how I feel tag) to help your child show or tell you how they are feeling. Acknowledge their feelings and praise them for ‘finding their brave’ to share them with you. Remind them that it takes time and practice to ‘find your brave’ – be patient if you need to repeat the process we discussed earlier of identifying fears and finding support strategies to overcome them.

Tom’s story

Over the years we’ve always tried to celebrate all Tom’s acts of ‘bravery’. We’ve praised and encouraged him with seemingly small things like saying hello, sitting at the table or making food choices. Bravery has unfolded one situation at a time. 

Over time, he’s overcome his fear of speaking, meeting new people and learning new skills such as skiing, riding a bike and, more recently, even driving! When he faces new challenges, we remind him how he found his brave on all these occasions to reassure him that he does have the strength within to succeed. 

tomas putting letters on a board in front of mum as a child and presenting a display on Switzerland as a young adult

How does your child show their bravery? Share your proud moments with us – we’d love to hear from you and share your joy!

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Overcoming fears – getting closer to brave

COVER IMAGE FOR DAY 3 CHILDREN'S MENTAL HEALTH WEEK BLOG, OVERCOMING FEARS

Finding your brave – Children’s Mental Health Week

Day 3: What does ‘finding your brave’ mean for a child with autism?

We’ve introduced the idea of what bravery means and why being brave can make us feel good and looked at ways to help your child identify and understand their barriers to being brave (what are you scared of?). 

Now it’s time for some action! Let’s look at some ways you can support your child to help them overcome some of their fears and get closer to finding their brave.

Overcoming fears – getting closer to brave

Feeling worried about the unknown or new situations is common and familiar to almost all of us.

For many children with autism, normal daily life can feel like the great unknown every day. If you’re worried about what’s going to happen, struggle with anxiety around people and social situations or can’t communicate what you want or need, every single day can feel scary and overwhelming. It’s very hard to ‘find your brave’ when you’re in a constant state of anxiety. Being scared and anxious is exhausting and can often lead us into more complex mental health problems.

There are strategies we can use to deal with these uncertainties and ways to learn skills that can help combat anxieties. It’s time to meet the superheroes – visual supports!! 

Finding your brave – reducing uncertainty with visual supports

An intolerance of uncertainty is a common cause of anxiety for many children with autism, causing them to ‘act out’ or display other unwanted behaviours when their routines change or they are in unfamiliar situations. 

A visual schedule or timetable takes away the element of surprise and makes it clear what your child can expect to happen. Their anxiety level will come down and it will be easier for them to transition between activities, finding their brave to move on.  

a diary pageIn this diary entry, Tom felt worried because he didn’t know whether his Speech and Language therapist was visiting him at school that day. By reminding him to check the timetable in his planner, Tom was able to reassure himself about when to expect to see his therapist.

tomtag overlaid on an image of a child in the dentist's chair receiving treatmentHelping your child to ‘find their brave’ for unfamiliar or ‘scary’ situations – things like visiting the dentist, doctor or hairdresser – is eased by good planning and preparation. Using a visual tool like TomTag or a simple social story can help you to communicate and explain to your child what’s going happen before the event, reducing the uncertainty and consequent anxieties.

Finding your brave – learning social skills with visual supports

Social cues can be difficult for many children with autism to understand as they interact with others. They get anxious about what is expected of them socially and can find if hard to interpret other people’s behaviour.

Visual prompts can be useful in teaching social rules such as sharing, taking turns and waiting. With practice and patience, children can learn to use these supports on their own in social situations, providing them with a permanent reminder of expectations and setting the stage for them to find their brave!

In the earlier example, Tom was worried about his speech therapist being late. Using drawings, we reminded him about the concept of waiting. Knowing what was expected of him in this situation and giving him some self-help strategies (OT exercises) helped to calm him down.

drawings to help Tom find self-help strategies for waiting for therapisr

Finding your brave – communicating needs with visual supports

Sensory overload, changes to routine, difficulties processing information, being tired or hungry are all common triggers for anger and challenging behaviour. In these situations, it is almost impossible for a child to be brave.

Tom remembers what he sees rather than what he hears as he can’t process too many words at once. Ask him questions or give him instructions and his stress just increases – the more we talk, the less he hears! Offering children like Tom a non-verbal means of communication to use allows them to understand and express their feelings without the stress of having to process language at the same time.

tomtag samples from the feelings and emotions range

The TomTag Share how I feel visual feelings scale is one of our best sellers – and you can see why! It’s such a simple device but a very quick, effective and efficient way for your child to show or tell you how they are feeling. Once they’re learnt to identify and understand what each feeling means, you can use more detailed visual guides to build self-help strategies they can use to cope with different feelings and emotions, giving them the reassurance and confidence they need to find their brave.

Next: How does being brave make us feel?

The benefits and joys of finding your brave 

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Finding your brave – what are you scared of?

background of mountains, 2 children sitting with thought bubbles to show what they are afraid of

Finding your brave – Children’s Mental Health Week

Day 2: What does ‘finding your brave’ mean for a child with autism?

Now that you’ve introduced the idea of what bravery means and why being brave can make us feel good (follow the link if you missed it), we look at helping your child understand what can hold us back and the feelings that can stop us being brave. 

What are you scared of?

background of mountains, 2 children sitting with thought bubbles to show what they are afraid ofWhat stops us being brave and why can being brave be so difficult? 

Being brave generally means facing something difficult or a situation we’re unsure, worried or scared about and going ahead anyway.

To help your child with autism ‘find their brave’, you need to understand what those fears, worries or anxieties are that are their barriers to being brave. It’s the thoughts and feelings we create ourselves that are most often what get in the way of doing something or trying something new. These unhelpful thoughts might include worries about getting something wrong, being embarrassed or people laughing at you.

Firstly, let your child know that it’s normal to have these emotions but that there things we can do to help ourselves to stop these thoughts and feelings getting in the way of what we want or need to do and affecting our mental health. To find out what their barriers are you may just be able to ask them. If your child is non-verbal or finds it tricky to talk about their feelings – perhaps because they have limited language skills – you will need to try some other tactics. 

TomTag feelings notebook with example page filled inFor Tom, who has autism, just talking about his fears can be a cause of stress too. We’ve used the TomTag Feelings Notebook to help him communicate with us and share his concerns in a less direct or confrontational way.

In this example, he describes feeling nervous about meeting his teacher as he was unsure about what to say to her. He goes on to share that he always feels nervous when he sees other people. An example of how unhelpful thoughts – like saying something wrong or that people might laugh at him – are the barriers to bravery here.

 You can use also use a diary format like this to help you and your child keep a record of feelings, anxieties, worries or behaviour which will help you to track any patterns and identify underlying triggers. Turn detective, be curious and think about what might be beneath their behaviour to see what the real issues are.

Right feeling, wrong size?

Sometimes, your child won’t even be sure what they’re afraid of, which can in itself make them feel more anxious and afraid. It’s also possible that they may have difficulty understanding the size or intensity of their feelings, something Tomas finds quite difficult.

When he was younger, Tom was terrified of flies. This was particularly difficult in the summer months as he would scream and become extremely anxious about going to sleep. Every evening we would have to make sure that his bedroom was free of the unwelcome guests before he would even go into his room.

With support, Tom was able to use drawings as a visual tool to help him share what it was about flies that frightened him and how they made him feel. He thought that the fly would eat him and he felt panic! Once we knew what the fears were, we could reassure him that it was normal to have feelings about flies. We were able to show him that his feeling of panic was unhelpful as it made things feel more scary than they really were. A case of the right feeling but the wrong size.

drawing by Tomas to explain his fear of flies

Doing the detective work was crucial. Had we not known about the fear then Tom’s reluctance to go to bed might have been misinterpreted as challenging behaviour around bedtime routines. By understanding his fears, providing him with reassurance and making him feel safe, we could encourage him to be brave with the help of positive thinking and a bright new fly swatter which we showed him how to use! 

Next: Overcoming fears – getting closer to brave

Looking at some ways you can support your child to help them overcome some of their fears and get closer to finding their brave.

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What does ‘Finding your brave’ mean for a child with autism?

girl on high ropes stepping onto a plank

children's mental health week logoChildren’s Mental Health Week is run by the charity Place2Be, to focus on the importance of looking after our emotional well-being from an early age.

Running from 3 – 9 February 2020, the theme this year is ‘Find your brave’.

Whilst autism itself it NOT a mental health condition, we do know that people with autism or a learning disability (or both) are more likely to experience mental health problems than the general population – and more likely to have it overlooked or ignored.

Helping your autistic child to ‘find their brave’ may take a little longer, need a bit more effort, patience and persuasion but with determination progress will be made and it can only have a positive affect on their mental health.

 

What does ‘finding your brave’ mean for a child with autism?

Bravery is different for every child and comes in all shapes and sizes. It’s not all about grand gestures, slaying dragons, high ropes or superheroes! 

Being brave generally means facing something difficult or a situation you’re unsure, worried or scared about and going ahead anyway. If, like my son, your child has sensory processing issues, communication difficulties or an intolerance of uncertainty then simply managing and coping with daily life will mean calling upon their bravery resources pretty much every day.

Imagine all the things your child might be unsure or worried about. Is it going to school, visiting the hairdresser, sharing worries or asking for help?

It may also be something that appears small to us, such as trying a different food, taking a new route home from school or saying hello to grandma.

Over the next few days, we’ll share some ideas and techniques for supporting your child to find their brave. We’ll look at what it means to be brave, what holds us back and how to deal with those feelings that stop us. Finally we’ll talk about why it’s good to be brave and share some ideas for ways that TomTag can be used to help.

Let’s get started!

What is bravery?

Start by explaining to your child what bravery means and why being brave can make us feel good about ourselves.

Sometimes we need to be brave for big challenges but most of the time being brave means finding positive ways to deal with everyday difficulties and situations. It doesn’t mean that they have to deal with everything on their own. Let them know that it’s brave to ask for and accept help.    

Bravery means something different for everyone. Remind your child that what’s brave for them might not feel brave for someone else.

Use examples from your own life to show times when you’ve had to be brave. It can help children to see that as adults we also have to face our fears in everyday life. 

Next: What are you scared of?

What stops us being brave and why can being brave be so difficult? Helping your child understand what can hold us back and the feelings that can stop us being brave.