Imagine being able to send your child off to school without the usual dramas, panic, shouts, and screams over lunch boxes, PE kits or homework!
Anxieties over forgotten items can be avoided with a little preparation and practice.
When children have the skills to pack their school bag independently, they can start taking responsibility for their belongings without you having to remind them all the time. This also helps them at the end of the school day when they need to know what to bring home again.
Even the youngest or most disorganised child can soon get the hang of finding and packing everything they need for school, giving them a great sense of achievement too.
Visual checklists are an ideal tool to use when helping your child learn how to get organised and become more independent.
Find the right school bag
With so many bags to choose from it is important to find one that matches your child’s needs.
The main consideration is comfort.
• Does the bag feel good to wear?
• Do the straps feel sufficiently strong?
• When filled, is the weight of the bag evenly spread about?
Choose a sturdy bag that has multiple compartments and zipped pockets. Check that all the fastenings work cleanly and it is easy to access. If you child gets frustrated finding things or struggles with fiddly zips, opt for fewer pockets and Velcro fastenings instead.
Let’s get organised
Start with an empty school bag.
Ask your child to sort out their school things into clear categories. For example, school supplies such as pens, pencils, notebook, communication book in one pile. Items that go back and forth to school like lunch boxes, water bottles and PE kit in another pile.
Assign each item to a compartment or pocket. A big compartment can be for books and their lunch box. A smaller pocket for writing equipment.
A school-home folder is ideal for any loose papers, letters, or permission sheets that need to go back to school.
Make a map
Once everything has its place, help your child draw a picture of their school bag and label what goes where. This school bag ‘map’ will help remind them where things go when they are packing up for the
Encourage your child to practice emptying their bag and putting everything back in the right place.
Keep a copy of the map in the front pocket of their school bag plus a copy at home.
Pack all the right kit
Use a simple checklist attached to their school bag listing all the things they need to remember to take to school for each day of the week. The checklist should be sturdy and easily seen. Using different coloured lists makes it easy to identify the right list for each day.
Picture cues work well for younger children or non-readers as well as older children and those with additional needs such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, autism, or ADHD.
Getting into the habit of packing the night before is a great way to avoid the last-minute panic searching for homework or PE kit in the morning when you really should be leaving the house!
Bear in mind that children may need lots of practice before they can organise and pack their school bag independently.
Give lots of opportunities to practice these techniques and make forgotten school items a thing of the past.
My autistic son Tom (the inspiration for TomTag visual schedules) struggles with changes to his routines. His autism means that he perceives the world differently to other people. For him, the world can often seem a strange, unpredictable, and confusing place. It is understandable why he craves the stability and predictability of repetitive routines and activities, and the comfort of familiar food. However, as a wise man once said, the only constant in life is change. Learning how to be flexible and less rigid about routines is a crucial life skill. It is one that Tom has developed over the years, with the help of visual supports.
Visual schedules are a great tool for teaching flexibility around changes to routines. This may seem surprising – surely a schedule means sticking to a repetitive routine? However, it’s not the visual schedule that makes changes to a routine difficult but the way it is used.
In this blog, I’d like to share with you an approach you can use with TomTag visual schedules to help your child be less rigid and more tolerant of changes to their routines.
Use a schedule
Make sure that your child understands how their schedule works and uses it regularly. If your child doesn’t understand their schedule or use it regularly then it is unrealistic to expect them to deal with changes to it.
A TomTag I am flexible tag is a great way to introduce your child to changes to routines when used alongside their normal routine tag. Using the format ‘instead of‘ … ‘I am flexible’… is a simple visual way to familarise your child with a proposed change in their routine.
Words can have a powerful effect. I am flexible is a positive affirmation that will give your child a sense of achievement and boost their self esteem.
Start with positive changes
Start with something positive, for example, a change to a preferred activity or food choice.
In the examples shown- sand play instead of inside play, fish fingers instead of pizza (go with the preferred activities/ food choices for your child!)
Start with a change that is not upsetting. This also reinforces the idea that a change does not always have to be negative.
Giving initial warnings
Although the aim is to get to a stage when you don’t have to give warnings about changes – life is unpredictable after all – you shouldn’t expect your child to immediately accept changes without doing the necessary groundwork.
Like all new skills, the best way to learn is to break the skill down into small sequential steps.
Refer to their morning schedule tag and show them the proposed change. In this example, if their morning routine shows inside play then show them the I am flexible tag with the new play activity at the earliest opportunity e.g. before breakfast.
Ask them to change the activity on their schedule to the new activity themselves. Our symbol packs include 2 copies of every symbol so you don’t have to worry about running out of symbols. Their morning schedule tag now shows the new activity.
Keep the I am flexible tag handy. Depending on your child’s level of understanding, a short verbal explanation of why the change has taken place would also be helpful.
Give another warning just before the changed activity happens. Show your child the I am flexible tag to reinforce your verbal warning. This will help them remember the change and prepare for it.
Praise and encouragement
Praise your child specifically for handling the change well using supportive positive statements like, “I like how well you managed it when we changed the schedules” or “Change can be hard, but you are doing a great job!”
Saying “You are so brave handling that change in the schedule without getting upset!” is particularly useful if your child is very anxious about change.
Try not to say “See it wasn’t so bad was it!” as this could belittle your child’s genuine feelings of anxiety about changes and make them feel anxious about having these feelings.
Fade the warnings
Once your child can manage changes to their routines with warnings, start moving the warnings nearer to the time when the actual change is going to happen.
So in the example tags I have used above, you could move the warning about the change of play activity to later in the morning.
Make sure that your child’s schedule is always accurate.
Being prepared makes changes to routines so much easier to manage. It also keeps the schedule consistent so your child knows they can rely on it.
I hope you find this approach useful in helping your child learn to accept and manage changes to their routine.
Want to make your own schedules, routines and I am flexible tags like the ones shown in the examples here or need more advice before getting started on introducing routines or changes to routines? Take a look at the resources below or get in touch with Clare via our contact page.
Getting dressed independently is an important life skill for autistic children. Teaching dressing skills to my autistic son required a lot of time, practice, and patience.Putting on clothes in the right order, fastening buttons and zips and tying shoelaces involves mastering many skills. Add sensory triggers into the mix and it is easy to see why it took him longer to develop dressing skills compared with other children his age.
However, it is worth the effort. Being able to get dressed by themselves gives autistic children confidence to function independently at school and it’s one less thing for you to worry about in the mornings!
Now is the perfect time for your autistic child to start developing their dressing skills. With schools closed, there’s no pressure to get everyone fed, dressed and out of the front door in the morning so there’s plenty of time to practice at your child’s own pace.
Getting dressed takes a lot of motor skills that autistic children may need time to develop. Balance and co-ordination of movements are needed to get their limbs in all the right places. Fine motor skills help them deal with many types of fastenings.
Improving motor skills does not have to be boring! Here are some activities you can do at home with your child to make practice fun.
Practice balance by making a line on the floor and step with one foot in front of the other like “tightrope walking”. You could make it more interesting by pretending that they are walking a tightrope across a river full of snapping crocodiles!
Work on fine motor skills with a hidden treasure hunt. Fill a tub with rice or another pulse and hide small objects such as cars, or small figures and ask your child to find them. Sand play and messy play are also activities which practice fine motor skills.
Therapy putty is ideal for developing the hand strength needed to manipulate clothing and fastenings.
Use a TomTag visual list to help your child choose their preferred activity. Our new Early Years Activities sticker pack has lots of activities that make fine motor skill practice part of playtime.
Once you’re ready to practice dressing try ‘backward chaining‘ . This method lets the child feel accomplished every time. They start with the last step then work backward from there.
Little changes can make a big difference in reducing your child’s frustrations while dressing. Here are some things you can do to make things easier for them.
Choose trousers or skirts with elasticated waists where possible and opt for loose fitting items with velcro or large buttons which are easier to put on than tight fitting ones.
Use a simple visual checklist like TomTag showing what order each item of clothing should be put on. You could also lay the clothes out in the shape of a body to help with visualisation.
Offer a choice, “ you can wear the blue shirt or the red shirt”.
Lay out clothes the night before, making sure they are the right side out.
Organise the wardrobe separating play clothes, school clothes and ‘going out’ clothes
Begin with large, short socks that slip more easily over the feet.
Show your child how to scrunch longer socks up first before pulling them on
Socks with colored heels make it easier to get them the right way round. We love the brightly coloured Ez Socks from Special Kids Company that also have handy pull up loops.
Try Little Grippers school socks for socks that stay on – and up! – all day long.
Having a designated place for shoes will save valuable time spent hunting for them
Teach shoe tying with a step by step approach. The ‘bunny ears’ is a popular method and YouTube is an excellent resource for demonstrations of this and other tying methods.
Start practising with different, larger types of coat.
If the sleeve by sleeve approach isn’t working try this flip flop over the top method wonderfully described by Connectability.ca – you might want to stand well back until they get better at this one though!
Attach a zip pull or a key ring to the zip to help with gripping the tab and make zipping easier.
Don’t forget to give plenty of praise to your child for their efforts at each stage and consider using a star chart to help them establish their routine.
Sensory and developmental issues
If your child is sensitive to clothing consider how to reduce their sensory triggers .
Check for labels and seams that might cause irritation and cut them out where possible. Wash clothes several times before wearing to help soften them.
The Sensory Smart Store started by a mum of an autistic boy with sensory processing disorder has a great range of clothes to help sensitive and sensory children and adults. Whilst EcoOutfitters offer school clothing made from 100% pure organic cotton.
Dressing in front of a mirror provides important visual cues that can help a child with sequencing, body planning and body awareness. If your child continues to have difficulty with dressing, a qualified occupational therapist should be able to help.
Have you any tips or experiences to share about teaching dressing skills? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
This year’s World Autism Awareness Week takes place against the backdrop of a global pandemic. With a third of the global population under lockdown our daily lives have been dramatically changed. Forced to remain in our houses and adapt to new circumstances, many of us will be feeling bewildered, frustrated and anxious.
Sweating it out!
The anxiety many of us are now experiencing around these unprecedented changes gives us an insight into how many young people with autism, like my son Tom, experience an unwanted change of plan – it’s fraught with worry, it’s out of anything we could have predicted and it’s not what we wanted.
Our ‘new normal’ in these strange and unsettling times is very much how he feels all the time. Imagine having to deal with that level of anxiety every single day!
So, given everyone’s heightened levels of anxiety how can you manage autism and anxiety in a lockdown?
We’d like to share some daily strategies which we are using to support Tom’s mental health during this lockdown period. We’ve called it the SWEAT approach – let’s sweat this one out!
Socialise – maintain social connections
Tom misses his dad, grandparents and college friends. Thankfully technology makes it relatively easy to keep connected. However, just as in normal social situations, we’re careful not to put demands on him to socialise virtually either. We offer him a choice of how he stays connected and how often he wants to have contact.
Work – provide structure and routine
Routines and rituals help establish stability and order for children and young people with autism like Tom.
Like many young people with autism Tom struggles with flexible thinking. That means he finds it difficult to adjust and readjust to changes in his routine and this can cause him anxiety. A useful strategy has been to highlight what has stayed the same and what has changed. This reassures him that even with all the uncertainty some things, like his college work, mealtimes and bedtime routines, remain the same.
Keeping familiar routines going as much as possible is therefore important to provide structure and reassurance. Tom accesses his college work and sessions with his speech therapist, English tutor and German teacher online. A simple written visual schedule shows him what to expect each day and can help navigate these confusing times. You can also create symbol-based home visual schedules quickly and easily with TomTag.
However, it’s important not to set the bar to high! Be mindful that there will be days when the ‘home-schooling’ isn’t done and instead it is just a day of being together. An example of this was during the recent warm weather when we abandoned the schedule and went for a family walk.
Emotions – share worries and concerns
Set aside time each day to talk about worries and concerns. Try to contain your own anxieties around the current situation because this anxiety gets transferred to our children. Now more than ever our autistic children need patience and support from the people they love.
Tom, like all of us, is naturally worried about events and this is amplified by worries about whether he is catching or spreading the disease.
We keep news coverage to a minimum and explain things in a clear and consistent manner using language appropriate to his level of understanding.
Making a wish list, where we write down all the things we want to do after the pandemic has passed, is also working well – though at the moment, it mostly revolves around football and Swiss trains!
Active – encourage physical activities
Keeping active is good for both our physical and mental well being. Tom has a daily fitness programme and he’s set up an exercise challenge with his speech therapist.
Focusing on activities and encouraging him to do some chores – like washing the car and helping his sister deliver essential shopping to his self-isolating grandparents and other vulnerable members of the community – provides positive reinforcement that is so vital to keep up his self-esteem, confidence and sense of purpose.
Time alone – relax with special interests
Build in lots of down time, together with time to indulge special interests. With all the family thrust together it’s important for mental well being that we all carve out some time for ourselves.
It’s a difficult time for all of us particularly for children with autism and anxiety. Hopefully by following these strategies we can sweat out this lockdown period.
What tips can you share that make this lockdown period more manageable and less stressful in your house?
“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.
Top 10 transition tips
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.
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 – “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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Set 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.
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.
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.
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.
🏘 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.
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.
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?
TomTag 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.
Christmas is a magical and exciting time but for many children with autism and other SEN, the festive period can be anything but wonderful.
Changes in routine, a house pulsating with flashing Christmas lights and a steady stream of visitors can be too overwhelming and lead to sensory overload, anxiety, distress and confusion.
Making adjustments that help your child cope better at this time of the year will hopefully allow them and all the family to have a more enjoyable and relaxing experience.
It’s also a good opportunity to work on important social skills that can be transferred to other situations at different times of the year as well.
Just another day
Keeping to the same familiar routines as much as possible, even on Christmas Day, can be key to helping things run more smoothly. There are no rules to say things have to be done a certain way so do whatever suits your family best.
It’s sometimes not possible to avoid some disturbance or change to the regular schedule at this time of year. Children who struggle with changes to routine can find this very unsettling. If they use a visual schedule at home or school, this is a great way to make sure they know about (and can prepare themselves for) anything different that’s going to happen.
If different or unusual foods are likely to be an issue, think about preparing and freezing your child’s favourite meal ahead of the big day so that it’s easy to serve alongside everyone else’s dinner and gives you one thing less to worry about.
Flashing lights, glittery objects and jingling bells all around the house are natural triggers for sensory overload. Let your child help to choose the decorations you buy and put up and consider decorating gradually over a few days so they are not overwhelmed immediately. Make sure to leave some areas of the house undecorated so there’s always somewhere for the child to retreat if needed.
Be aware of sensory triggers such as balloons, Christmas crackers, party poppers, festive music – consider using headphones or ear defenders at parties, carol concerts or similar events if sudden or loud noises are disturbing.
Use an “All about Christmas” symbol list or simple social story to support a conversation with your child to familiarise them with all the different things they can expect to find at Christmas time.
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 you’re going to parties, visiting family and friends, church services, etc.
Maybe even keep a separate tag as a checklist to show all the family members they may be meeting and what an appropriate social contact might be for each group (eg. hugs are ok for family, hand shake for friends, etc.).
There’ll be lots of opportunities to teach social skills such as learning to greet visitors appropriately and saying please and thank you. Include relevant symbols in your visit schedule list or use another tag that you keep handy for a discreet reminder of social behaviour rules.
Many children with autism don’t particularly like surprises and aren’t good at faking delight if they get an unwanted gift. Some may prefer to have their presents left unwrapped or, if they do like the unwrapping part, they might want you to tell them what’s inside first.
They may also be overwhelmed by a large number of presents in one go. Try introducing them one at a time over the day (or several days) or adopt an advent calendar-style approach, bringing out a small gift each day in the run up to Christmas.
Don’t forget to put batteries in toys in advance so that they can be played with straight away!
Above all, remember that this is your Christmas as well. Get as much support from family and friends as possible and share out the workload wherever you can. Get children involved by giving them jobs to do which will keep them occupied and give them something to focus on.
We used the kit I know what to expect at Christmas & birthdays for the examples here. We know it can be a particularly taxing and stressful time of year for our loved ones with extra sensory and emotional needs, so there’s also an expanded version of the basic kit available which includes additional tags and blank buttons plus a Feelings & Emotions sticker pack. We call this our Christmas survival kit!
This guide is available as a free downloaded using the link below.