To improve daily living skills and increase independence by showing rather than telling the individual the steps they need to do to complete a task.
What to do – using the TomTag 4 P’s approach
Does the individual understand the idea of a sequence i.e. that things follow each other in a certain order? This is important to know because when you are teaching a skill, it’s helpful to break the task down into smaller steps so that the individual can follow the steps in the right order to complete the task.
Decide which skill you want to work on and how many steps the individual can realistically cope with. A simple two step First-Then sequence such as ‘First use toilet Then wash hands’ works best for those who are still learning about sequences. You can always add more steps to a sequence once they have got the hang of it.
Pick appropriate symbols showing the steps for the skill you would like to teach. Use the blank stickers to make your own drawings if you can’t see exactly what you want.
Build up an activity sequence in a TomTag tag using these symbols with the steps in the right order.
Aim to involve the individual in the preparation of the tag as this gives them a sense of ownership and may motivate them to use it. This is also a great time to talk about how and why their TomTag will help.
Decide where to put the TomTag so that it is easily seen by the individual before they start the task. Do you want them to carry it or fix it to a permanent place such as on a hook in the bathroom? It must be easily visible to the individual throughout the task.
Cue the individual with a brief verbal instruction when it’s time for the task to begin e.g. “Check your TomTag”.
Gently guide them to look at their TomTag or place it in their hand and prompt them to point to the first step on their tag
Before each step, use the least amount of words and describe what the step is for, e.g. “Toothpaste on brush”.
If necessary, help them to do the step or model how to do it.
Show them how to turn over the button on their tag once they have completed the step.
Praise them for following their TomTag and completing the step
Cue them to check their TomTag again so that they can move smoothly onto the next step
If challenging behaviour occurs, focus on the activity not the behaviour.
A First-Then (or Now-Next or First-Then-Next) tool helps your child to learn basic sequencing skills. It shows them what they will do or need to complete first (or now) and what they will do then (or next). It can be really helpful in getting children to move more smoothly (transition) from one activity to another or in encouraging them to complete a less-preferred activity before receiving a reward or moving on.
What to do – using the TomTag 4 P’s approach
Decide what the first and second activities or objects are that you want or need your child to do
Choose the second item to be something your child really likes to encourage them to do the first activity. Worried about challenging behaviour? Try starting with activities that your child usually does successfully and willingly!
Pick relevant symbols that show the activities you have identified. Use blank stickers to make your own drawings if you can’t find the activity you want.
If not already included in the sticker pack you have, use blank stickers for the prompt words FIRST, THEN, NOW or NEXT as preferred.
Place the first prompt word at the top of the tag followed by the first activity symbol, then the second prompt word followed by the second activity symbol.
For a 3-step sequence, e.g. FIRST-THEN-NEXT, continue to add the third prompt and symbol.
Give the TomTag to your child with a brief verbal instruction about the sequence (e.g. “First eat lunch, then play outside”).
Make sure your child can see the tag whilst doing the first activity and refer to it verbally as well (e.g. “nearly finished, then play outside”).
Show them how to turn over the button on their tag once they have completed the first activity and confirm the next step verbally. (e.g. “Lunch done, now play outside”).
Immediately provide the preferred activity or item so that your child gains trust in using TomTag and more confidence the next time you use it.
If challenging behaviour occurs, keep your focus on prompting your child to do the first activity rather than on the behaviour.
Visual supports help you to communicate with your child by showing rather than (or as well as) telling them what you would like, or need, them to do. They also allow your child a means to communicate their needs and wants to you, in situations or at times when they may be unable to do this verbally or effectively through other means. Challenging behaviour often manifests out of frustration at either not understanding a situation or being unable to verbally express wants, needs and feelings and an effective visual communication support can help reduce these frustrations and behaviours.
What to do – using the TomTag 4 P’s approach
What communication needs does your child have? What do you want to help them with?
Do they need help to:
remember social rules such as sharing, waiting or taking turns?
communicate their feelings and choices?
manage their emotions?
Choose appropriate symbols relating to the communication needs you have identified. Use the blank stickers to make your own drawings if needed.
For help with understanding and remembering instructions, set out the symbols in one or more tags in the form of reminder checklists
For help with teaching social rules, try to include some positive praise points in your tag to encourage and reward appropriate behaviour (e.g. good work, good effort, well done, etc.)
To help with communicating choices, feelings or emotions, create separate lists for each set of options e.g. sensory triggers (“I feel … too hot, too cold, tired, hungry, etc.), sensory support strategies (“I need … count to 10, get a hug, take a rest, exercise, etc.)
Aim to involve your child with the preparation of their tags where possible. Many children love stickers and the action of clicking the buttons into place. This helps to give them a sense of ownership and motivation to use it. This is also a great time to talk about how and why TomTag will help them.
Have the TomTag easily to hand so that you or your child can quickly use it when the communication need occurs.
Prompt your child with a brief, verbal instruction e.g. “Look at your TomTag”.
Gently guide them to check their TomTag or place it in their hand
Encourage them to communicate what they want or need by using the least amount of words, for example, “show me”.
You should also use the least amount of words to tell them what you want them to do. For example, “take turns” whilst as the same time pointing to the relevant symbol in their tag.
Praise your child for communicating with you or for following your instructions.
Visual timetables, schedules and routines help you to communicate to your child when activities or events will occur throughout the day or week. This helps them to understand what they are doing and when and can significantly reduce anxiety and related behaviours that may occur when these things are not made clear or certain.
What to do – using the TomTag 4 P’s approach
Does your child understand the idea of an activity sequence? If you need to work on this first, read the TomTag First-Then-Next guide for advice on how introduce this idea.
Decide which activities for the day or part of the day you want to show. Worried about challenging behaviour? Try starting with activities that your child usually does successfully and willingly!
Choose appropriate symbols to show the activities you have identified. Use the blank stickers to make your own drawings if you can’t see the activity you want.
Build up an activity sequence in a TomTag tag using these symbols to show the activities you want to happen, or that will occur, and in what order.
Aim to involve your child with the preparation of the tag. Many children love stickers and the action of clicking the buttons into place. Helping prepare their tag gives them a sense of ownership and may motivate them to use it. This is also a great time to talk with them about how and why their TomTag will help.
Decide where is the best place to put TomTag so that it is easily seen by your child before they start the first activity. Do you want them to carry it or fix it to a permanent place like the fridge or a wall? It must be easily visible to your child during the rest of the activities.
Cue your child with a brief verbal instruction when it’s time for an activity to begin e.g. “Check your TomTag”.
Gently guide them to look at their TomTag or place it in their hand and prompt them to point to the next activity symbol
Use the least amount of words and describe what the activity is, e.g. “Get dressed”.
Help your child do the activity or model how to do it. If they are finding an individual activity too difficult, set up a separate and more detailed skill prompt TomTag to teach it. Read the Daily Living Skills guide for more information about how to do this.
Show them how to turn over the button on their tag once they have completed the activity.
Praise your child for completing the activity
Cue them to check their TomTag again so that they can move smoothly onto the next activity
If challenging behaviour occurs, focus on the activity not the behaviour.
Christmas. Love it or hate it, it’s coming our way again – sooner than you think!
Because we know that this can be such a difficult, fraught and stressful time of year for families like ours, we’re sharing our best Tom Tag tips for an autism-tastic Christmas.
Follow these tips of planning, preparation and patience to get ready for an autism-friendly Christmas that’s just right for you and your family.
PART 1: Planning
#1: Project Christmas: Decide what’s the best way to ‘do’ Christmas for YOU and YOUR family
We love this idea from the Gina Davies Autism Centre. Grab a cuppa, a notebook and pen and start planning. Think about the whole upcoming Christmas period, not just the day itself. Reflecting on what was stressful last Christmas is a good starting point.
✍Make a list with four columns headed up Achievable, Desirable, High Risk, Impossible!
🤔Think about what is planned or expected over Christmas and place each activity under one of the four columns.
🗞Keep your plan to hand and add to it as necessary.
👏Don’t aim for 100% – if you can manage most of the achievable, one or two things in the desirable column and manage to come through everything in the risky column be proud of yourself – you’ve helped your family enjoy the bits of Christmas that work for them.
#2: Make a personalised ‘All about Christmas’ visual guide to show all the different things you might find or do at this time of year.
For example, a photo collage or Christmas scrapbook showing Christmas objects, Christmas food and activities that only happen at Christmas e.g. meeting Father Christmas or pulling Christmas crackers. You could also include pictures of your family celebrating Christmas.
Children with autism tend to forget social information so a permanent visual guide is a great way to remind them what Christmas looks like.
#3: Talk to your child’s school or support team so you know what different things they might be doing and when.
Ask them if they have a copy of this excellent autism advent calendar for schools from the National Autistic Society. If not, print a copy off for them to use to help your child manage during the Christmas period at school.
Have a meeting with your child’s teacher to plan together how you can help your child cope with the activities coming up. Keep communication going throughout the Christmas period with a ‘Home- School’ book such as the lovely one available from That Beautiful Mind.
#4: Take time to sit down with your child and talk through anything they might be finding confusing or unsettling about Christmastime and all its festivities. It’s often the little things we don’t even notice that can seem so huge to them.
Look back at your Christmas plan (see Planning tip #2) and for each planned activity or event, make a two-column list headed ‘Concerns and Solutions’. Ask your child what concerns they may have and then together think about and write down a solution.
🏘 a visit to family or friends
😟 worry about what they will drink
👍agree to take their favourite drink or ask the hosts whether they have it.
This think-say-do approach is a great way for dealing with uncertainties that occur throughout the year not just at Christmastime.
#5: Make realistic plans for your shopping needs.
Choose quieter times of day, take a list, use a babysitter, bring snacks, shop online.
Christmas shopping with a child who has autism is definitely a high-risk activity! Sounds, lights and the hustle and bustle of crowds – it’s easy to see why meltdowns occur and shopping trips are abandoned. There’s no need to be superhuman. Keep it simple, practical and do-able!
#6: Talk about social rules and different expectations that people might have around Christmastime.
Christmas is usually a time of increased social contact and festive events with family and friends. Use a visual schedule to show what’s going to happen before any visitors come to the house or when going to parties, visiting family and friends. Roleplay and practise greeting visitors appropriately and saying please and thank you.
#7: If your child has little or no interest in typical toys, make a list of alternative gift ideas that you can suggest to relatives and friends when they ask what presents they can buy.
Sensory Direct have a wide range of sensory toys and equipment for autistic children. You could also suggest something small and inexpensive and ask that any money left over is put towards an activity that your child enjoys or time with a favourite babysitter.
#8: Make sure visual schedules are updated to show any changes to routine or special festive events.
Using a visual schedule, like TomTag, at home or school is a great way to make sure that children with autism (like ours) know about and can prepare themselves for anything different that’s going to happen.
In our experience, front-loading any changes to routine early on means that they can be coped with. Later changes to routine (however small) can cause distress and anxiety. Check out our I know what to expect at Christmas and birthdays kit for ideas.
#9: Let your children help to choose and put up the decorations in and around your home.
Christmas decorations can be disruptive to children with autism. Consider decorating gradually over a few days so they are not overwhelmed immediately. If inside decorations are too much then decorate outside the house only.
Twinkly, shiny, glittery Christmas lights whilst enjoyable to look at can lead to sensory overload. Consider limiting the number on display and choose lights that have different settings you can control.
PART 2: Preparation
#1: Keep sensory armour to hand for trips to the shop, parties and other festive events where sensory experiences can easily become overloads
Sensory armour could include:
🎧 headphones to cut out some of the noise and sound
🧢 a cap to help shut out some of the flashing lights or people
🕶 dark glasses to reduce the light intensity
🧸 a favourite comforter for reassurance
🍪 small portions of snacks to help when things get tricky
#2: Prepare for visitors and visits from family and friends by talking to your child about who they are going to see and how to greet them
A personalised visual checklist is a great way to show your child who all the family members are that they may be meeting and what an appropriate social contact might be for each group. You can find appropriate symbols in our Christmas & Birthdays sticker pack (links below).
#3: Leave some areas of the house undecorated so there’s always a quiet place for your child to retreat to if they need it
Flashing lights, glittery objects and jingling bells all around the house are natural triggers for sensory overload. Having a Christmas – free zone to escape to can help bring stress levels caused by sensory overload down to more manageable levels.
#4: Discuss the escape plans that it’s ok for your child to use if everything gets too much for them
Having a calm and quiet place to escape the noise and bustle of Christmas is crucial. Agree with your child how they will let you know that they need to use it. For us, Tom showing me a simple red card when he’d had enough worked well.
#5: Think and talk about the extra social demands that might trigger anxieties or sensory problems
Spending time with family and friends, the expectation to be ‘happy’ and join in can be stressful for all of us – particularly for children with autism.
Use a visual schedule to explain what is going to happen and try to avoid social visits on consecutive days to allow for some downtime.
#6: Advent calendars are a great way to prepare for and understand the count down to Christmas
We love this idea from The Autism Page for a Christmas Book Advent Calendar. It combines the excitement of unwrapping a new Christmas book each day with the benefit of using the books to build up an understanding of Christmas.
#7: Be prepared that your child might not be able to sit at the table for as long as you would like (or maybe not at all). Warn your host if you are not having Christmas dinner at home.
It can be stressful to have your child’s behaviour ‘on display’ to family and friends at shared meals. Be practical, realistic and upfront about it. If your child only sits at the table for say three minutes usually then Christmas day is unlikely to be any different. Take turns to supervise them or provide them with something to keep them occupied.
Keep working on mealtime skills at home and maybe next year will be different!
#8: For children who won’t eat a traditional Christmas dinner or the main meal you’re serving, prepare and freeze their meals in advance to reduce workload on the day
Just don’t forget to get them back out of the freezer in time!
#9: Consider your child’s sensory needs when wrapping up presents. There’s lots of great alternatives to traditional Christmas paper such as foil or fabric.
The choice of alternatives will depend on whether the sensory issues relate to over or under sensitivities. Aluminium kitchen foil is brilliant for quickly wrapping all sorts of odd shapes and sizes as well as being shiny and noisy if your child likes that kind of sensory input. For something more gentle, calming and simple to open, try fabric tied with a ribbon where just a quick pull will reveal the gift. The bonus is that these options are eco-friendly too.
#10: If toys need assembling or batteries putting in before they can be used, do this before wrapping them up so that they can be played with straight away on Christmas day
It’s always worth checking inside boxes and packaging even if you’re not expecting there to be any assembly required as those pesky ties and tape seem to get everywhere!
PART 3: Patience
#1 In the build up to Christmas, remember to exercise some self care so that you can manage your energy levels and remain focused on what you and your child can realistically achieve
Play some relaxing music, burn some scented candles, take a relaxing hot bath to relax. Practise breathing!
#2 Take the time to read social stories with your child about what to expect at Christmas, including meeting with Santa.
Social stories are particularly helpful for activities that only happen at Christmas. You can make your own or check out the FREE printable Christmas social story about meeting Santa on the wonderful parenting blog And Next Comes L – Hyperlexia & Autism Resources
#3 Christmas is a time when sensory issues are greater than ever. To help prevent sensory sensitivities becoming overloads, allow your child to have some control over these experiences.
Where possible let your child have direct control of their sensory experience. For example, hand them control of buttons for the lights (if appropriate) or provide sensory defences like ear defenders or sunglasses.
#4 Many children with autism don’t like surprises so it might help not to wrap presents up.
You could also just tell them what’s inside or use clear cellophane or plain paper for wrapping. If your child finds wrapping paper highly confusing, e.g. thinks that pictures on the paper show what’s inside, then using plain wrapping paper with a clear picture of the contents stuck on the outside will help.
#5 If your child has dietary restrictions, don’t despair. Accept where your chid is now with their food and be patient.
Preferences change so it might not be the same next year!
If you are eating with other people at their house and your child won’t eat any of the food or insists on a particular plate, cup, spoon etc. provide these things so your child can join the party briefly and tell the hosts in advance.
#6 Get some Christmas helpers! Be patient with yourself and ask for help with preparations from family and friends.
Encouraging the whole family to get involved makes everyone feel included and part of the Christmas build-up. Don’t feel like you have to power through on your own.
#7 Buy or make your child’s Christmas costume or party outfit early and let them wear it around the house for short periods of time to help them become comfortable with how it feels.
Costumes and new clothes can be challenging for children with sensory sensitivities. Encouraging them to wear these around the house helps them become more tolerant of the different fabrics against their skin.
#8 Playfully and patiently practise Christmas traditions such as receiving and unwrapping presents and pulling crackers so that your child knows what to expect and can join in.
Play wrapping games by wrapping up items so your child gets used to opening the paper and finding something inside. Buy some cheap crackers and show your child how to pull them and shout ‘bang’ so the noise doesn’t come as a surprise. Practise wearing hats and reading jokes.
#9 Some children may be overwhelmed by a large number of presents all at once.
It’s natural to want to spoil them but be patient and try introducing gifts one at a time over the day or over several days. Alternatively, adopt an advent style approach and bring out a small gift each day on the run-up to Christmas day.
#10 Have the Christmas that suits your family as it is now. Forget about the perfect day, embrace the imperfections and enjoy your special moments
Remember that this is your Christmas too. Try and relax and enjoy the bits that work well. Recognise that some things are too hard at the moment but with patience and practise they may well be achievable next year.
“Hi. I’m a Director of a not-for-profit Community Circus School and we teach Autism Friendly classes that are evolving into what we are calling CSPD (Circus Skills for people with Disabilities). I feel some visual aids would be helpful for some of the students we have and love your product. We would love to be able to create stickers for the circus equipment we use but would prefer the option to print our own – is this something we could work with you to have a Circus Sheet of stickers? We also know the favourite colours throughout the group are blue and red so we’d like to choose our tags to match if possible!”
Coral sent us some ideas of the circus equipment they wanted symbols for so we started by checking if the Widgit library would have anything suitable that we could use under our licence agreement. Due to the niche nature of the request, we found we couldn’t source all the items we needed from their library so Coral sent a few sketches of her own that she wondered if we could use. These looked amazing! We advised her to make sure all the symbols had clear black outlines and bright block colours for best impact and Coral set to work producing DZ Circus School’s own unique symbols that we set up and printed onto our stickers.
Our favourite bespoke task to date! Such lovely customers to work with, doing an amazing job for the benefit of their community and we’re so proud to be working in partnership with them.
Here’s the feedback we received via the DZ Circus blog on (in their word) “TomTag Awesome Visuals”!
Amanda said “I love your tomtags, so easy to use but I was wondering as a lot of the visuals for the child I support need to be more specific and personalised, is it possible to send you photos and for you to print them onto the stickers for me.”
We asked Amanda to send in a couple of photos so that we could have a trial run and make some samples. We wanted to see what the photos would look like and make sure that we were happy with the quality and detail we would get by reducing the size to fit our stickers. With a bit of trial and error, we realised that the images needed to focus in on one or two relevant objects rather than be taken of the whole subject from a wide angle. For example, in the classroom it might be one of the work tables and in the dining hall the serving counter.
Amanda took to Facebook to share her delight at the end result.
“I work in a reception class with a little boy with autism who has limited communication. I needed some photos more specific to him and his environment and the wonderful people at Orkid Ideas took my photos and made up my buttons for me. I love my Tom tags and so does he. So easy to use and so effective. A truly amazing product! 😁😁”
Hi, I’m the business manager and SENCo for a small forest school in Salisbury. We came across your TomTags at the Autism Show and wondered if you’d be able to supply a small number of bespoke tags for us to help our children with their daily routine in our preschool. Oh, and we’d like all the tags to be green!
We were able to source all the symbols that Brambles needed to guide the children’s routine from the Widgit library. These included toilet/nappy, wash hands, put coat on, snack and lunch.
They were also interested in a new minikit that we’d just launched at the time, our Share how I feel tag, which they felt would really support the children’s emotional communication.
15 green TomTags with bespoke routine symbols and 15 green TomTags with emotions faces.
“We are so pleased with them, being an outdoor nursery these are so practical for us. Would really recommend :)”
“I love the Tom Tag idea. As Principal in a new school I am preparing a Starting School Pack for newly enrolled students for the 2019 Australian school year. I would love to provide each child with one of the Tom Tags with a standard set of stickers for packing their school bag. The sticker set would be something like … school hat, lunch box, drink bottle, jumper, book satchel, piece of fruit.”
Over the course of the next few weeks we discussed various options with the school, including using photographs, Widgit or our own School Kit symbols. The Principal was very keen for the symbols to be easily recognised by her students so we eventually hit upon the idea of using pictures provided by their uniform supplier for the hat, jumper and backpack symbols they needed.
We then used some of the hand-drawn symbols from our My School Kit sticker pack to provide the other items Mullum were looking for, which worked really well alongside the uniform pictures.
100 bespoke red tags (to match the red theme of Mullum Primary’s school uniform) each ready prepared with a set of 6 symbols headed off to Australia for the start of their new school year in 2019. There’ll be no excuse for any child at Mullum to arrive unprepared for their school day!
If someone cannot tell you how they feel they will try to show you how they feel.
Language is one way to convey emotion, but of course it is not the only way: sign language and symbol communication systems such as TomTag feelings tags are equally as effective. People will express their feelings through their behaviour when they either 1) do not have a communication strategy to hand, or 2) when they themselves cannot identify the feelings they are experiencing.
You will have heard the phrase challenging behaviour. And you will have come across the common misconception that it should be stamped out. The behaviour is communication, we do not want to stamp that out.
Consider what the challenge actually is:
The person exhibiting the behaviour is being challenged by a problem in their own life.
The challenge they are setting you is to work out what that problem is and to help them solve it.
Their behaviour is simply the communication tool they are using to alert you to the problem.
When faced with behaviours that challenge you, if all you do is try to prevent the behaviour you will not escape the challenge. Suppose the behaviour I am using to express my difficulty with the world as I find it is to hit my head against a wall, and you put a helmet on me to stop this from hurting me. Although my head is safe you have silenced my communication, so I will need to find a new way to express the difficulty, perhaps I will bite myself, or hurt you. I am not doing these things maliciously, I am just seeking to be understood.
Helping me to recognize and then express my emotions using communication strategies such as signs or symbols gives me a way to express my difficulties clearly to you without needing to resort to challenging behaviour. You need to ensure these communication methods are as effective as behaviour for me, I want to be sure that I get as much help when I point to the symbol for ‘sad’ as I used to get when I expressed ‘sad’ by hurting myself.
The word challenge is right. It is a challenge to work out what someone else is communicating to us, especially when we are trying to do that for someone who doesn’t communicate using traditional communication methods or for someone who experiences the world in a different way to us, due to sensory differences or neurodiversity.
On my course Exploring the Impact the Senses have on Behaviour, we do just that! When behaviours stem from sensory causes they require a different response from behaviours whose origins are elsewhere. Behaviour triggered by the senses can be low level niggly gripey grumpy type behaviour or it can be big explosive behaviours such as biting, kicking and lashing out.
When explosive sensory behaviours occur hormones flood the brain and a person loses access to their ordinary channels of communication; language, signs and symbols no longer work. On Exploring the Impact the Senses have on Behaviour we look at how we can communicate in a sensory way to support that person. We look at how practices such as externalizing emotional regulation and using symbol support (e.g. TomTag) to express emotion can help avoid crisis situations. We also do the sensory detective work to better understand the triggers for these behaviours and how we can avoid them.
Connect with Joanna to learn more about her remarkable work and brilliant, interactive, training courses.