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Your TomTag guide to an autism-tastic Christmas

green square background with text "Your TomTag guide to an autism-tastic Christmas

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.

For example…

  • 🏘 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 practice 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

Coming up on 30th November

Useful resources:

  • cover image sticker pack christmas & birthdays

    Christmas & birthdays

  • cover image download christmas

    Christmas survival guide

  • cover image what to expect at christmas kit

    I know what to expect at Christmas & birthdays

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Coping with a family Christmas for an anxious teen with autism


For my son, Tom, thinking about our family Christmas meal is causing him anxiety. Spending time together and creating memories over a shared meal – it’s what many people love about Christmas – but it’s not so easy for an anxious teen with autism. Continue reading Coping with a family Christmas for an anxious teen with autism

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Surviving Christmas with help from TomTag

Christmas is a magical and exciting time but for many children with autism and other SEN, the festive period can be anything but wonderful.

Changes in routine, a house pulsating with flashing Christmas lights and a steady stream of visitors can be too overwhelming and lead to sensory overload, anxiety, distress and confusion.
Making adjustments that help your child cope better at this time of the year will hopefully allow them and all the family to have a more enjoyable and relaxing experience.
It’s also a good opportunity to work on important social skills that can be transferred to other situations at different times of the year as well.

my daily routineJust another day

Keeping to the same familiar routines as much as possible, even on Christmas Day, can be key to helping things run more smoothly. There are no rules to say things have to be done a certain way so do whatever suits your family best.

It’s sometimes not possible to avoid some disturbance or change to the regular schedule at this time of year. Children who struggle with changes to routine can find this very unsettling. If they use a visual schedule at home or school, this is a great way to make sure they know about (and can prepare themselves for) anything different that’s going to happen.

If different or unusual foods are likely to be an issue, think about preparing and freezing your child’s favourite meal ahead of the big day so that it’s easy to serve alongside everyone else’s dinner and gives you one thing less to worry about.

decorations and christmas symbolsDecorations

Flashing lights, glittery objects and jingling bells all around the house are natural triggers for sensory overload. Let your child help to choose the decorations you buy and put up and consider decorating gradually over a few days so they are not overwhelmed immediately. Make sure to leave some areas of the house undecorated so there’s always somewhere for the child to retreat if needed.

Be aware of sensory triggers such as balloons, Christmas crackers, party poppers, festive music – consider using headphones or ear defenders at parties, carol concerts or similar events if sudden or loud noises are disturbing.  

Use an “All about Christmas” symbol list or simple social story to support a conversation with your child to familiarise them with all the different things they can expect to find at Christmas time.

Social expectations

family visits tagsChristmas 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 you’re going to parties, visiting family and friends, church services, etc.

Maybe even keep a separate tag as a checklist to show all the family members they may be meeting and what an appropriate social contact might be for each group (eg. hugs are ok for family, hand shake for friends, etc.).

There’ll be lots of opportunities to teach social skills such as learning to greet visitors appropriately and saying please and thank you. Include relevant symbols in your visit schedule list or use another tag that you keep handy for a discreet reminder of social behaviour rules.

Presents

Many children with autism don’t particularly like surprises and aren’t good at faking delight if they get an unwanted gift. Some may prefer to have their presents left unwrapped or, if they do like the unwrapping part, they might want you to tell them what’s inside first.

They may also be overwhelmed by a large number of presents in one go. Try introducing them one at a time over the day (or several days) or adopt an advent calendar-style approach, bringing out a small gift each day in the run up to Christmas.

Don’t forget to put batteries in toys in advance so that they can be played with straight away!

Relax!

Above all, remember that this is your Christmas as well. Get as much support from family and friends as possible and share out the workload wherever you can. Get children involved by giving them jobs to do which will keep them occupied and give them something to focus on.

We used the kit I know what to expect at Christmas & birthdays for the examples here. We know it can be a particularly taxing and stressful time of year for our loved ones with extra sensory and emotional needs, so there’s also an expanded version of the basic kit available which includes additional tags and blank buttons plus a Feelings & Emotions sticker pack. We call this our Christmas survival kit

This guide is available as a free downloaded using the link below.

  • cover image sticker pack christmas & birthdays

    Christmas & birthdays

  • cover image download christmas

    Christmas survival guide

  • cover image what to expect at christmas kit

    I know what to expect at Christmas & birthdays

 

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Coping with going shopping

sensory overload tags

Many shopping experiences can be extremely difficult to cope with for autistic individuals and those who care for them. Changes to routine, difficult social interactions with strangers and overwhelming sensory experiences are just some of the issues that can cause stress, anxiety, fear and meltdowns.

So why do we bother?

general shopping prep tagWe all need food to eat and clothes to wear so going shopping is a necessary and important part of our lives. Online shopping  can offer us a great alternative to physically leaving the house and going to the shops but it isn’t always the best way to get what we need or the ideal long term solution.

Shopping can help us develop good life skills. We need to plan and organise to make shopping lists or know which shops to visit.  We need to understand money and budgets. Having strategies to cope with social experiences and sensory problems can increase our independence, reduce isolation and help us to be part of a community.

Start planning early

shoe shop what to expect tagUse a visual routine chart to introduce the idea of your shopping trip. Go at a quieter time of day or week if possible and give as much warning of the upcoming trip as you can. Sneaking in a last minute or surprise visit is best avoided. 

You can use your visual chart to show how you will get there (e.g. car then walk), what sort of shop you are going to and what you need to buy. If you regularly use the same route or transport, try to stick to it or make sure you explain the change of route with visual prompts.

What’s going to happen?

Set up another visual list with more detail about what to expect in the kind of shop you are visiting. For example, at the supermarket you need to put things in a trolley or basket, walk together, queue at the checkout, put the shopping in a bag, then pay.
This preparation is particularly useful when shopping for clothes and shoes which can both be especially challenging shopping experiences. Preparing a simple social story and using a visual timeline will help you to talk about why we need to do this kind of shopping, what’s going to happen when you get there and what it might feel like.  

Ask and answer questions

Why do we take our clothes and shoes off here but not in other shops or public places? Why does the shop assistant get close and possibly touch us when they need to find out what size we need?

Use the time before you go to ask and answer these sort of questions and think about the strategies you and your child can use to help them stay calm. You could even try some role-playing at home too. 

Remember to take your TomTag visual prompt to the shops with you and use it as a reminder of the process once you’re there.

Sensory overload

sensory overload tags

Bright white lights, rows of brightly coloured objects, background music, strong smells and noisy crowds make supermarkets and shopping centres some of the most likely places to trigger sensory overload, leading to meltdowns and consequent behaviour issues.

Try using ear plugs or defenders to dampen noise and dark glasses or peaked caps to reduce the light intensity. Avoid strong smelling areas of shops such as washing powder aisles or perfume sections.

Keep a visual list handy so your child can show you what they are having problems with (too bright, too noisy, too smelly, thirsty, hungry, etc.) and pair it with a list of strategy symbols (deep breathe, count to 10, need to leave, etc.) that you can use to remind them of suitable self-help solutions.

Keep them busy

shopping list checklistGiving your child the responsibility for finding items on your shopping list is a great way to avoid boredom and focus their energy. You can also make up games to keep them interested; for example, be the first to find 3 items on your list and turn the symbol over when you find them.
Involving children in helping to prepare the shopping list at home before you go can also be a useful way to encourage engagement and interest.
You might want to take a favourite toy or fidget or let them use a computer tablet or phone as a distraction as well.

Make your own planners and checklists

We used the kit I know what to expect going shopping with the optional symbol packs My shopping list and Shopping for clothes & shoes but TomTag is a versatile system with the flexibility to choose from a range of toolkits or put together your own combination of components and symbol sets. Links to all products below.

This guide is also available as a free download using the link below.

  • cover image sticker pack at the shops

    At the shops

  • 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

  • product cover help at shops

    I can do it – help at the shops

  • I can do it – independent living

  • cover image what to expect going shopping

    I know what to expect going shopping

  • cover image sticker pack my shopping list

    My shopping list

  • cover image sticker pack out & about

    Out & about

  • cover image sticker pack shopping for clothes and shoes

    Shopping for clothes & shoes

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TomTag: your stories – Elizabeth

We learn a great deal from listening to our customers about their experiences with TomTag. It’s always interesting to find out about the different ways they use our products and wonderful to hear how it often makes such a real difference to their lives.

We thought it might be helpful to share some of those experiences and ideas with you too so we’ve interviewed a number of our customers who have been kind enough to talk about their different stories and backgrounds with us.

First up is Elizabeth, a childminder from London, and mum to two girls aged 4 and 12. 

Why did you purchase TomTag?

I bought TomTag to use with my daughters as both girls are on the autistic spectrum. Although they are both verbal and relatively high functioning they still need some support with their daily life activities.

I’d describe my youngest daughter as being in a permanent ‘fight or flight’ mode, always needing reassurance about what to expect during the day. The eldest has executive functioning issues and needs support to help her sequence activities and with organisation.

Did you use any other type of visual supports before you tried TomTag?

I used to make my own picture timetables and sequences. It was very time consuming having to print off the pictures, laminate them and then attach them to Velcro. My youngest daughter really didn’t like the Velcro system so when I saw TomTag advertised in Aukids magazine I decided to give them a try.

So, how do you use it?

In lots of different ways! 

For my younger daughter I have set up:

 

 

  • daily timetables that I create by prominently displaying 3 tags on hooks on the fridge (and also in the other rooms where she needs to use them) to show her what her morning, afternoon and evening routines should be
  • a toilet routine reminder hanging in the bathroom which is a simple picture sequence checklist to break the routine down into small steps.
  • social story resources to help prepare for things like visits to the doctor and hairdresser. I explain what’s going to happen and the order of events whilst we look at the pictures together.

My elder daughter uses TomTag for: 

Younger child tag examples

How has TomTag helped your children?

My little one finds TomTag very comforting. She feels in control of her day now and is less anxious about what is going to happen next. Seeing her routine in pictures also helps with teaching her sequences and time concepts. She loves the ‘hands on’ system – she particularly enjoys clicking the buttons in and out!

My older daughter finds TomTag really helps with her organisational skills. She feels less anxious at school knowing she has all the right things with her. She also likes the ’hands on’ nature of TomTag and she’s now started taking responsibility for planning and organising her day. For example, when she started going to choir as an after school activity, she changed her tag by herself to show this change of routine.

I’ve also found the tips and advice for teaching life skills on your website very helpful.

Do you have any suggestions for how we could make TomTag even better?

The range of images supplied in the various sticker packs is generally good. I have used the blank stickers to draw some personalised images – an umbrella, keys and phone charger.

I think there could be some additional ‘days out’ type images e.g. summer fair, fun fair, adventure park or castle. Perhaps a jumbo version of the tags and buttons would be useful for children who have sight problems but I appreciate the product would not then be as portable!

Overall I think TomTag is a wonderful product and it has really made life easier for both my daughters.

Thank you Elizabeth for sharing your story and for giving us some insightful tips on how TomTag works in your home.

Follow the highlighted links in the interview to find out more details about all the products used by Elizabeth and her family.

Would you like to share your story with us?

All it takes is a short chat with us on the ‘phone, ideally send us a few pics of your TomTags in use then just leave the rest to us. It’s easy to get in touch with us, all the details are on our Contact Us page. 

 

 

 

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TomTag life skill – appointments

Fear of the unexpected, communication difficulties and sensory processing issues are some of the reasons why going to appointments at the doctor, dentist or hairdresser can be challenging and distressing for people with autism.

In this blog, we’ll look at how you can help your child prepare for health-related appointments and develop the skills and strategies to cope with and understand these events to improve their long-term health and well-being.

I know what to expect at appointments can help you prepare for visits to the doctor, dentist, optician, hospital, therapist or hairdresser. Here are some  strategies that can be adapted to take into account your child’s level of understanding and individual needs and will hopefully make these visits more bearable for everyone.

doctor symbolPrepare                                                                        

See if you can arrange some ‘friendly’ visits before the actual appointment so that your child can become familiar with the surroundings – perhaps they can be shown the equipment that is used, sit in the chair, etc. This will help to de-sensitise your child and can flag up issues you may not have considered so that you can address them before going to the real appointment. It will also give you an opportunity to explain to the professional about the particular needs of your child and tell them some of the things they can do to help.

It’s a good idea to try to schedule appointments for when your child is likely to be at their best and when the surgery or salon is quietest – appointments early in the day are often a good choice and you’re less likely to be kept waiting from earlier bookings running over.


comb hair symbolFamiliarise

Try out some role-play at home to start with. See if your child will let you put your hand in their mouth to count their teeth before going to the dentist. Show what happens at the hairdressers by sitting them in front of a mirror with a towel around the neck to comb their hair.

For many children it can be helpful to watch another person having the experience first to get an insight into what to expect. Make a video or take your child along with you when a sibling or friend needs a hair cut or doctor’s check-up. Showing them getting a small treat or reward afterwards is a good incentive too!


hair cut symbolVisualise                                                  

Prepare a visual support (like TomTag) that you can use to explain the order of events and what is likely to happen during the visit. Talk through the events with your child before you go to help reduce their anxiety about what to expect and take the support with you so that you can refer to it again once you’re there.

 


reading story symbolRead it

You might want to try writing a short social story to explain what usually happens on a visit to the hairdressers, dentist, etc. or find basic story books about the subject. We found the Topsy and Tim series particularly popular with Tom!

Check out Living Well With Autism for lots of free downloadable visual support and social story ideas for dentist visits and this lovely story Suzie goes to the hairdresser from Suzie Books.


show and tell symbolCommunication

Talk to the professional you are visiting about the Tell – Show – Do approach,  a technique often used by dentists with young patients to help reduce fear and anxiety about dental examinations.

First they should TELL your child what they are going to do using clear and simple language, supporting verbal language with visual supports if necessary (remember to take TomTag with you!). Next they SHOW the equipment and action involved – a dentist might lightly touch his scraper on the back of the child’s hand to demonstrate the sensation, for example. Now they are ready to DO the action for real.

The Toothpick blog have teamed up with Anna Kennedy to compile a list of autism friendly dental practices in the UK that are recommended by other parents.


well done symbolSensory sensitivities

There will be many potential sensory triggers in these unfamiliar environments that can cause your child anxiety and stress. They’ll be experiencing unusual sounds and smells, there will be strangers in close proximity and the professional will most likely need to touch parts of the child’s body. Bring headphones or music if noises are upsetting and favourite comforting items such as toys, books or computer games. Letting your child know how long the appointment is going to last using some sort of timer might also help.


Ask staff to praise your child immediately and ignore any inappropriate behaviour. Try and stay as calm as possible yourself and use a reassuring, steady voice to help your child relax and get through the experience.

For a more detailed look at strategies, the National Autistic Society have some useful information sheets to help children with autism prepare for trips to the hairdresserdoctor or dentist.

If you’re interested in creating your own TomTag visual supports for appointments  please click on the products listed below.

  • cover image sticker pack haircuts and health checks

    Haircuts & health checks

  • cover image kit at appointments

    I know what to expect at appointments

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TomTag life skill – shopping

help at the shops tag image 2

Shopping with my son, who has autism, was often the stuff of nightmares! Confused, frustrated and overwhelmed by the bright lights, strong smells and noisy crowds he would scream, run for the exit knocking over displays, leaving a trail of destruction and disapproving glares from other shoppers in his wake. 

Shopping online seemed to be the only solution – why would anyone put their  child (and themselves!)  through this challenge on a regular basis? Put simply, a shopping trip can help develop life skills. The need to plan and organise; the necessity of buying food and the pleasure of choosing what you want to eat; interacting with others – all things I felt were essential and that he deserved for his future.

So, how can you change a shopping trip from a nightmare into a positive, dare I say it, maybe even a fun experience? Here are some of the strategies that we used.

Be prepared

Shopping visual timeline examplesVisual timelines

Create timelines using TomTag to show the different stages of a shopping trip and make sure to talk through them with your child before you go. Knowing what to expect can greatly help to reduce anxiety and stress for a child with autism. The amount of detail needed in your timeline will vary with each child. Use FIRST – THEN prompts in a single tag at the simplest level or link 2 tags together to create a more detailed shopping trip sequence like the ones shown here.

Routine

For my son, the route to the shops was really important to his routine too – try to stick to the same one each time if possible to help prevent distress before you even get to the shops! Include the route or what transport you will use in your timeline as well.

Don’t forget to include a visual prompt to define that there will be a point when the shopping trip will finish too (maybe the home symbol, for example) – cue relief all round!

Make a list

shopping list checklist

Shopping with a list is a good discipline for anyone to adopt. It can save us time and money as we’re more likely to only buy the things we really need.

You can introduce different skills by involving your child in preparing your shopping list. They can learn to budget and prioritise by only including the items that are needed for a meal or recipe. Perhaps they want something that’s not on the list – maybe offer to add it next time if they are good this time to teach delayed gratification.

Taking a prepared list will also help to keep a child engaged whilst shopping as they search for and check things off their list. They’re learning to be responsible and it helps them to realise they can have a role to play in everyday family tasks.

Educate

shopping counting skillsShopping provides a wealth of educational opportunities. Here are just a few examples:

Matching – finding items on the shelf that match the items on their list.

Counting – use a different coloured tag to show how many of each item you need to buy and have them put the right number into the trolley, like this example using apples and oranges.

Calculating – working out the best value choice often involves quite complex calculations, particularly with 3-for-2, half price and BOGOFs (buy one get one free) to compare!

Making healthy choices – reading and understanding food labels is a key starting point to being able to select healthier options.

Sensory considerations

Loud sounds, overwhelming smells and flickering lights can be particularly confusing and frightening for a child with sensory issues. If your child has trouble processing light or noises then provide some sensory armour such as sunglasses, ear defenders or a baseball cap to reduce the potential of sensory overload.

Keep a visual list handy so your child can show you what they are having problems with (too bright, too noisy, thirsty, hungry etc.). Pair it with a list of strategy symbols (deep breath, count to 10, need to leave, etc.) that remind them of suitable self-help solutions.

Behaviour

Allowing for any sensory issues, explain the expectations for behaviour when going shopping and inside shops. Be prepared that your child may not get it right first time, or every time – be patient, practice and remember to praise them when things do go well.

Prepare a visual prompt and talk through the rules before you go. Take the tag with you as a handy reminder should you need it when you’re out and about.

Role play

shoe shop what to expect tagShopping for shoes and clothes with a child with autism can often be particularly difficult and require specific explanation of what to expect before you go.

Try role playing the shopping experience at home first. For example, if you need to shop for shoes you’ll most likely need to get their feet measured as well. Practice having your child let you take off their shoes and touch their feet as the assistant in the shop might do. This will help you know what triggers any specific reaction and then prepare for how to deal with it.

Use a visual timeline to help you talk about what’s going to happen. Take it with you to use as a reminder of the process once you’re there.

John Lewis have recently introduced an autism-friendly shoe fitting service in some of their stores. Do you know of any other local or national shops offering this kind of service to autism families that you’d like to recommend?

Resources

For a more detailed look at strategies to help children with autism cope with shopping trips see this great resource from the National Autistic Society.

If you want to make your own schedules and checklists like the ones  shown in the examples here have a look at the kits and symbol packs listed below.

  • cover image sticker pack at the shops

    At the shops

  • 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

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    I can do it – help at the shops

  • I can do it – independent living

  • cover image what to expect going shopping

    I know what to expect going shopping

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    My shopping list

  • cover image sticker pack out & about

    Out & about

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    Shopping for clothes & shoes

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TomTag life skill of the month – Sleepovers – Jan 2016

LIFE SKILL JAN sleepoversSleepovers –  or more accurately ‘stay up late, midnight feast, pillow fights and no-sleep’-overs! First sleepovers are a big step for most kids anyway and can be a particularly daunting prospect and social minefield for children with autism (and their parents!).

Of course, you are the best person to gauge when your child might be ready for their first sleepover or night away and there’s usually no reason to rush this. There may be unavoidable times though when your child needs to stay away from home for other reasons – parental separation, overnight respite or a hospital stay, for example. If skills have already been practiced or preparations made, dealing with an emergency visit could be a lot less stressful for everyone involved.

Careful planning and thorough preparation is the key to ensuring your child’s overnight stay has more chance of being a successful and happy experience. Using your TomTag button holders and our In the house and Staying away from home symbols, you can create handy visual supports that will help prepare your child and ease any anxieties about their next stay away from home, wherever that may be.

Here are our top tips for sleepover success but we’d love to hear your stories and advice too!

Plan, plan and plan again

sleeping bagsleepover 1Ask the host parent questions about meal plans, activities and where your child will sleep and use this information to prepare your child as much as possible.

Try role playing events such as getting up in the night for the toilet or asking for a drink. Social stories are a great resource that help explain what your child can expect in common social situations. Read A Parents Guide to Social Stories from the ‘Normal Enough’ blog for a great explanation about creating your own, including a brilliant example of a sleepover story.

** UPDATE ** Normal Enough blog link broken – try these ideas from Child-Autism-Parent-Cafe

You might also want to try using a visual timeline like this one to show your child what to expect.

Do a test run

bed time

Everything’s easier second time around, right?

Invite a friend for an overnight stay at your home so that your child gets used to how a sleepover works in a familiar environment. Then perhaps try again at the home of a close family member.

Hopefully these practice runs will help iron out any anxieties and give your child confidence for the real thing.

Make an escape plan

car

Let your child know that it’s ok to call you and come home if they need to at any time. If your child is feeling anxious or scared, it’s better that they know they can come home and try again another time than stay feeling worried and be put off the idea for good.

 

 

All about me

mobile phoneShare as much relevant information as possible about your child with the host parent before the event. Make sure they have your correct telephone number and ideally a back-up number to call as well just in case.

Include details of any medical needs, allergies and potential challenges or sensory triggers such as loud noises or food preferences. Your advice on strategies for comforting your child at bedtime and handling any flare ups will help the sleepover run more smoothly.

Time to pack

packsleepover 2Don’t forget to pack a favourite blanket, toy or book – anything that makes the child feel comfortable which will help ease any anxiety. Ask the host parent to let your child keep to their familiar bedtime routine as much as they want to.

TomTag is perfect for making a packing checklist of all the items they need to take and a handy reminder when they need to bring everything home again too!

 

Keep trying

thank youIf at first you don’t succeed – keep trying!

Let your child know you’re proud of them for giving it a go even if they needed to bail out. Tell them it’s not a failure if they did come home early and that with more practice it will get easier. Talk through what any difficulties were and make an action plan for next time.

Remember to thank the host friend and parents for helping and let them know how much you value their support.

 

 

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TomTag life skill of the month – coping with Christmas – Dec 2015

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year” – but not for everyone.

LIFE SKILL dec coping with christmasChristmas can be a magical and exciting time but for many children with autism the festive period is anything but wonderful. Changes in routine, a house pulsating with flashing Christmas lights and a steady stream of visitors can be overwhelming and lead to sensory overload, anxiety, distress and confusion.

Making adjustments to help your child cope better with this time of the year will hopefully allow all the family to have a more enjoyable experience. It can also provide some valuable learning experiences that help to build those all-important social skills.

We’ve introduced a Christmas and Birthdays sticker pack that contains useful symbols to help you prepare for the festive season and other celebrations. Here are our tips for using these visual supports along with some simple strategies.christmas tag 1

christmas 1Just another day

Keep to the same familiar routines as much as possible, even on Christmas Day. There’s no rules to say things have to be done a certain way – do it the way that suits your family best. If different or unusual foods might be an issue, think about preparing and freezing your child’s favourite meal ahead of time so it’s easy to serve alongside everyone else’s dinner.


christmas 2No surprises

It won’t be possible (or necessarily desirable) to avoid disturbances to routine at home or school altogether. Children who struggle with changes to routine can find this very unsettling but you can use a visual timeline like the example here to prepare them for when something unexpected will be happening.


christmas 3Decorations

Flashing lights, glittery objects and jingling bells can all spark sensory overload. Let your child help to choose the decorations you buy and put up and consider decorating gradually over a few days so they are not overwhelmed immediately. Make sure to leave some areas of the house undecorated so there’s always somewhere for the child to retreat to if necessary.

Use symbols showing items traditionally associated with the event to make an “All about Christmas” list that can help familiarise your child with what to expect.


christmas 4Social expectations

christmas tag 2Christmas is usually a time of increased social contact and events with family and friends. Use TomTag as a scheduler to help your child prepare for visitors to the house or for visits to family and perhaps keep a separate tag as a checklist to show all the family members they may be meeting.

We’ve also included symbols that can be used to reinforce positive social behaviour. Build a tag to use as a reminder for how to greet visitors to the house or to remind them when to say please and thank you.


christmas 5Presents

Many children with autism struggle with surprises and aren’t good at faking delight if they get an unwanted gift. You could leave their presents unwrapped or if they like unwrapping gifts tell them what’s inside first.

They may also be overwhelmed by a large number of presents – try introducing them one at a time or even adopting an advent calendar-style approach, letting them open a small gift each day in the run up to Christmas.

Don’t forget to put batteries in toys in advance so that they can be played with straight away!


christmas 6

Relax!

Above all, try to remember that this is your Christmas as well. If you’re in a good mood and happy, those around you are more likely to be too. Try to share out the workload – try out our Food & Drink stickers and enlist some help with peeling and chopping all that veg!

 

Other resources

The NAS has compiled a list of tips to help you through the festive period.

Do you have any great tips you can share?

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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 sticker pack feelings & emotions

    Feelings & emotions

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    Feelings tag-o-meter

  • I can do it – manage my feelings

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    I can do it – share how I feel

  • cover image product feelings notebook

    My TomTag Feelings Notebook