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Help autistic children manage changes to routines with TomTag visual supports

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 schedulered tomtag button holder with symbols in sequence for morning routine

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.

Need some support  introducing visual schedules ? The TomTag Show me how:Timetables and routines guide can help. 

I am flexibleGrey button holder showing buttons for change of routine activity

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 changesred and grey tomTag button holders showing symbols for changes to routines

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 warningsTwo purple and one grey TomTag button holders showing symbols for a morning routine with a change of activity

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 encouragementA golden star in a green box saying well done.

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. 

Be consistent

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.

Resources

  • Early years

  • Early Years Home Toolkit

  • I Can Do It Learn At Home Kit

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

  • I Know What To Expect At Home Kit

  • I Know What To Expect Early Years Kit

  • Learn at home

  • Primary Years Home Toolkit

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Household chores -Teach children life skills with TomTag

Yellow tag howing wshing up routine and washing up on draining board

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 :-Blue, red and yellow tags showing household chores

  • 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.

 


Reward

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.

mealtime chore photo

 

Resources

  • cover image sticker pack clean & tidy

    Clean & tidy

  • I Can Do It Help At Home Kit

  • I Can Do It Independent Living Kit

 

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Getting dressed – TomTag Tips to help Autistic Children learn dressing skills

Plastic yellow tag showing sequence of clothing items

 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.

Let’s practice!

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.

coloured buckets fuoll of sand and tag showing choice of play activtiesUse 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.

Getting Dressed

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.

Clothes

plastic yellow tag showing dressing sequence and yellow t shirt and blu jeans

 

  • 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

 socksSocks

  • 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.

shoesShoes

  • Having a designated place for shoes will save valuable time spent hunting for them
  • Start with slip on shoes or use no tie elastic laces such as Hickies, Greepers and Lock Laces
  • 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.

coatCoat

  • 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.

starWell done!

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.

Resources

  • I Can Do It Learn At Home Kit

  • I Can Do It Self Care Skills Kit

  • I Know What To Expect At Home Kit

  • cover image download school morning routines

    School morning routines

  • cover image sticker pack self care

    Self care

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Autism and anxiety in lockdown – sweating it out!

Exercise routine

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!

tips for good mental health
Daily SWEAT

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

written timetable
Tom’s written weekly timetable

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

talking at table
Discussing 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.

using exercise bike
Tom training hard!

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

reading book
Spending time alone

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?

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Transition to secondary school for autistic children – 10 tips for smoothing the move

mum hugging boy in school uniform on secondary school offer day

“I’m feeling worried about eating in the canteen.”

“I am concerned that the lessons are going to be a long time.”

“I worry about wearing my blazer all day.”

These were some of the worries my autistic son Tom had when he was moving from his beloved small and familiar mainstream primary school to a much larger secondary school.

The move from primary to secondary school is one of the major transitions in a child’s life. All children are likely to feel some level of worry about this move but for many children on the autistic spectrum, who crave stability and predictability like Tom does, this transition can be particularly difficult.

Secondary school transition issues

Like many children with autism, Tom has anxiety about the unknown and finds it difficult to think flexibly. He felt safe and secure with familiar routines established in primary school. Not being able to predict what might happen in his new secondary school and the thought of dealing with change and different rules was a real worry to him.

As a parent, my worries were mainly around his lack of social understanding, his communication difficulties, and his sensory challenges.

How would he:

  • cope with the many new social situations he would encounter in secondary school?
  • manage his feelings and emotions when things didn’t go as planned?
  • deal with the increased sensory demands of his new environment? 

Preparation is key

Every child with autism is different so a ‘one size fits all’ approach to transition is therefore not going to work. It’s vital that transition planning should be personalised to each child. By preparing your child as much as possible beforehand using some of the tips we’ve listed below, we hope you’ll be able to make those first days and weeks in the new school a lot less worrying for you and your child.

Extracts from Tom’s transition to secondary school booklet
Extracts from Tom’s secondary school transition booklet

Top 10 transition tips

Tip #1

Arrange for your child to visit their new school several times before they start and at different times of the day e.g. lunchtime, breaktime and during lessons. Tom made frequent, short visits which helped make his new school more familiar to him and took away some of the worry he felt about eating his lunch in the canteen.

Tip #2

Make a “My School transition booklet” which your child can keep and use as they need in order to reduce anxiety.

Tom’s booklet included a map of the layout of the school, photographs of key staff (particularly the teaching assistants that were going to support him) and photographs taken of him in the important places, like the school canteen, main hall, classrooms and a safe place for times of stress.

A photograph of Tom on the stairs in the school corridor with his written note of the correct corridor etiquette

A photograph of Tom on the stairs in the school corridor with his written note of the correct corridor etiquette – “walk on the left hand side so we don’t get squashed and we can let other people pass” was a simple inclusion in the booklet but meant that he knew what was expected of him when the corridors filled with students.

Tip #3

Establish a link with a member of staff who can act as a mentor and home-school liaison. Set up a home-school book to pass on information about any worries/concerns or any relevant developments at home.

Tip #4

Create a personal profile written with the help of your child to include all the information new staff should know about them. Tom’s profile mentioned his need to have frequent movement breaks and his worry about the long lessons.

Tip #5

Get used to a homework routine in advance of the new school start. Start simply with a 10-15-minute task at a regular time each evening in a quiet environment.

Tip #6

Make a visual timetable showing the school day to make lesson order & break times more predictable. The TomTag School Timetable kit is ideal for creating portable and personalised timetables for your child without the hassle of printing, laminating or Velcro!

Tip #7

Practice the journey to and from school, making sure your child knows the location of bus stops, road-crossings, meeting points or anything else significant on their journey.

Tip #8

Familiarise your child with their new school uniform and deal with any irritating seams or labels. Tom practised wearing his blazer at home so that he got used to how it felt and was also told he could take it off during lessons.

Tip #9

Practice packing the correct items for school. The TomTag school bag packing checklist would be perfect for this!

Ask your child’s current primary school to work on preparing your child for the transition by including activities around organising and managing their own items at school.

Tip #10

TomTag feelings notebook with example page filled inSet aside time to discuss your child’s worries and concerns about the transition. Encourage them to write down or draw about any concerns they have about moving to their new school. Remind them of relaxation and self-help techniques they could use if they are anxious. The TomTag Feelings Notebook is a helpful place to record worries and concerns. 

Transition to secondary school resources

The National Autistic Society website has some useful information about transitioning to secondary school.

Leicestershire Autism Outreach Service also have a comprehensive transition resource pack that’s well worth checking out. 

  • Back To School Bundles

  • I Can Do It Pack My Bag For School Kit

  • I Know What To Expect At School Kit

  • cover image product feelings notebook

    My TomTag Feelings Notebook

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Making pancakes with children with autism

tomtag holders set up with instruction symbols for pancake recipe

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 

pancake equipment list on TomTag and items displayed

 

and then the ingredients 

 

pancake ingredients listed on TomTag and items displayed

 

 

 

Then it’s time to follow the recipe

 

pancake recipe

 

before choosing our favourite topping

 

pancake toppings choices listed on TomTag and items displayed

 

Have fun making your pancakes – I know we did, yum-yum!!

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Cooking – TomTag life skills

bread on grill tray being put into ovenBeing 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.

We’ve looked at preparing some non-cook simple meals for breakfast, snacks and lunches in our Simple Meals blog using symbols from our Food & Drink Basics pack.

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

washing hands under running water from tagHygiene

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.


tomtag shopping list with trolley and shopping bagPreparation

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.

You might also want to incorporate a shopping trip as part of your preparation to find all the ingredients you will need. The My Shopping List sticker pack and Help at the Shops kit would be useful here. For more shopping with TomTag tips, read our Shopping Life Skill blog.


tomtag with symbols for cutting food and preparing fruit Kitchen safety

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.


tin of heinz beans with toast, butter and 2 tomtags overlaid with symbols to make beans on toastChoosing recipes

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.


tomas carving turkey at christmasServe 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.


 

Resources

Jamie Oliver’s Simple Cooking Skills website has a simple and visual layout and many of the recipes even include step-by-step photo illustrations.

Cooking with Autism also have a useful site with easy to follow recipes written in simple language.

Free to download from Widgit Symbols is this accessible symbol-supported recipe sheet for making pancakes

 

  • cover image sticker pack at the shops

    At the shops

  • cover image sticker pack clean & tidy

    Clean & tidy

  • 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

  • I Can Do It In The Kitchen Kit

  • I Can Do It Independent Living Kit

  • I Can Do It Learn At Home Kit

  • cover image sticker pack in the house

    In the house

  • Learn at home

  • cover image sticker pack my shopping list

    My shopping list

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Simple meals – TomTag Life Skills

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.

Visual supports and guides make teaching these vital life skills so much easier and our TomTag Food and Drink Basics sticker pack is designed specifically to help with this task.

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.

simple meals, choosing the right task, widgit symbol for cut with knifeChoosing 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.

 


simple meals, talking points, widgit symbol for snackTalking 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.


simple meals, foodie fun, widgit symbol for fruit saladA 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?”!


simple meals, praise, widgit symbol for washing upPraise, 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.
 


Resources for simple meals

Get free visual recipe sheets for tasty treats and snacks from The Autism helper.

Cheeriosmilkandspoon is Sarah’s personal blog account of parenting a child with food aversions and eating challenges.

  • cover image sticker pack food drink basics

    Food & drink basics

  • cover image sticker pack food and drink extended

    Food & drink extended

  • I Can Do It In The Kitchen Kit

  • I Can Do It Independent Living Kit

 

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Cooking skills for children with autism and sensory issues

text cooking skills for children with autism and sensory issues. 2 images of Tom preparing and cooking meals

Tom loves to cook and takes a keen interest in meal choice and preparation. We’re immensely proud that he achieved a Jamie Oliver BTEC Home Cooking Skills qualification with the help of two highly skilled and intuitive cooking teachers at school and lots of practice at home.

Learning cooking skills not only benefits a child’s health and well-being but also builds their confidence and independence and boosts life skills in other areas, such as maths, communication and social skills.

Tom has autism, sensory issues, and movement difficulties and finds following instructions tricky; a mixture of challenges that doesn’t naturally suggest a recipe for success in the kitchen! So what happened?

His success certainly didn’t happen overnight. He took many small steps over quite a length of time. We encouraged him through his special interests (like making lorry and number shaped biscuits) and took cues from him as to when he was ready to try new things. There was a lot of planning and preparation and a good-sized dollop of patience!

Are you anxious or worried that similar sensory or motor challenges will make it difficult for your child to help in the kitchen? Does the idea of cooking with your autistic child fill you with dread?!

Be prepared to give lots of physical or visual demonstration, plenty of practice and, above all, be patient. Manage sensory triggers and start with fun cooking activities that match your child’s level of interest and ability. We think you’ll be amazed at how much your child will be able to learn, how creative they can be and maybe even the new foods they might try! 

Sensory issues

Cooking skills, Tom cooking onions in a frying pan, steam coming off, wiping head. Text overlay "frying onions - an intense sensory experience!"Cooking creates a lot of strong sensory experiences like noise, smells and mess that will affect children in different ways.

For sensory defensive children (like Tom), certain textures, smells and tastes when handling and preparing food can trigger a negative reaction. Other children who are sensory seekers are more likely to be distracted by trying to satisfy their sensory needs e.g. chewing or constantly wiping their hands. This lack of awareness can be dangerous when working in a kitchen.

It’s therefore crucial to identify your child’s triggers before inviting them into the kitchen and think about appropriate adjustments you can make in order to avoid meltdowns or bad associations with cooking in the future.

Tips to alleviate sensory issues in the kitchen

  • Keeping a record of your child’s reactions to sensations will help you prepare dishes that do not include any of these triggers. You can use a simple diary or notebook (like our TomTag Feelings Notebook) to jot down your child’s sensory triggers as well as record your child’s culinary successes.
  • Arranging food or utensils is a mess-free food activity for children who love order but aren’t ready for touching food. Let them collect and organise the ingredients, line muffin tins or set the table.
  • Exposing a younger child to play situations with various textures like magic sand, slime or play-dough can help to desensitize them to food-type textures.
  • Try using thin non-latex medical gloves to avoid skin touching food directly.
  • Onion goggles (they really are a thing!) can protect eyes from the chemicals that make our eyes water. A normal pair of swimming goggles would probably work just as well!
  • Consider the utensils you use if your child is sensitive to sound e.g. replace metal mixing bowls and spoons with wooden or plastic.
  • Offer a long spoon to create a greater distance if your child has food phobias.
  • Provide access to sensory props like chewing aids or textured towels so that your child’s sensory needs are supported and managed in a controlled manner.

Motor challenges

cooking skills, banana being cut with a knife on a chopping board. Text reads "Cooking tasks exercise a wide range of gross and fine motor skillsTom found holding knives and other utensils difficult as the small muscles in his hands didn’t always do what he wanted them to do. He also lacked strength and coordination in his arms which affected his ability to cut, chop, peel or grate. Applying the appropriate pressure for different activities (such as slicing bread as opposed to a banana) was also an issue.

Tips to support children with motor challenges in the kitchen

  • Getting the right utensils can make a huge difference. Try supersized cookie cutters to compensate for clumsy fingers or look for child-friendly kitchen knives – we love the look of this simple Ikea set.
  • Practice fine motor skills by tearing herbs and lettuce or rubbing butter and flour into a breadcrumb texture (using the ‘rubbing in’ technique for making pastry and crumbles).
  • For cutting practice, start with easy to cut food that your child likes to eat. Soft fruit and cooked soft vegetables such as strawberries, banana, potatoes and carrots are ideal.
  • There are lots of activities around cooking that involve using different muscles. Mixing is a relatively safe and fun activity. Try pancake batter, dressings or sauces and for added fun you can even try shaking them in a jar!

Following instructions

cooking skills, young girl stirring baking mixture with wooden spoon. Text reads "start with the basics"Children learn best by example and in small steps. 

Start by teaching the basic techniques such as cutting and mixing before moving onto the bigger tasks like following a recipe.
Stand next to your child and ask them to copy you step by step. Hand over hand support can help with movement and pressure issues.

Having a relaxed and fun atmosphere is the best way to teach new kitchen skills. Find a time to cook when everyone is happy and calm. Tackling cooking when you’re trying to get dinner on the table or your child is hungry will only lead to frustration and tears – yours and theirs!

Resources for cooking skills

Deborah French is a mother of four children, including 2 with special needs. Deborah’s wonderful book The Cookbook for Children with Special Needs introduces children to the fundamentals of food preparation, healthy eating and cookery skills.

In this interview with the BBC good food guide, Deborah talks about her experiences as a mother, cook and writer and her remarkable journey from parenting two children with special needs to becoming an author of multiple books.  

To find out more about using visual prompts like TomTag to help your child build confidence and develop their cooking skills, follow the link to our next blog Simple Meals – TomTag Life Skills.

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TomTag Life Skill – staying safe

With this month playing host to Safer Internet Day we’ve some tips on helping our kids stay safe in the home, looking at both online and physical safety.

Safe online

safe online image

With an almost daily diet of stories about the negative impact of the internet and new technology on children and young people, it’s easy to forget the positive aspects: the ability to learn, to connect with others, to be creative.

Safer Internet Day (February 11th) offers an ideal opportunity for parents and carers to start a conversation with their children about online safety. By teaching children to understand and navigate the risks you can help them to have a safer and more positive experience online.

Start by reading these tips for parents from the UK Safer Internet Centre and explore the many other fantastic resources on the site.

This article from the Guardian takes a interesting look at how the internet can be a great learning tool and includes some really simple ideas for changing how we approach our children’s use of it.

Drawing up a family agreement that all the family sign up to is a useful way to help everyone make better decisions and display appropriate behaviour. Here’s a great example from Digizen.org.

You can also find a wealth of information and advice on the subject from CEOP’s ThinkuKnow website.

Safe at home

Of course, we’ve all been consciously protecting our children from harm from the moment they were born but we have a responsibility to teach them the skills to keep themselves safe too.

Talking about potential dangers as part of everyday conversation and using games to teach what to do will really help to prepare your child for emergency situations without scaring them.

Play the ‘What if’ game

What if … the smoke alarm sounded?

What if … you cut yourself badly?

What if … someone came to the house when no-one else was home?

You’ll get a feel for how your child would react in a real emergency and can guide them to how they might deal with it.

Using some of the blank stickers you’ll find in each TomTag sticker pack, draw or write a list of safety rules and apply each sticker to a blank button. Put the buttons into a TomTag holder and hang or stick it up (eg. on the fridge) where it will be seen every day.


Hold a scavenger hunt

Once you’ve played the What If game and discussed ideas about how to deal with different situations, does everyone in the house know where to find the things they might need to deal with an emergency? Where’s the first-aid kit, keys to open doors, fire blanket, emergency phone numbers? Give each child a TomTag with some items on it that they need to find and let them race to be the first to find everything on their list.

Teach your child how to use what’s in the first aid kit too to treat minor injuries. The British Red Cross have a great web resource to help children aged 6-11 learn life saving first aid.


Make an escape plan

Every household should have an emergency escape plan in case of fire. Hopefully you will never need to use it but having a plan will prevent delay and help you to escape faster if you need to. Anyone can ask for a free Home Fire Safety Check from their local fire service.

Don’t forget that a weekly test of your smoke alarm is the simplest and easiest way to help prevent fire emergencies.

Give your child a clip-board and pen and let them pretend to be a safety inspector. Ask them to look around the house for safety features and hazards and let them help you fix any deficiencies.


 

Know your numbers

Make sure everyone knows the number for emergency services and try role-playing a call so that they know what they might be asked.

Teach children their home address and telephone number so that they can give it if they need to call the emergency services (also useful if they get lost when out of the house!).

Keep a list of names and numbers of friends, neighbours, family doctor, etc. by the door or telephone in case of emergencies, particularly if your child is old enough to be left at home alone.