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Autism – understanding and managing anxiety

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.

stress

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!

Recommended products:

  • Back-to-School Self-Talk Prompt Sheet

  • Back-to-School Toolkit

  • Feelings & Emotions Sticker Pack

  • Feelings Tag-O-Meter

  • I Can Do It Learn At Home Kit

  • I Can Do It Manage My Feelings Kit

  • I Can Do It Share How I Feel Mini Kit

  • I Know What To Expect – My Vaccination Mini Kit

  • I Know What To Expect At Christmas & Birthdays Kit

  • I Know What To Expect At Home Kit

  • I Know What To Expect-My COVID Test Mini Kit

  • cover image product feelings notebook

    My TomTag Feelings Notebook

  • School Morning Routines

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Organisational skills for children with SEN

The phrase ‘special needs’ is a very generic term. Children with special needs are not only different from their so called ‘normal’ peers but they are also different from one another. Each child with special needs presents with a unique profile of strengths and weaknesses.

Organisational skills

A lack of organisational skills is the one challenge that the majority of children with special needs face. Coats go missing. Books and lunch boxes are forgotten. Hours are spent each month searching through the lost property box at school looking for gloves, scarves, gym kit and jumpers.

Organisational skills are a challenge for most SEN children because they have limited and inefficient internal structure. They are generally unable to organise their belongings, prioritize their actions or utilize their time efficiently to meet deadlines.  They also struggle with temporal (time related) concepts so they have difficulty assessing, for example, how much time it takes to get ready for school or finish homework.

Daily struggles

These organisational difficulties can put incredible strain on a family. As a parent of an autistic boy I know how frustrating it is when your child has organisational difficulties. I’m also aware how upsetting it is for Tomas to be constantly scolded and reprimanded for behaviours that are mainly out of his control. Tomas does not forget things because he is lazy or unmotivated. He has a neurological condition that means he struggles on a daily basis to make sense of the world we live in.

School morning organisation

Getting ready for school in a morning is a real test of organisational skills for any child. For a SEN child like Tomas the morning routine can be a source of extreme anxiety. There’s so much to remember – homework, lunch boxes, gym kit. Parents are also under pressure to leave on time and ensure that everyone has the right equipment for the day ahead.

Like many SEN children, Tomas is extraordinarily visual. He needs to see things in order to remember and organise them. If things are out of sight they are out of mind. Tomas’s visual strength was one of the sources of inspiration for TomTag (that’s why it’s named after him!). As TomTag clips easily to any school bag it is always to hand and the problem of misplacing the list is avoided.

Confidence and independence

Learning to pack a bag for school sounds simple but it requires skills and self confidence. Using TomTag as a prompt, Tomas has been able to learn over the last few years how to pack his school bag for himself. The fact that he is now able to pack independently for high school is a real testament to the success of TomTag. By giving him a consistent external tool to use he has learnt to overcome his minimal internal structure.

Teachers and parents benefit from children learning to pack a school bag independently. Fewer items are left in the infamous lost property box, morning routines are less stressful and for children like Tomas they are not only ready for school but have acquired important organisational skills which will pay dividends later in life.

Recommended products:

  • Back-to-School Toolkit

  • I Can Do It Brush My Teeth Mini Kit

  • I Can Do It Learn At Home Kit

  • I Can Do It Pack My Bag For School Kit

  • I Can Do It Self Care Skills Kit

  • I Know What To Expect – Morning and Evening Mini Kit

  • I Know What To Expect – Non-School Day Routines Mini Kit

  • I Know What To Expect At Home Kit

  • Learn At Home Sticker Pack

  • My School Kit Sticker Pack

  • Organising My School Bag

  • School Bag Packing Checklist

  • School Morning Routines

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Teach a child to pack for school

single tag sample
Choose a day when they only need a few items

How do you teach a reluctant child how to pack their own bag with all the right things they need for the day ahead and to bring it all home again?

Clare, whose own children learnt this important skill with TomTag, recommends the following simple steps:

1. Select one day when there are not many items to take to school. Use only one tag from the TomTag pack to make a list of the relevant items and activities for that day.

2. Set aside some time the night before to pack the bag with your child and attach TomTag to their bag. Praise your child for remembering and packing everything they need for the day.

3. Ask your child to repack their bag at school using TomTag as a reminder of what to bring home. Check their bag when they return from school and praise them when they have been successful in bringing the correct items home.

4. Ask the child to pack their bag on their own for the same day using TomTag as a visual reminder of what items are needed. Then check their bag for them. Praise your child’s success. If something is forgotten, refer back to the tag and repack.

5. Ask your child to repack their bag at school using TomTag as a reminder of what to bring home. Check their bag when they return from school and praise them when they have been successful in bringing the correct items home.

School bag packed6. Your child packs their own bag using TomTag as a visual reminder and does not have it checked. Praise your child’s success.

7. Choose another more complicated day and repeat the process. Gradually build up to a full week and using the full TomTag set on the child’s bag.

Packing their school bag independently, being organised and taking responsibility for their belongings are great life skills for all children to learn but are especially important for those with additional or special needs. TomTag uses only picture cues so it’s easy for any child to use.

Product recommendation:

  • Back-to-School Toolkit

  • I Can Do It Pack My Bag For School Kit

  • Organising My School Bag

  • School Bag Packing Checklist