Self-talk was key in helping Tom manage his back-to-school anxiety.
Self-talk is rehearsing silently something that you think someone you trust would say to you in a situation you find tricky or challenging. Being able to self-talk is useful as it is something a child can do to help themselves. It has been a game-changer for Tom as he can use this whenever he is feeling overwhelmed.
Let’s get started
You can use this Prompt Sheet to help your child develop self-talk to manage their back-to-school anxiety.
Here are our tips for using the sheet which is available as a free download using the link below:
Let your child know that lots of people are anxious about going back to work or school. This helps them feel that their worries about going back to school are valid.
Give your child the words to describe their feelings. Introducing and explaining the phrases ‘back to school blues’ and the ‘oh no feeling’ help them understand the emotion and feeling behind their back-to-school anxiety.
Ask your child to show you how strong their ‘oh no feeling ‘is. If they struggle with language try simple visual scales using either numbers ( 1-5) or the intensity of colours (green – red) to make it easier for them to rate their feelings. The TomTag feelings tag, a thermometer-style sequence of 6 feelings faces, is a good option to use.
Explain that their ‘oh no feeling’ is the right feeling but too big. Like a shout that needs to be shrunk to the right size – a whisper. The drawings on the Prompt Sheet are a good way to show this
Tell them that to shrink the ‘oh no feeling’ they should think of 3 good reasons why going back to school is ok and say these reasons to themselves when they feel the ‘oh no feeling’ starting
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!
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
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
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.
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
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?
It’s often the simplest things that have the biggest impact.
A seemingly simple thing that gets forgotten, ignored or left unnoticed can cause a big problem down the line. Simple ideas, simple tools, simple changes might be all that’s needed to solve a problem or do a better job than a complex solution.
A Share how I feel tag, with its thermometer-style colour faces scale, has to be one of the simplest uses for the TomTag system but since introducing it less than nine months ago has become our best selling product. It can be used in lots of different ways which is perhaps one of the keys to it’s success – we’ve given some ideas in this free download guide.
Having recommended in our guide that using a feelings diary can help to identify patterns of emotions or behaviour and the triggers that could be causing them, we decided to make our own!
My TomTag Feelings Notebook
Keeping a diary gets you into the habit of noticing and naming how you feel in different situations throughout the day or at times when you feel most anxious or worried.
There’s a scale for rating the strength of your feelings and a guide to help build up a vocabulary to describe your different feelings and emotions.
By making notes about what happened during the day or at key points you can start to build up a picture over time which helps you to see patterns and identify the common triggers or stressors. Quite often these might be simple things that go unnoticed day to day but are easier to spot once patterns emerge.
It’s often the simplest things that have the biggest impact.
The TomTag feelings tag-o-meter is a visual feelings thermometer that can be used to support the development of all the skills required for good emotional intelligence.
It can help children to understand and communicate their feelings. By linking with a visual reminder of appropriate actions and strategies, they can learn how to manage those feelings too.
Regular use of this type of visual scale helps children to recognise the causes and triggers for their feelings and emotions. They can work out ways to help themselves improve their responses and handle things better in the future.
Let’s get started
At the start of the school day it’s helpful to know how a child is feeling to assess their readiness for learning today. Use the feelings thermometer as a way for them to quickly and easily communicate this to you.
You might find it useful to provide a list of further options (like the red tag shown here) to help you identify the cause of any problems. For example, are they sad because they are hungry or tired, too hot or too cold, are the surroundings too noisy or bright?
Once any issues have been dealt with appropriately the child will be more able to access and engage with their learning.
Are you expecting a change to routine, an unusual event or a visit to a new place today? Use the same approach to rate how comfortable the child is about this. If they are frightened, worried or anxious you can try explaining more about the reasons for the change or event or what they can expect to happen during the day or the visit.
Encourage the child to think about whether the strength of their feeling is in proportion to the situation. Does their reaction match the level of the problem? If not, discuss strategies they can use to deal with their feelings and talk about what a more appropriate response might be.
Get down to work
Before starting a task or activity, ask the child to rate their anxiety or confidence level about what they have to do. This information can help you to decide what support they might need to be able to complete the task successfully or it can open a discussion about whether their anxiety is proportional and realistic for the task faced. For example, are they:
How was that?
Revisiting the scale once a task, activity or event has finished offers an opportunity to reflect back and learn from it. Was their actual experience better or worse than they had expected it to be? How would they feel if they were now faced with the same event again?
If they were initially very anxious but with support were able to succeed, should this make them more confident about the next time they face the same task or a new one?
Another good time to check in with the feelings thermometer is after school, particularly as they may keep emotions locked up until they get home. Just as at the start of the school day, it’s a quick and easy way to communicate how they’re feeling and alerts you to any issues that have occurred during the day that might need further investigation or discussion before settling down to homework or evening activities.
What happened there?
Sensory overload, changes to routine, difficulties processing information, social interactions or being tired or hungry are all common triggers for anger or challenging behaviour.
Getting a child to think about and try to understand what made them angry or prompted their behaviour begins to develop their emotional self-management skills. Using a feelings diary can be a good way to identify patterns of behaviour and incident triggers and plan for minimising stress at key points.
Encourage the child to use a feelings scale to start recognising how they feel or what their impulses are when their anger level starts to build. Set up some different coloured tags for each level like the ones shown here. Use each list as a reminder of suitable calming ideas they can try to help prevent their progress up the anger/stress scale and bring their feelings under control.
This technique can also be used to identify and respond to inappropriate behaviour from over excitement or a high arousal state.
Children not only need to understand and interpret their own feelings, it’s important for them to be able to recognise the feelings of other people around them too.
When a child is familiar with using the feelings tag-o-meter to rate their own feelings and emotions, they can build their skills in appreciating other people’s feelings too.
As a parent, carer or teacher, you might want to let the child know that you are pleased with their work or attitude today. They may not have behaved well and you want them to understand that makes you sad. Reinforcing your words by showing them on the scale how you feel helps them develop their ability to recognise and interpret verbal and non-verbal emotional signals.
Let’s be friends
You can take a similar approach when dealing with social interactions between the child and their classmates, friends and family. If there’s been a disagreement or incident, try using the feelings scale to help those involved communicate with each other about what happened, how they are feeling and how they might be able to better control their actions in the future. Our School Timetable sticker pack (included in the kit “I know what to expect at school”) has a number of useful behaviour-related symbols that would help with identifying positive strategies in these situations.
The more practice a child has at acknowledging and recognising their feelings, using different coping techniques and appropriate communication strategies, the more relaxed and content they can be knowing that they have the skills to cope. A child who can identify his own emotions is more likely to be able to identify the emotions of others. Children who can see a situation from the view point of others are more able to engage in problem-solving and other social activities.
Emotional intelligence is defined as the ability to be aware of and recognise our emotions, understand and express them, and to realise how they affect those around us. Emotional intelligence is known to be a key factor in success in life, quality of relationships and overall happiness.
What type of emotions and feelings do we have?
Angry, irritated, mad, furious, upset
We can get angry for lots of different reasons. It can happen when we feel threatened or offended or when we can’t have something that we really want. Our children will often display anger and challenging behaviour when they are finding something difficult, confusing or uncomfortable but are unable to communicate the problem to us in other ways.
Sad, unhappy, disappointed, depressed, hurt
Emotions themselves are not ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Everyone will, and should, experience being unhappy, down or disappointed at times. Learning how to recognise and respond to feelings of sadness in a positive way is good for our emotional health.
Fear & anxiety
Anxious, nervous, frightened, scared, tense
Fear can be a useful emotion when it stops us doing things that might be dangerous or bad for us. It works against us when it stops us doing important things that we need to do or when we are unnecessarily worried or fearful about what might happen to us. Being overly anxious affects our ability to focus, learn, and achieve things.
Calm, satisfied, happy, relaxed, glad
When a child is happy, calm and relaxed they will be more able and willing to focus, listen, learn and communicate. We can help them by learning what they need and would benefit from in their physical and social environments in order to achieve that status.
Excited, antsy, energetic, bouncy, aroused
When children have difficulties communicating, it’s easy to misinterpret their behaviour and wrongly identify the cause. For example, a child with autism may display repetitive motor behaviour such as flapping or spinning but they may need this sensory stimulation to deal with extremes of excitement and arousal as much as they do when overwhelmed by other emotions.
We all experience stress during our daily lives but for many autistic people the experience of stress can feel very intense and cause severe difficulties.
Like many young people with autism, my son has been experiencing anxiety related to an overly-literal understanding of what it means to follow school rules and when he is faced with an unplanned change both inside and outside the school setting. He has a very narrow view of what it means to be in the correct uniform or be on time for lessons or appointments. When he is feeling stressed he will rock on his feet, pace the floor and ask repetitive questions. In these situations, he finds it difficult to respond to any reassurance.
Together with his Speech and Language therapist (‘SLT’) and Occupational therapist (‘OT’) we have been using some strategies to help him. We have taught him that the concept of feeling overwhelmed means either too many feelings all at once or a very strong reaction to a situation. He can now use this word to express how he is feeling. He has been taught a format for identifying the worry and setting out actions to help resolve it. The actions relate to what he can think, say or do to make things better. We’ve taught him the phrase self talk and he is beginning to understand what a trusted adult would do or say to him in that situation to help and to use this as self talk. We are sharing this work with his teachers and support staff to ensure a consistent approach to talking about worries and solutions.
On the suggestion of my son’s OT we are trialling a tactical breathing programme developed for the military and emergency services to use in times of extreme stress. We wanted to have activities that were discreet and applicable to the classroom environment. Tactical breathing is a great strategy as no one needs to know that he’s doing it and he can use it to prepare for stressful situations as well as once he is feeling stressed. We’ve incorporated tactical breathing into an anxiety busting resource for him called the 3 O’s- Overwhelmed, OT, OK.
One of the resources we’re using is a simple free app called ’Tactical Breather’ which I’ve downloaded onto his phone so it’s readily to hand for stressful situations. I’m also encouraging him to use his phone to record worries and solutions so that these can be kept and built up to form a ‘library’ of helpful strategies for managing situations.
It is hoped that over time and with continued support in this area he will become more able to self soothe and manage his anxiety. Incidentally, studies have shown that stress levels of mothers of kids with autism are similar to that of combat soldiers. Perhaps I should download that app for myself too!