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
My autistic son Tom (the inspiration for TomTag visual schedules) struggles with changes to his routines. His autism means that he perceives the world differently to other people. For him, the world can often seem a strange, unpredictable, and confusing place. It is understandable why he craves the stability and predictability of repetitive routines and activities, and the comfort of familiar food. However, as a wise man once said, the only constant in life is change. Learning how to be flexible and less rigid about routines is a crucial life skill. It is one that Tom has developed over the years, with the help of visual supports.
Visual schedules are a great tool for teaching flexibility around changes to routines. This may seem surprising – surely a schedule means sticking to a repetitive routine? However, it’s not the visual schedule that makes changes to a routine difficult but the way it is used.
In this blog, I’d like to share with you an approach you can use with TomTag visual schedules to help your child be less rigid and more tolerant of changes to their routines.
Use a schedule
Make sure that your child understands how their schedule works and uses it regularly. If your child doesn’t understand their schedule or use it regularly then it is unrealistic to expect them to deal with changes to it.
A TomTag I am flexible tag is a great way to introduce your child to changes to routines when used alongside their normal routine tag. Using the format ‘instead of‘ … ‘I am flexible’… is a simple visual way to familarise your child with a proposed change in their routine.
Words can have a powerful effect. I am flexible is a positive affirmation that will give your child a sense of achievement and boost their self esteem.
Start with positive changes
Start with something positive, for example, a change to a preferred activity or food choice.
In the examples shown- sand play instead of inside play, fish fingers instead of pizza (go with the preferred activities/ food choices for your child!)
Start with a change that is not upsetting. This also reinforces the idea that a change does not always have to be negative.
Giving initial warnings
Although the aim is to get to a stage when you don’t have to give warnings about changes – life is unpredictable after all – you shouldn’t expect your child to immediately accept changes without doing the necessary groundwork.
Like all new skills, the best way to learn is to break the skill down into small sequential steps.
Refer to their morning schedule tag and show them the proposed change. In this example, if their morning routine shows inside play then show them the I am flexible tag with the new play activity at the earliest opportunity e.g. before breakfast.
Ask them to change the activity on their schedule to the new activity themselves. Our symbol packs include 2 copies of every symbol so you don’t have to worry about running out of symbols. Their morning schedule tag now shows the new activity.
Keep the I am flexible tag handy. Depending on your child’s level of understanding, a short verbal explanation of why the change has taken place would also be helpful.
Give another warning just before the changed activity happens. Show your child the I am flexible tag to reinforce your verbal warning. This will help them remember the change and prepare for it.
Praise and encouragement
Praise your child specifically for handling the change well using supportive positive statements like, “I like how well you managed it when we changed the schedules” or “Change can be hard, but you are doing a great job!”
Saying “You are so brave handling that change in the schedule without getting upset!” is particularly useful if your child is very anxious about change.
Try not to say “See it wasn’t so bad was it!” as this could belittle your child’s genuine feelings of anxiety about changes and make them feel anxious about having these feelings.
Fade the warnings
Once your child can manage changes to their routines with warnings, start moving the warnings nearer to the time when the actual change is going to happen.
So in the example tags I have used above, you could move the warning about the change of play activity to later in the morning.
Make sure that your child’s schedule is always accurate.
Being prepared makes changes to routines so much easier to manage. It also keeps the schedule consistent so your child knows they can rely on it.
I hope you find this approach useful in helping your child learn to accept and manage changes to their routine.
Want to make your own schedules, routines and I am flexible tags like the ones shown in the examples here or need more advice before getting started on introducing routines or changes to routines? Take a look at the resources below or get in touch with Clare via our contact page.
Set your child up well for later life by by helping them learn a life skill such as household chores when they’re young (and eager!).
Children learn how to look after themselves and their home and become familiar with concepts such as teamwork and the discipline of routine. Household chores can also be a way to improve self-worth and encourage independence for the future.
We all like the feeling that we can help! Make use of the increased shared time we are having together at the moment and give your child a sense of pride and accomplishment at being able to contribute and enjoy some time with you.
TomTag is an ideal tool for teaching a life skill such as household chores. Here’s some ideas from our Help at Home kit of how you might use it :-
Use a set of tags to give step-by-step instructions for cleaning different rooms in the house.
Label a tag with the name of each child and list the chores they need to complete that day/week.
List the jobs you want completing on separate tags. Let each child pick a tag out of a hat to find out what their task is.
Start them young
Building good habits from an early age always makes things easier in the long run. Children as young as 2 years old can pick up their own toys, put dirty clothes in a washing basket and wield a duster.
Make it fun
Turning tasks into a game always makes things more fun. Turn the radio up and dance while hoovering, shout out colour names when sorting laundry or let kids compete to be the first to tidy their room (to your standard!).
The right chores
This will naturally depend on your child’s age and developmental level. You’ll find plenty of guides online but you’re the best judge of what your child’s ready for. Watering plants is always a favourite in our house. Who doesn’t like pouring water! Build up gradually to the more difficult tasks so they don’t get frustrated if they can’t complete the task independently. Our Pinterest Household Chores board has lots of ideas for age-appropriate chores.
A family affair
Set a good example by making sure that everyone helps out – in an age-appropriate way. If you child is old enough, involve them in a family discussion to decide who should do what around the house. Offer options so that children can choose the jobs they prefer. If no-one wants to do a particular task (such as cleaning the toilet!), use a rota system so that everyone takes a turn.
Praise and encouragement
Don’t expect perfection, especially at first or if they are very young. Praise those things they did well and they’ll feel proud of what they got right and motivated to do the job again next time. Tell them how much it helped you and they’ll feel they are making an important contribution to the family.
This will depend on your own family values and views but if you want to add an extra incentive, chores can be linked to giving pocket money or earning other treats. Use a blank sticker to add a £ button to each chore checklist, like this one for helping out at mealtimes and doing the dishes.
Getting dressed independently is an important life skill for autistic children. Teaching dressing skills to my autistic son required a lot of time, practice, and patience.Putting on clothes in the right order, fastening buttons and zips and tying shoelaces involves mastering many skills. Add sensory triggers into the mix and it is easy to see why it took him longer to develop dressing skills compared with other children his age.
However, it is worth the effort. Being able to get dressed by themselves gives autistic children confidence to function independently at school and it’s one less thing for you to worry about in the mornings!
Now is the perfect time for your autistic child to start developing their dressing skills. With schools closed, there’s no pressure to get everyone fed, dressed and out of the front door in the morning so there’s plenty of time to practice at your child’s own pace.
Getting dressed takes a lot of motor skills that autistic children may need time to develop. Balance and co-ordination of movements are needed to get their limbs in all the right places. Fine motor skills help them deal with many types of fastenings.
Improving motor skills does not have to be boring! Here are some activities you can do at home with your child to make practice fun.
Practice balance by making a line on the floor and step with one foot in front of the other like “tightrope walking”. You could make it more interesting by pretending that they are walking a tightrope across a river full of snapping crocodiles!
Work on fine motor skills with a hidden treasure hunt. Fill a tub with rice or another pulse and hide small objects such as cars, or small figures and ask your child to find them. Sand play and messy play are also activities which practice fine motor skills.
Therapy putty is ideal for developing the hand strength needed to manipulate clothing and fastenings.
Use a TomTag visual list to help your child choose their preferred activity. Our new Early Years Activities sticker pack has lots of activities that make fine motor skill practice part of playtime.
Once you’re ready to practice dressing try ‘backward chaining‘ . This method lets the child feel accomplished every time. They start with the last step then work backward from there.
Little changes can make a big difference in reducing your child’s frustrations while dressing. Here are some things you can do to make things easier for them.
Choose trousers or skirts with elasticated waists where possible and opt for loose fitting items with velcro or large buttons which are easier to put on than tight fitting ones.
Use a simple visual checklist like TomTag showing what order each item of clothing should be put on. You could also lay the clothes out in the shape of a body to help with visualisation.
Offer a choice, “ you can wear the blue shirt or the red shirt”.
Lay out clothes the night before, making sure they are the right side out.
Organise the wardrobe separating play clothes, school clothes and ‘going out’ clothes
Begin with large, short socks that slip more easily over the feet.
Show your child how to scrunch longer socks up first before pulling them on
Socks with colored heels make it easier to get them the right way round. We love the brightly coloured Ez Socks from Special Kids Company that also have handy pull up loops.
Try Little Grippers school socks for socks that stay on – and up! – all day long.
Having a designated place for shoes will save valuable time spent hunting for them
Teach shoe tying with a step by step approach. The ‘bunny ears’ is a popular method and YouTube is an excellent resource for demonstrations of this and other tying methods.
Start practising with different, larger types of coat.
If the sleeve by sleeve approach isn’t working try this flip flop over the top method wonderfully described by Connectability.ca – you might want to stand well back until they get better at this one though!
Attach a zip pull or a key ring to the zip to help with gripping the tab and make zipping easier.
Don’t forget to give plenty of praise to your child for their efforts at each stage and consider using a star chart to help them establish their routine.
Sensory and developmental issues
If your child is sensitive to clothing consider how to reduce their sensory triggers .
Check for labels and seams that might cause irritation and cut them out where possible. Wash clothes several times before wearing to help soften them.
The Sensory Smart Store started by a mum of an autistic boy with sensory processing disorder has a great range of clothes to help sensitive and sensory children and adults. Whilst EcoOutfitters offer school clothing made from 100% pure organic cotton.
Dressing in front of a mirror provides important visual cues that can help a child with sequencing, body planning and body awareness. If your child continues to have difficulty with dressing, a qualified occupational therapist should be able to help.
Have you any tips or experiences to share about teaching dressing skills? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
Play is one of the main ways that children learn and develop. There’s no reason why children with autism who use visual supports are any different. So why not bring play and fun games for children with autism into your visual supports too. To them they’re playing games, but you know that they’re getting some occupational therapy, speech activities and thinking skills thrown in. Games may also help children with autism engage more readily with using their visual supports. It’s a win-win!!
Here’s some of our ideas you could use to help your child engage with TomTag.
#1 Indoor I- Spy.
Stuck indoors? Why not encourage language and memory skills with a fun indoor I -Spy game.
🌈Ask you child to choose a colour tag and room in the house.
👀Can they look round that room and find, name or point to items that are the same colour?
✔Click a reward button into the tag for each item found.
😊Praise them for their effort and move onto another colour and room.
In the examples shown, we used stickers (rooms and stars) from our In the house sticker pack. We drew the other symbols onto blank stickers.
#2 Outdoor I-Spy
Use your daily walk to play I- Spy and spot things you may see in your city, town or village using a personalised TomTag checklist.
TomTag is also super portable and robust – ideal for taking with you when you’re out and about!
🗨Ask your child to suggest things they are likely to see on their walk – perhaps they can guess what order they will spot them in!
✍Make up the checklist together – we’ve used stickers from our Out and About sticker pack but you can just as easily draw or write on some blank stickers.
👀 On your walk, encourage your child to spot the things, find it on their tag and turn the button over. This shows they’ve seen that thing.
🧐Praise them for keeping their eyes open and being a good detective.
#3 Feelings & Emotions Charades
Help your child understand, recognise and express their feelings and emotions with a simple game of charades.
No Oscar winning performances required!
💬Talk to your child about the feelings and emotions included in the game – choose ones that your child needs some help with.
🤏 Jumble up the feelings and emotions symbol buttons and ask your child to choose one for you.
😀Act out the feeling or emotion shown. Can they guess it? If so, pop it in the tag otherwise have another go.
🔁Swap places and ask your child to act out the feeling or emotion for you to guess.
Practice sequencing skills with a simple game of “what happens next”.
This game can also help reinforce familiar daily routines so it’s a win-win for everyone!
Here’s how to play the TomTag way.
🤏Choose an activity sequence
🤔Jumble up the symbol buttons and ask your child to find the one they think they should come first, second etc.
✔Click them into the tag into that order and ask them to check it is correct.
🗣Call out an activity and ask them to find it in the tag and turn the button over to show they have completed the activity.
Depending on your child’s ability, you could take out a few of the steps and build up to the longer 6-step sequence. We’ve used symbol stickers from our two popular mini-kits: teeth brushing and morning and evening routine.
Do you have any tips for games you can play with your TomTag? Please let us know in the comments below.
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?
At the present time, we’re all facing unprecedented uncertainty. Now that schools are closed and we are stuck at home, families like ours are under a lot of stress. For children with autism, like Tom, this is a highly confusing and anxious time. Using a visual schedule at home will help to build a sense of consistency, predictability and security for him. In this blog we discuss the reasons why home visual schedules can help children with autism and how you can get started with using them.
Why should you use visual schedules at home?
Visual schedules at home can help you to communicate to your child when activities or events will happen throughout their day.
They use a sequence of drawings, symbols, text or pictures to show what a child is expected to do.
The more children can anticipate what is happening, the safer and more secure they will feel in these rapidly changing times.
Depending on your child’s developmental age, sit down each evening and try and plan out a rough schedule for the next day. Decide which activities for the day or part of the day you want to show. Choose the length of the schedule that you think will be appropriate for your child and adjust as necessary.
A simple daily visual schedule could include some education, fun activities and chill time (for them and you!) to help give some meaning and purpose to the day. If you’re interested in creating or using educational resources have a look at Twinkl and Education.com.
Try to replicate some elements of your child’s typical day. For example, encourage them to get dressed, brush their teeth, eat breakfast, etc. You could use a mini schedule to target these specific skills by breaking down a single activity into smaller steps.
Make sure the schedule includes things like bedtime, time for exercise and meals. You could also consider giving children a chore or job to do to help them feel useful. This could be as simple as clearing the table or putting away their clothes.
Setting aside time every day to do a family activity that you know helps everyone in times of stress is also important. This could be watching a movie or playing a game.
Worried about challenging behaviour?
Try starting with activities that your child usually does willingly. It makes sense to structure the day so that harder tasks are done first when children are likely to be more rested. After schoolwork or chores are complete you can follow with easier tasks as a reward for accomplishing the harder tasks.
A home visual timetable or schedule doesn’t have to be complicated– a simple written, maybe colour-coded, chart pinned on the wall so your children can see it and refer to it will do the trick.
Pancake day – it’s one of our favourite days of the year!
Tom loves pancakes and helping to make them. With inspiration from this great visual recipe guide from Widgit Software we’ve set up TomTag with appropriate visual prompts so he can follow the recipe with me. There’s definitely no prompts needed for eating them!
First we get out all the equipment
and then the ingredients
Then it’s time to follow the recipe
before choosing our favourite topping
Have fun making your pancakes – I know we did, yum-yum!!
Being able to create quick and healthy hot meals becomes increasingly important as children get older and need to learn skills for independent or supported living. Following simple recipes provides opportunities to work on reading and listening skills, sequencing, nutrition, hygiene and learning to use kitchen tools.
The key thing to remember is to start with recipes that are simple enough to follow with limited assistance, building up slowly to add in more complex skills over time.
With the additional symbols included in our Food & Drink Extended sticker pack, more confident or experienced learners can learn to prepare, cook and serve simple hot meals such as beans on toast, cheese on toast, hot sandwiches and egg recipes. This sticker pack is available as a stand-alone item or included in the In the Kitchen and Independent Living kits.
Cooking – learning life skills with TomTag
Don’t forget to use the opportunity to teach or reinforce rules about hygiene in the kitchen. We’ve included symbols for washing hands and wearing an apron but you could also use blank stickers to add reminders to wipe worktops or store food in the fridge, or use some of the symbols from our domestic chores Clean & Tidy pack.
Show the images for the utensils and food that will be needed to create the recipe you have chosen and check you have everything listed before you begin.
There are lots of skills required in the kitchen besides dealing with the food itself. Knowing how to turn cookers and ovens on and off correctly, taking appropriate precautions with hot equipment, learning safe use of sharp knifes and other utensils are all essential skills to be learnt before a young person can be left to cook unsupervised.
Build on these skills gradually and move on to the next stage only when the individual is ready and capable of showing the necessary responsibility.
Using a set of TomTag button holders and the symbols we’ve included in our Extended pack, you can quickly create step-by-step instructions for numerous simple recipes such as beans on toast, soup, sandwiches, eggs (scrambled, fried or boiled), cheese on toast and pasta with sauce.
Serve it up
Be sure to give compliments and praise and encourage them to keep building on their skills. Let them be the first to taste what they’ve made and ask for suggestions of what they’d like to try next.
Serving and sharing meals with others offers opportunities for practising communication and social skills too.
I’ll never forget the first time Tom made his own jammy toast. Okay, so there was more jam on the kitchen worktop than the toast, but the pride I could see on his face made the cleaning up instantly forgettable.
And the ‘nomination for the life skill that has made the most positive difference to my life to date‘ goes to …. drum roll, please …. Tom making his own hot chocolate on school mornings! I gain a few precious moments to enjoy my breakfast cuppa whilst it’s still relatively hot!
It’s sad but true that man (or boy) cannot live on jammy toast and hot chocolate alone. However, learning to make simple meals, a favourite hot drink or snack is a great starting point for developing independent life skills for older children or young adults with autism.
Here’s some of the ways we’d suggest for using this pack:
Step-by-step sequencing instructions for making breakfast, snacks, simple lunches or hot drinks.
List the food choices available to your child for breakfast, lunch and snacks.
List each family member’s food preference as a reminder to those preparing the food.
Whichever way you choose, here’s a few simple tips to follow.
Choosing the right tasks
Choose tasks that are appropriate to your child’s developmental level. Starter tasks might include washing fruit, cutting soft vegetables with plastic knives or spreading butter on toast (and work surfaces!).
Move on later to more complex tasks requiring greater motor skills, concentration and focus such as using a peeler, chopping with sharper knives or boiling a kettle.
Talking points, an opportunity for learning
Having children help make simple meals in the kitchen provides a natural opportunity for learning on a range of topics.
Teaching children to wash their hands and kitchen surfaces before preparing food or showing them safe ways to use knives helps them to understand the importance of kitchen safety and hygiene.
Practice reading and maths skills by comparing packet labels and counting or measuring out ingredients.
Talk about the effects our choice of food has on our health and lifestyle. Try out the NHS Change4Life Sugar Swaps app for a fun way to find out how much sugar is in our food and drinks.
A recipe for foodie fun
Research shows that repeated exposure to food increases a child’s willingness to eat. On average, children might need over a dozen exposures to a food before ever putting it in their mouth, even more for a child with sensory issues around food.
Cooking meals therefore provides low pressure, fun, sensory experiences. If children associate food with enjoyable experiences, they’re more likely to be receptive to trying new foods and eating healthily. Involving children in meal choices and preparation of simple meals can help to improve their eating habits and establish a healthy relationship with food.
Cookie cutters are brilliant for turning boring sandwiches into enticing nibbles. A selection of different coloured fruits or vegetables look great laid out to make a rainbow.
This play-dough cafe we set up when Tom was younger was a really fun way to engage him with the experience of food preparation. Tom plays the role of both chef and waiter, helping to develop his communication and social skills too.
Listen out for my most favourite comment of all from Tomas at the end “Please mummy, can we make our own food?”!
Praise, encouragement and letting go of the mess stress!
Be sure to give compliments, praise and lots of encouragement to your child to keep building on their skills. Let them be the first to taste what they’ve made and ask for suggestions of what they’d like to try next.
Having kids help out often means a bit more mess to clear up afterwards. Try to be patient and allow for a little extra mess whilst they’re still learning.