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Autism and Christmas – Tom’s 21 Tips for an Autism-Friendly Christmas

Christmas can be a magical and exciting time but for many autistic children like my son Tom, the festive period is anything but wonderful.

Tom struggles with changes to his routine, worries about not understanding what is happening and why his usual activities and food are different. When he was younger, if visitors came to the house or we visited family and friends he’d become confused and unsettled as he didn’t know what was expected of him. He was often tearful, frustrated, and distressed.

We tried lots of things and now we know what to do to help Tom and our family have a more enjoyable and relaxing Christmas.  As he turned 21 this year, Tom shares 21 of his favourite tips to help you and your family prepare for an autism-friendly  Christmas. 

#1: Decide what’s the best way to ‘do’ Christmas for YOU and YOUR family.

Making a plan in the following way helped us:

✍🏻Grab a notebook and pen and have a think about the whole upcoming Christmas period.

📝Make a list with four columns headed Achievable, Desirable, High Risk, Impossible

🤔Think about what is planned or expected over Christmas and place each activity under one of the four columns

👏🏻Don’t aim for 💯%- if you can manage most of the achievable, one or two things in the desirable column and come through everything in the risky column you should rightly feel proud.

Don’t give up hope if nothing goes to plan. In our experience, over time many of our risky column activities became achievable.

#2: Make a personalised visual ‘All about Christmas ‘guide.

 Showing all the different things you might do at this time of the year this guide could include Christmas objects, Christmas food and activities that only happen at Christmas e.g., meeting Father Christmas or pulling Christmas crackers

You could make one together like mum and I did with drawings. A photo collage, Christmas scrapbook, or pictures of your family celebrating Christmas also work well.

Like many children with autism, I tend to forget social information, so a permanent visual guide was a great way to remind me what Christmas looks like.   

                                                       

#3: Take time to talk with your child about things that may be worrying them                                                                                  

I was worried about not having my usual breakfast – jammy toast and hot chocolate on Christmas day.

This might seem a little thing to worry about, but it was a huge feeling for me. Mum explained to me that I would have my usual breakfast and that made me feel better.

#4: Make realistic plans for shopping.

Mum tried to avoid taking me shopping during Christmas. The noisy crowds, strong smells, and bright lights in the shops made me feel confused and worried. If she couldn’t find a babysitter, we used to go at quieter times of the day with plenty of snacks to distract me!

Online shopping now makes things much easier

#5: Talk about social rules and different expectations that people might have around Christmastime.

When I was younger, having visitors to my house or going to visit family and friends over Christmas made me feel worried. I didn’t like being out of routine and felt anxious about what I should say and do. Practicing what to say when meeting people and having pictures to remind me what would happen and how I should behave, for example saying hello, please, and thank you really helped.

#6: Talk to your child’s teacher so you know what different things they might be doing and when.

Mum used to have a meeting with my teacher and support assistant to find out what activities were going to be happening and how best to help me.

By letting us know when there would be changes to my routine, for example, doing Christmas crafts instead of my usual lessons or practicing for the carol service I could prepare myself for the changes and didn’t get as anxious. 

Planning for the Christmas party so that I could have my favourite drink and a quiet area to go to when things got too much also made me feel much calmer about going to the party. 

#7: Make a list of special interest gift ideas that you can suggest to relatives and friends when they ask what presents they can buy.

When I was younger, I didn’t get excited about getting toys as presents. But I loved getting things about what I was interested in, for example, lorries and trains. Activities based on my special interests were also good ideas.

Among my favourite Christmas presents were a pillowcase with trains on, a trip to the railway museum and of course getting lots of Eddie Stobart lorries!

#8: Make sure any visual schedules are updated to show any changes to routine or special Christmas events.

Sudden changes to my usual routine like a last-minute practice, craft activity or even something small like moving to a different classroom or popping to see a friend can upset me and cause me to worry. It’s always better to give me as much warning as possible of any changes so I can prepare and cope with them.

It can be exhausting to keep up with all the different things that are happening. A TomTag visual timetable really helps to show me what is happening and when. It’s perfect for use at home and school.

#9: Involve your child in deciding where the decorations should go.

I get worried when there are unexpected changes in things around me. So, if Christmas decorations suddenly appear at home or school, it can shock me. Involving me in deciding where the decorations go and letting me help decorate the Christmas tree can help me feel less overwhelmed.

It’s also important to let me know when the decorations are being taken down too. It’s less stressful for me when there is a warning and a reason given.

#10: Keep sensory armour to hand for trips to the shop, parties, and other festive events where there might be sensory overload.

Loud music, twinkly lights, everything and everyone looking different can be overwhelming for me.

Sensory armour can help and includes:

🎧Headphone to cut out some of the noise and sound. I can also listen to my favourite music to help reassure me when things get tricky

🧢A cap to help shut out some of the flashing lights

🕶Dark glasses to reduce light intensity.

#11: Let your child wear their Christmas costume or party outfit around the house

When possible, buy or make your child’s Christmas costume or party outfit early.

Let them wear it around the house for say, 5-10 minutes over a few days to help them become comfortable with how it feels.

I don’t like the feel of any clothes made out of wool or anything with a label in it as it feels scratchy on my skin.  Fancy dress costumes are also a no-no. I much prefer to wear my own clothes. I don’t mind wearing a Christmas hat– if the label is cut out and I don’t have to wear it for a long time – just long enough for mum to get some photographs is usually ok!

#12: Use an advent calendar or other visual to prepare for and understand the countdown to Christmas.

I used to find traditional advent calendars quite fiddly. When I was younger, we had a large fabric Christmas tree with 24 large, numbered pockets. Each pocket contained chocolate that I could easily reach.

Other ways to make an advent calendar include a Christmas Book Advent Calendar – unwrap a Christmas book each day, little gift boxes filled with knick-knacks, or a treasure hunt with clues.

You can use TomTag to make a fun countdown too!

#13: Prepare your child for how to greet family and friends

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.

I spent lots of time practicing with mum how to greet people.  Being hugged makes me feel uneasy so I learned how to shake hands with friends and family. I do love being hugged by my sister though!

#14: Discuss the escape plans that it’s ok for your child to use if everything gets too much for them.

It was so important for me to know that if things got too much for me there was a quiet space I could go to ‘escape’ Christmas. When I was younger I agreed with mum that I would show a red card when I needed some time out in the quiet space.

#15: Be prepared that your child might not be able to sit at the table for as long as would like (or maybe not at all).

Be upfront about this with your family and friends if you’re having Christmas dinner at their homes.

I’m happy to sit at the table now for my meal but often need to leave the table when I’ve eaten for a movement break. Knowing that this is OK and that I’m not going to be forced to sit at the table means I don’t get anxious. When I was younger, I had a favourite book or toy to keep me distracted during mealtimes.

#16: For children who won’t eat a traditional Christmas dinner prepare and freeze their meals in advance to reduce the workload on the day.

I used to be a very picky eater. This was because I don’t like changes. I liked things including my food, to be predictable. Having the same foods such as pasta, bread and chips meant I didn’t have to worry about new tastes or feelings in my mouth. I preferred to eat foods that I knew tasted and felt the same.  I also avoided eating meat as this was difficult for me to chew.

My favourite Christmas dinner used to be chicken nuggets and chips – Mum always put some peas on my plate, just in case!

As I’ve got older my fussy eating has changed. I now love a traditional Christmas dinner and my favourite vegetable is broccoli!

#17: Playfully and patiently practice Christmas traditions

These could include receiving and unwrapping presents, pulling crackers, and wearing hats so that your child knows what to expect and can join in.

Here are some things that we did to help me understand what happens at Christmas:

Play wrapping games. Mum wrapped up some of my things – clothes, books, toys and I had to open the paper and find what was inside. We’d play a guessing game by trying to guess what was inside by the feel and shape of the parcel. We used to have something square, round and rectangular so I could also practice my shape names.  Chocolate was always my favourite thing to unwrap!

Pulling crackers. We bought some cheap crackers and practiced pulling them, so I got used to the ‘bang’ sound and it didn’t come as a surprise. I got used to wearing the paper hat from the cracker and looking for the joke inside them.

#18: Think and talk about the sensory overload and extra social demands at Christmas parties.

The school Christmas party used to be very overwhelming for me. Loud music, everybody looking different and the expectation that I should be joining in with dancing and games. 

These things helped the party be less stressful for me:

📝Using a visual schedule showing me what was going to happen

🤗Having a ‘buddy group of friends to help me join in

🕺🏻Practicing dancing at home!

🤫Making sure there was a quiet place for me to go to if things got too much.

 

#19: Some children may be overwhelmed by many presents all in one go. 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.

On Christmas day, I used to stagger my present opening. I opened some presents in the morning and some in the afternoon. Often, we went on holiday at Christmas time so I would open most of my presents after Christmas once we were back home and in my own time. This worked well for me as I didn’t feel stressed about deciding what to unwrap and doing it all at once.  I could enjoy opening my presents.

#20: Leave some areas of the house undecorated so there’s always a quiet place for your child to retreat to if they need it.

I liked having a Christmas-free zone to escape to when I got fed up with the flashing lights, glittery things, and loud music around the house.  This decoration-free space helped me feel calmer when things got too much.

#21: Many autistic children 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 with a picture attached showing what’s inside.

When I was younger, it didn’t bother me to get a wrapped present, but I didn’t have the ‘surprise feeling’ you usually get before you open it. I didn’t really understand the idea of a surprise, so I had a mixture of wrapped and unwrapped presents.

I used to love anything to do with numbers so receiving a large pack of number cards one Christmas was a lovely surprise!

Tom and I would love to know any tips you have to make Christmas more autism-friendly? 

Clare & Tom x

Useful resources:

  • Christmas & Birthdays Sticker Pack

  • Christmas Survival Guide

  • Christmas Survival Toolkit

  • I Know What To Expect At Christmas & Birthdays Kit

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Organising My School Bag

‘Have you got your…?

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
next day.

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.

Make your own checklists

We used the TomTag   I can do it pack my bag for school kit to make the examples shown. 

If you have any tips to share on organising school bags please leave a comment below.

 

  • Back-to-School Toolkit

  • I Can Do It Pack My Bag For School Kit

  • Organising My School Bag

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Help autistic children manage changes to routines with TomTag visual supports

My autistic son Tom (the inspiration for TomTag visual schedules) struggles with changes to his routines. His autism means that he perceives the world differently to other people. For him, the world can often seem a strange, unpredictable, and confusing place. It is understandable why he craves the stability and predictability of repetitive routines and activities, and the comfort of familiar food.  However, as a wise man once said, the only constant in life is change. Learning how to be flexible and less rigid about routines is a crucial life skill. It is one that Tom has developed over the years, with the help of visual supports.

Visual schedules are a great tool for teaching flexibility around changes to routines.  This may seem surprising – surely a schedule means sticking to a repetitive routine? However, it’s not the visual schedule that makes changes to a routine difficult but the way it is used.⁣

In this blog, I’d like to share with you an approach you can use with TomTag visual schedules to help your child be less rigid and more tolerant of changes to their routines.

Use a schedulered tomtag button holder with symbols in sequence for morning routine

Make sure that your child understands how their schedule works and uses it regularly. If your child doesn’t  understand their schedule or use it regularly then it is unrealistic to expect them to deal with changes to it.

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

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

A TomTag I am flexible tag is a great way to introduce your child to changes to routines when used alongside their normal routine tag. Using the format ‘instead of ‘  …  ‘I am flexible’…  is a simple visual way to familarise your child with a proposed change in their routine.

Words can have a powerful effect.  I am flexible is a positive affirmation that will  give your child  a sense of achievement and boost their self esteem.

 

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

Start with something positive, for example, a change to a preferred activity or food choice.

In the examples shown- sand play instead of inside play, fish fingers instead of pizza (go with the preferred activities/ food choices for your child!)

Start with a change that is not upsetting. This also reinforces the idea that a change does not always have to be negative.

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

Although the aim is to get to a stage when you don’t have to give warnings  about changes – life is unpredictable after all – you shouldn’t expect your child to immediately accept changes without doing the necessary groundwork. 

Like all new skills, the best way to learn is to break the skill down into small sequential steps. 

  • Refer to their morning schedule tag and show them the proposed change. In this example, if their morning routine shows inside play then show them the I am flexible tag with the new play activity at the earliest opportunity e.g. before breakfast.
  •  Ask them to change the activity on their schedule to the new activity themselves. Our symbol packs include 2 copies of every symbol so you don’t have to worry about running out of symbols. Their morning schedule tag now shows the new activity.
  • Keep the I am flexible tag handy. Depending on your child’s level of understanding, a short verbal explanation of why the change has taken place would also be helpful.
  • Give another warning just before the changed activity happens. Show your child the I am flexible tag to reinforce your verbal warning. This will help them remember the change and prepare for it.

Praise and encouragementA golden star in a green box saying well done.

Praise your child specifically for handling the change well using supportive positive statements like, “I like how well you managed it when we changed the schedules” or “Change can be hard, but you are doing a great job!”

Saying “You are so brave handling that change in the schedule without getting upset!”  is particularly useful if your child is very anxious about change.

Try not to say “See it wasn’t so bad was it!” as this could belittle your child’s genuine feelings of anxiety about changes and make them feel anxious about having these feelings. 

Fade the warnings

Once your child can manage changes to their routines with warnings, start moving the warnings nearer to the time when the actual change is going to happen. 

So in the example tags  I have used above, you could move the warning about the change of play activity to later in the morning. 

Be consistent

Make sure that your child’s schedule is always accurate.

Being prepared makes changes to routines so much easier to manage. It also keeps the schedule consistent so your child knows they can rely on it.

I hope you find  this approach useful in helping your child learn to accept and manage changes to their routine.

Want to make your own schedules, routines and I am flexible tags like the ones shown in the examples here or need more advice before getting started on introducing routines or changes to routines? Take a look at the resources below or get in touch with Clare via our contact page.

Resources

  • Back-to-School Toolkit

  • Early Years Home Toolkit

  • Early Years Sticker Pack

  • I Can Do It Learn At Home Kit

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

  • I Know What To Expect At Home Kit

  • I Know What To Expect Early Years Kit

  • Learn At Home Sticker Pack

  • Primary Years Home Toolkit

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

Plastic yellow tag showing sequence of clothing items

 Getting dressed independently is an important life skill for autistic children. Teaching dressing skills to my autistic son required a lot of time, practice, and patience.Putting on clothes in the right order, fastening buttons and zips and tying shoelaces involves mastering many skills. Add sensory triggers into the mix and it is easy to see why it took him longer to develop dressing skills compared with other children his age.

 However, it is worth the effort. Being able to get dressed by themselves gives autistic children confidence to function independently at school and it’s one less thing for you to worry about in the mornings!

Now is the perfect time for your autistic child to start developing their dressing skills. With schools closed, there’s no pressure to get everyone fed, dressed and out of the front door in the morning so there’s plenty of time to practice at your child’s own pace.

Let’s practice!

Getting dressed takes a lot of motor skills that autistic children may need time to develop. Balance and co-ordination of movements are needed to get their limbs in all the right places. Fine motor skills help them deal with many types of fastenings. 

Improving motor skills does not have to be boring! Here are some activities you can do at home with your child to make practice fun.

  • Practice balance by making a line on the floor and step with one foot in front of the other like “tightrope walking”. You could make it more interesting by pretending that they are walking a tightrope across a river full of snapping crocodiles!
  • Work on fine motor skills with a hidden treasure hunt. Fill a tub with rice or another pulse and hide small objects such as cars, or small figures and ask your child to find them. Sand play and messy play are also activities which practice fine motor skills.
  • Therapy putty is ideal for developing the hand strength needed to manipulate clothing and fastenings.

coloured buckets fuoll of sand and tag showing choice of play activtiesUse a TomTag visual list to help your child choose their preferred activity. Our new Early Years Activities sticker pack has lots  of activities that make fine motor skill practice part of playtime.

Getting Dressed

Once you’re ready to practice dressing try ‘backward chaining‘ . This method lets the child feel accomplished every time. They start with the last step then work backward from there.

Little changes can make a big difference in reducing your child’s frustrations while dressing. Here are some things you can do to make things easier for them.

Clothes

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

 

  • Choose trousers or skirts with elasticated waists where possible and opt for loose fitting items with velcro or large buttons which are easier to put on than tight fitting ones.
  • Use a simple visual checklist like TomTag showing what order each item of clothing should be put on. You could also lay the clothes out in the shape of a body to help with visualisation.
  • Offer a choice, “ you can wear the blue shirt or the red shirt”.
  • Lay out clothes the night before, making sure they are the right side out.
  • Organise the wardrobe separating play clothes, school clothes and ‘going out’ clothes

 socksSocks

  • Begin with large, short socks that slip more easily over the feet.
  • Show  your child how to scrunch longer socks up first before pulling them on
  • Socks with colored heels make it easier to get them the right way round. We love the brightly coloured Ez Socks  from Special Kids Company that also have handy pull up loops.
  • Try Little Grippers school socks for socks that stay on – and up! – all day long.

shoesShoes

  • Having a designated place for shoes will save valuable time spent hunting for them
  • Start with slip on shoes or use no tie elastic laces such as Hickies, Greepers and Lock Laces
  • Teach shoe tying with a  step by step approach. The ‘bunny ears’ is a popular method and YouTube is an excellent resource for demonstrations of this and other tying methods.

coatCoat

  • Start practising with different, larger types of coat.
  • If the sleeve by sleeve approach isn’t working try this flip flop over the top method  wonderfully described by Connectability.ca – you might want to stand well back until they get better at this one though!
  • Attach a zip pull or a key ring to the zip to help with gripping the tab and make zipping easier.

starWell done!

Don’t forget to give plenty of praise to your child for their efforts at each stage and consider using a star chart to help them establish their routine.

 

Sensory and developmental issues 

If your child is sensitive to clothing consider how to reduce their sensory triggers .

Check for labels and seams that might cause irritation and cut them out where possible. Wash clothes several times before wearing to help  soften them. 

The Sensory Smart Store started by a mum of an autistic boy with sensory processing disorder has a great range of clothes to help sensitive and sensory children and adults. Whilst EcoOutfitters offer school clothing made from 100% pure organic cotton.

Dressing in front of a mirror provides important visual cues that can help a child with sequencing, body planning and body awareness. If your child continues to have difficulty with dressing, a qualified occupational therapist should be able to help.

Have you any tips or experiences to share about teaching dressing skills? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

Resources

  • Back-to-School Toolkit

  • I Can Do It Learn At Home Kit

  • I Can Do It Self Care Skills Kit

  • I Know What To Expect At Home Kit

  • School Morning Routines

  • Self Care Sticker Pack

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Autism and anxiety in lockdown – sweating it out!

Exercise routine

This year’s World Autism Awareness Week takes place against the backdrop of a global pandemic. With a third of the global population under lockdown our daily lives have been dramatically changed. Forced to remain in our houses and adapt to new circumstances, many of us will be feeling bewildered, frustrated and anxious.

Sweating it out!

The anxiety many of us are now experiencing around these unprecedented changes gives us an insight into how many young people with autism, like my son Tom, experience an unwanted change of plan – it’s fraught with worry, it’s out of anything we could have predicted and it’s not what we wanted.

Our ‘new normal’ in these strange and unsettling times is very much how he feels all the time. Imagine having to deal with that level of anxiety every single day!

So, given everyone’s heightened levels of anxiety how can you manage autism and anxiety in a lockdown?

We’d like to share some daily strategies which we are using to support Tom’s mental health during this lockdown period. We’ve called it the SWEAT approach – let’s sweat this one out!

tips for good mental health
Daily SWEAT

Socialise – maintain social connections

Tom misses his dad, grandparents and college friends. Thankfully technology makes it relatively easy to keep connected. However, just as in normal social situations, we’re careful not to put demands on him to socialise virtually either.  We offer him a choice of how he stays connected and how often he wants to have contact.

Work – provide structure and routine

written timetable
Tom’s written weekly timetable

Routines and rituals help establish stability and order for children and young people with autism like Tom.

Like many young people with autism Tom struggles with flexible thinking. That means he finds it difficult to adjust and readjust to changes in his routine and this can cause him anxiety. A useful strategy has been to highlight what has stayed the same and what has changed. This reassures him that even with all the uncertainty some things, like his college work, mealtimes and bedtime routines, remain the same.

Keeping familiar routines going as much as possible is therefore important to provide structure and reassurance. Tom accesses his college work and sessions with his speech therapist, English tutor and German teacher online. A simple written visual schedule shows him what to expect each day and can help navigate these confusing times. You can also create symbol-based home visual schedules quickly and easily with TomTag.

However, it’s important not to set the bar to high! Be mindful that there will be days when the ‘home-schooling’ isn’t done and instead it is just a day of being together. An example of this was during the recent warm weather when we abandoned the schedule and went for a family walk.

Emotions – share worries and concerns

talking at table
Discussing concerns

Set aside time each day to talk about worries and concerns. Try to contain your own anxieties around the current situation because this anxiety gets transferred to our children. Now more than ever our autistic children need patience and support from the people they love.

Tom, like all of us, is naturally worried about events and this is amplified by worries about whether he is catching or spreading the disease.

We keep news coverage to a minimum and explain things in a clear and consistent manner using language appropriate to his level of understanding.

Making a wish list, where we write down all the things we want to do after the pandemic has passed, is also working well – though at the moment, it mostly revolves around football and Swiss trains!

Active – encourage physical activities

Keeping active is good for both our physical and mental well being. Tom has a daily fitness programme and he’s set up an exercise challenge with his speech therapist.

using exercise bike
Tom training hard!

Focusing on activities and encouraging him to do some chores – like washing the car and helping his sister deliver essential shopping to his self-isolating grandparents and other vulnerable members of the community – provides positive reinforcement that is so vital to keep up his self-esteem, confidence and sense of purpose.

Time alone – relax with special interests

reading book
Spending time alone

Build in lots of down time, together with time to indulge special interests. With all the family thrust together it’s important for mental well being that we all carve out some time for ourselves.

It’s a difficult time for all of us particularly for children with autism and anxiety. Hopefully by following these strategies we can sweat out this lockdown period.

What tips can you share that make this lockdown period more manageable and less stressful in your house?

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

mum hugging boy in school uniform on secondary school offer day

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

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

“I worry about wearing my blazer all day.”

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

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

Secondary school transition issues

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

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

How would he:

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

Preparation is key

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

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

Top 10 transition tips

Tip #1

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

Tip #2

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

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

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

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

Tip #3

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

Tip #4

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

Tip #5

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

Tip #6

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

Tip #7

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

Tip #8

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

Tip #9

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

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

Tip #10

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

Transition to secondary school resources

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

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

  • Back-to-School Toolkit

  • I Can Do It Pack My Bag For School Kit

  • I Know What To Expect At School Kit

  • cover image product feelings notebook

    My TomTag Feelings Notebook

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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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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.

  • I Know What To Expect Going Away

  • Staying Away From Home Sticker Pack

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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:

  • Back-to-School Toolkit

  • Early Years Home Toolkit

  • Early Years Sticker Pack

  • I Can Do It Learn At Home Kit

  • I Can Do It Pack My Bag For School Kit

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

  • I Know What To Expect At Home Kit

  • I Know What To Expect Early Years Kit

  • Learn At Home Sticker Pack

  • My School Kit Sticker Pack

  • Organising My School Bag

  • Primary Years Home Toolkit

  • School Morning Routines

 

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Surviving Christmas with help from TomTag

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.

my daily routineJust 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.

decorations and christmas symbolsDecorations

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.

Social expectations

family visits tagsChristmas 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.

Presents

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!

Relax!

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.

  • Christmas & Birthdays Sticker Pack

  • Christmas Survival Guide

  • Christmas Survival Toolkit

  • I Know What To Expect At Christmas & Birthdays Kit