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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. 

  • cover image for back to school bundle products

    I can do it – back to school bundles

  • I can do it – pack my bag for school

  • cover image what to expect at school kit

    I know what to expect at school

  • 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

  • I can do it – independent living

  • cover image sticker pack in the house

    In the house

  • 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

  • I can do it – independent living

 

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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.

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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 practise 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

#1 In the build up to Christmas, remember to exercise some self care so that you can manage your energy levels and remain focused on what you and your child can realistically achieve

Play some relaxing music, burn some scented candles, take a relaxing hot bath to relax. Practise breathing!

#2 Take the time to read social stories with your child about what to expect at Christmas, including meeting with Santa.

Social stories are particularly helpful for activities that only happen at Christmas. You can make your own or check out the FREE printable Christmas social story about meeting Santa on the wonderful parenting blog And Next Comes L – Hyperlexia & Autism Resources

#3 Christmas is a time when sensory issues are greater than ever. To help prevent sensory sensitivities becoming overloads, allow your child to have some control over these experiences.

Where possible let your child have direct control of their sensory experience. For example, hand them control of buttons for the lights (if appropriate) or provide sensory defences like ear defenders or sunglasses.

#4 Many children with autism don’t like surprises so it might help not to wrap presents up.

You could also just tell them what’s inside or use clear cellophane or plain paper for wrapping. If your child finds wrapping paper highly confusing, e.g. thinks that pictures on the paper show what’s inside, then using plain wrapping paper with a clear picture of the contents stuck on the outside will help.

#5 If your child has dietary restrictions, don’t despair. Accept where your chid is now with their food and be patient.

Preferences change so it might not be the same next year!

If you are eating with other people at their house and your child won’t eat any of the food or insists on a particular plate, cup, spoon etc. provide these things so your child can join the party briefly and tell the hosts in advance.

#6 Get some Christmas helpers! Be patient with yourself and ask for help with preparations from family and friends.

Encouraging the whole family to get involved makes everyone feel included and part of the Christmas build-up. Don’t feel like you have to power through on your own.

#7 Buy or make your child’s Christmas costume or party outfit early and let them wear it around the house for short periods of time to help them become comfortable with how it feels.

Costumes and new clothes can be challenging for children with sensory sensitivities. Encouraging them to wear these around the house helps them become more tolerant of the different fabrics against their skin.

#8 Playfully and patiently practise Christmas traditions such as receiving and unwrapping presents and pulling crackers so that your child knows what to expect and can join in.

Play wrapping games by wrapping up items so your child gets used to opening the paper and finding something inside. Buy some cheap crackers and show your child how to pull them and shout ‘bang’ so the noise doesn’t come as a surprise. Practise wearing hats and reading jokes.

#9 Some children may be overwhelmed by a large number of presents all at once.

It’s natural to want to spoil them but be patient and try introducing gifts one at a time over the day or over several days. Alternatively, adopt an advent style approach and bring out a small gift each day on the run-up to Christmas day.

#10 Have the Christmas that suits your family as it is now. Forget about the perfect day, embrace the imperfections and enjoy your special moments

Remember that this is your Christmas too. Try and relax and enjoy the bits that work well. Recognise that some things are too hard at the moment but with patience and practise they may well be achievable next year.

Merry Christmas from your TomTag team!

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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Going Away – help with planning and preparation

Does your child get anxious about school trips, days out or family holidays?

My son has autism and any trip away from home can be a challenging prospect. This is because like many children with autism, he struggles with routine changes, sensory issues and an intolerance of uncertainty.

However, over the years we’ve learnt that with planning and preparation, days out and holidays can be enjoyed rather than endured. We’d like to share our top tips in order to help other parents and carers facing similar issues.

Plan, plan and plan again! 

  • Try searching for ‘autism friendly’ holidays or days out. The National Autistic Society has a list of companies and organisations who hold an Autism Friendly Award.
  • Contact hotels or venues to explain your circumstances and your child’s needs – if they don’t seem supportive then look elsewhere.
  • Check out a destination or venue in advance. If possible make a pre-visit or get a map and consider any potential trigger areas and quiet zones you could head to in case of a meltdown.
  • Practice unusual events such as packing and unpacking a suitcase. A packing checklist is a great way to involve your child in holiday preparations and encourages independence.
  • Use visual schedules to show your child what to expect on the holiday, give structure to their day, and help with transitions between activities.
  • Social stories are a useful way to explain what ‘going on holiday’ actually means. Depending on your child’s language ability, you can discuss what concerns they have about the holiday or trip and then work with them to come up with a list of possible solutions.
  • If you’re travelling by plane, check the airport website to see if they offer any visual guides or booklets. Manchester and Gatwick have excellent guides and many UK airports now offer autism specific page on their websites.  You may also be able to request a wristband or lanyard which entitles you to use the fast-track lanes at security or access quiet waiting rooms. Alternatively, you might want to make your own visual schedule for the airport to explain the process.

Hope for the best, prepare for the worst

However well you plan there’s no guarantee that unexpected events , such as delays won’t occur. It’s a good idea to have a ‘distraction’ pack to hand. A bag containing snacks, music or noise-cancelling headphones, games or entertainment devices to head off any potentially challenging behaviour.

Consider a form of identification such as a card or ID holder attached to your child’s clothing (such as a belt loop) just in case they wander off or become lost. This should give their name, your contact details and any medical requirements. Even if your child is capable of providing this information themselves, in a new and stressful setting this will be much harder.

Helpful resources

We used the kit I know what to expect going away to make the checklists and schedules shown.

The National Autistic Society have some helpful fact sheets with information about school trips and going on holiday.

 A really  informative blog Autism and UK airports – improving assistance for passengers with autism  has a brilliant summary of what’s  available at UK airports.

  • cover image what to expect going away

    I know what to expect going away

  • cover image sticker pack staying away from home

    Staying away from home

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Dyslexia and executive functioning skills

Dyslexia is most commonly understood as a condition that causes difficulties with reading. It is less well known that dyslexia can also impact on organisation and time management skills, which is sometimes referred to as executive functioning. 

What are the signs?

A child with dyslexia who has executive functioning issues may have difficulty:

  • remembering to take to school everything they need for the day 
  • being organised and preparing their kit in advance
  • sticking with an activity and not being distracted
  • understanding what day of the week it is and what different things they need to do each day
  • remembering their routine and prioritising the tasks needed to get ready for school  

What can you do to help?

There’s lots you can do to help a child with these issues. Here’s just a few ideas:

  • Get into a regular routine and stick to it. Children who struggle with time management often feel more secure and less anxious with a familiar routine.
  • Make checklists to break down a task or routine into smaller steps. Visual prompts work better than verbal reminders as they are constant and consistent.
  • Use calendars and planners – colour-coding often works really way to identify regular activities and highlight special events.
  • Encourage development of organisational skills with lots of repetition, reminders and practice. 

How could TomTag help?

  • school girl carrying rucksack with packing checklist attachedTomTag is ideal for all children with dyslexia as the picture symbols we use are easily recognisable and don’t rely on a child’s ability to read for TomTag to be effective. 
  • Make morning and evening routine reminders for tasks that need to be completed and the order they should be done using an I know what to expect – morning and evening minikit or for more varied options try these kits I can do it self care skills or I know what to expect at home
  • Create a school bag packing checklist using the I can do it pack my bag for school kit that will remind them exactly what they need to take to school each day, and bring home again. 
  • Take advantage of TomTag’s colourful tags by colour-coordinating checklist and routine reminder tags with any planners, calendars or charts that you’re also using.  

Useful resources:

  • cover image for product sticker pack early years

    Early years activities

  • Early Years Home toolkit

  • I can do it – pack my bag for school

  • product cover image for minikit morning & evening

    I know what to expect – morning and evening

  • cover image what to expect at home kit

    I know what to expect at home

  • cover pic for early years kit

    I know what to expect Early Years

  • cover image sticker pack my school kit

    My school kit

  • Primary Home toolkit

  • cover image download school morning routines

    School morning routines