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Your TomTag guide to an autism-tastic Christmas

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Christmas. Love it or hate it, it’s coming our way again – sooner than you think!

Because we know that this can be such a difficult, fraught and stressful time of year for families like ours, we’re sharing our best Tom Tag tips for an autism-tastic Christmas. 

Follow these tips of planning, preparation and patience to get ready for an autism-friendly Christmas that’s just right for you and your family.

PART 1: Planning

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

We love this idea from the Gina Davies Autism Centre. Grab a cuppa, a notebook and pen and start planning. Think about the whole upcoming Christmas period, not just the day itself. Reflecting on what was stressful last Christmas is a good starting point.

  • ✍Make a list with four columns headed up Achievable, Desirable, High Risk, Impossible!
  • 🤔Think about what is planned or expected over Christmas and place each activity under one of the four columns.
  • 🗞Keep your plan to hand and add to it as necessary.
  • 👏Don’t aim for 100% – if you can manage most of the achievable, one or two things in the desirable column and manage to come through everything in the risky column be proud of yourself – you’ve helped your family enjoy the bits of Christmas that work for them.

#2: Make a personalised ‘All about Christmas’ visual guide to show all the different things you might find or do at this time of year.

For example, a photo collage or Christmas scrapbook showing Christmas objects, Christmas food and activities that only happen at Christmas e.g. meeting Father Christmas or pulling Christmas crackers. You could also include pictures of your family celebrating Christmas.

Children with autism tend to forget social information so a permanent visual guide is a great way to remind them what Christmas looks like.

#3: Talk to your child’s school or support team so you know what different things they might be doing and when.

Ask them if they have a copy of this excellent autism advent calendar for schools from the National Autistic Society. If not, print a copy off for them to use to help your child manage during the Christmas period at school.

Have a meeting with your child’s teacher to plan together how you can help your child cope with the activities coming up. Keep communication going throughout the Christmas period with a ‘Home- School’ book such as the lovely one available from That Beautiful Mind.

#4: Take time to sit down with your child and talk through anything they might be finding confusing or unsettling about Christmastime and all its festivities.
It’s often the little things we don’t even notice that can seem so huge to them.

Look back at your Christmas plan (see Planning tip #2) and for each planned activity or event, make a two-column list headed ‘Concerns and Solutions’. Ask your child what concerns they may have and then together think about and write down a solution.

For example…

  • 🏘 a visit to family or friends
  • 😟 worry about what they will drink
  • 👍agree to take their favourite drink or ask the hosts whether they have it.

This think-say-do approach is a great way for dealing with uncertainties that occur throughout the year not just at Christmastime.

#5: Make realistic plans for your shopping needs.

Choose quieter times of day, take a list, use a babysitter, bring snacks, shop online.

Christmas shopping with a child who has autism is definitely a high-risk activity! Sounds, lights and the hustle and bustle of crowds – it’s easy to see why meltdowns occur and shopping trips are abandoned. There’s no need to be superhuman. Keep it simple, practical and do-able!

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

Christmas is usually a time of increased social contact and festive events with family and friends. Use a visual schedule to show what’s going to happen before any visitors come to the house or when going to parties, visiting family and friends. Roleplay and practice 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. Practice 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 practice 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. Practice 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

Merry Christmas from your TomTag team!

Useful resources:

  • cover image sticker pack christmas & birthdays

    Christmas & birthdays

  • cover image download christmas

    Christmas survival guide

  • cover image what to expect at christmas kit

    I know what to expect at Christmas & birthdays

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Coping with a family Christmas for an anxious teen with autism


For my son, Tom, thinking about our family Christmas meal is causing him anxiety. Spending time together and creating memories over a shared meal – it’s what many people love about Christmas – but it’s not so easy for an anxious teen with autism. Continue reading Coping with a family Christmas for an anxious teen with autism

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TomTag: your stories – Elizabeth

We learn a great deal from listening to our customers about their experiences with TomTag. It’s always interesting to find out about the different ways they use our products and wonderful to hear how it often makes such a real difference to their lives.

We thought it might be helpful to share some of those experiences and ideas with you too so we’ve interviewed a number of our customers who have been kind enough to talk about their different stories and backgrounds with us.

First up is Elizabeth, a childminder from London, and mum to two girls aged 4 and 12. 

Why did you purchase TomTag?

I bought TomTag to use with my daughters as both girls are on the autistic spectrum. Although they are both verbal and relatively high functioning they still need some support with their daily life activities.

I’d describe my youngest daughter as being in a permanent ‘fight or flight’ mode, always needing reassurance about what to expect during the day. The eldest has executive functioning issues and needs support to help her sequence activities and with organisation.

Did you use any other type of visual supports before you tried TomTag?

I used to make my own picture timetables and sequences. It was very time consuming having to print off the pictures, laminate them and then attach them to Velcro. My youngest daughter really didn’t like the Velcro system so when I saw TomTag advertised in Aukids magazine I decided to give them a try.

So, how do you use it?

In lots of different ways! 

For my younger daughter I have set up:

 

 

  • daily timetables that I create by prominently displaying 3 tags on hooks on the fridge (and also in the other rooms where she needs to use them) to show her what her morning, afternoon and evening routines should be
  • a toilet routine reminder hanging in the bathroom which is a simple picture sequence checklist to break the routine down into small steps.
  • social story resources to help prepare for things like visits to the doctor and hairdresser. I explain what’s going to happen and the order of events whilst we look at the pictures together.

My elder daughter uses TomTag for: 

Younger child tag examples

How has TomTag helped your children?

My little one finds TomTag very comforting. She feels in control of her day now and is less anxious about what is going to happen next. Seeing her routine in pictures also helps with teaching her sequences and time concepts. She loves the ‘hands on’ system – she particularly enjoys clicking the buttons in and out!

My older daughter finds TomTag really helps with her organisational skills. She feels less anxious at school knowing she has all the right things with her. She also likes the ’hands on’ nature of TomTag and she’s now started taking responsibility for planning and organising her day. For example, when she started going to choir as an after school activity, she changed her tag by herself to show this change of routine.

I’ve also found the tips and advice for teaching life skills on your website very helpful.

Do you have any suggestions for how we could make TomTag even better?

The range of images supplied in the various sticker packs is generally good. I have used the blank stickers to draw some personalised images – an umbrella, keys and phone charger.

I think there could be some additional ‘days out’ type images e.g. summer fair, fun fair, adventure park or castle. Perhaps a jumbo version of the tags and buttons would be useful for children who have sight problems but I appreciate the product would not then be as portable!

Overall I think TomTag is a wonderful product and it has really made life easier for both my daughters.

Thank you Elizabeth for sharing your story and for giving us some insightful tips on how TomTag works in your home.

Follow the highlighted links in the interview to find out more details about all the products used by Elizabeth and her family.

Would you like to share your story with us?

All it takes is a short chat with us on the ‘phone, ideally send us a few pics of your TomTags in use then just leave the rest to us. It’s easy to get in touch with us, all the details are on our Contact Us page. 

 

 

 

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Interest or obsession – a matter of perspective

The recent 175th anniversary of the issue of the Penny Black postage stamp took me back to my childhood and the joys of stamp collecting. For me this was a hobby, a pleasant way to pass the time and a special interest I could share with my dad.

Interest or obsession?

eddies
Eddie Stobart collection

Most people have interests and hobbies. For children with autism however the term ‘special interest’ implies more than a run of the mill hobby – usually that they have an obsession with a particular object, topic or collection.

Having interests is generally a good thing for most people but when they become obsessions then they can interfere with quality of life.

Managing special interests

Over the course of his childhood my son Tom, who is autistic, has had a range of special interests, including:

RUBY GLOOM 6 023
Train spotting!

  • Thomas the Tank Engine
  • Traffic lights
  • Eddie Stobart lorries
  • TinTin
  • Number cards
  • Flags
  • Trains

As a family we’ve always engaged with Tom’s various interests and tried to view them as his way of expressing himself. We’ve used them as a stepping stone to expand activities, encourage his learning and promote his communication skills.

However, as many parents know from experience, managing special interests before they morph into all-consuming obsessions is one of the many balancing acts of parenting a child on the spectrum.

Obsessions – good or bad?

Unlike my interest in stamp collecting, Tom’s special interests fulfill a number of specific needs for him. His current interest is trains and the positive effects of this include:

  • Gives him enjoyment and makes him feel happy.
  • Acts as a comforter and a coping mechanism. When he is overwhelmed or anxious he likes to immerse himself in thoughts about trains.
  • Allows him to connect with other people in social situations as he uses his interest in trains to start conversations.

It is when Tom is anxious that we see the difficulties that his special interests can cause:

  • It’s difficult to communicate with him as all he wants to talk about is trains.
  • Undermines his ability to learn at school as all his thinking time is taken up with thoughts about trains.
  • Isolates him from peers who do not want to talk about or listen to a monologue about trains.
  • Can affect family relationships as he only wants to participate in activities which revolve around his special interest.

Tips for managing special interests

It’s not generally realistic (or necessarily desirable) to remove the special interest. The best approach is to try to manage the special interest so that it does not take over everyday life.

These are some of the strategies we’ve tried to follow:

Set limits

clockTom can talk about or view videos and pictures of trains on the computer at certain times of the day e.g. when he gets home from school but only after finishing his homework or between certain hours at the weekend.

Make it predictable

Making sure that Tom can clearly access what he needs during these limited times or preparing him well in advance if it’s not going to be possible help to significantly reduce anxiety levels (his and mine!).

Encourage communication

notebook & pencilReduce the dependence on the special interest as a comfort when there are worries or anxieties by encouraging other means of communication. We set up a feelings book so that Tom can record any worries he has and we have a designated adult at school that he knows he can talk to about any issues that arise during the school day.

{Using this idea with Tom sparked the design of our TomTag Feelings Notebook which has now been added to our range of products – see links below}

Teach conversation skills

With the help of Tom’s speech and language therapist, we’re working on developing conversation skills to support his understanding of topic management and how to read the signs that people have become bored or disinterested in his train talk!

If you’d like more information or advice about this topic, Ambitious about Autism have an informative article on managing obsessions and the National Autistic society also has some practical advice on understanding behaviour and obsessions.

In the meantime, I would love to hear your experiences of managing special interests and any tips you could share.

  • cover image sticker pack feelings & emotions

    Feelings & emotions

  • cover image download feelings tag

    Feelings tag-o-meter

  • I can do it – manage my feelings

  • cover image for share how I feel minikit product

    I can do it – share how I feel

  • cover image product feelings notebook

    My TomTag Feelings Notebook

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Choosing the right school for your child with autism

How do you choose the right school for your child? Not only do you want to find the school that will give them the best possible education but somewhere that they will be happy, make friends and discover new interests.Cheerful school boy

This is a difficult and challenging process for most parents but if your child has autism, making the right decision becomes even more important.

Do your research

Get as much advice as you can

Talk to family, friends, other parents and professionals who have knowledge of provision in your authority
e.g. Educational Psychologist, Parent Partnership or Parent Support group

Look at the school website and brochure

This should give you a general view of school policies & structure.
Under the new SEN Code all schools must now have details on their websites about their policy for children with SEN too.

Arrange a private visit to the school

Open days are useful but to get a real feel of a school arrange a private visit during school hours and preferably over a break or lunch time.
This gives you the chance to observe how pupils behave and interact with staff and their peers. You can also get a feel for the more practical issues – how busy are the corridors, how noisy is the school canteen, etc.

Boy and teacher

Important questions to ask when visiting schools

As well as general questions on issues such as uniform, opening hours and holiday dates, you will undoubtedly want to ask questions on autism specific issues.

Here are some ideas for important questions you might want to know the answers to.

Staff knowledge and training

What experience and knowledge do the staff have of autism? Have they had any specific training?

Are all staff aware of the associated difficulties of being autistic e.g. sensory issues, dietary needs?

Do teachers use autism-friendly communication strategies e.g. visual cues, key words, clear and unambiguous classroom language?

Individualised plans

Would the school be able to offer a tailored curriculum to take into account your child’s needs?

What resources does the school have to accommodate your child’s special interests?

Is one-to-one support available – how much and how often?

Is homework differentiated where appropriate and clarified for a child with autism?

Are there opportunities to learn life skills such as cooking and self care skills?

Pastoral care

How is bullying dealt with and what steps have the school taken to understand the particular vulnerability of children with autism?

What is the system for home-school communication? In my experience, good communication between staff and parents is the key to a successful school placement!

Is there a designated quiet area or room available that children can go to when necessary?

Are there any break time or lunch clubs where your child could go for support or that would match their interests?

Does the school have any system of peer support in place e.g. circle of friends or buddy schemes?

Useful links

The Autism Education Trust have just published a really useful guide that will help you in your search to find a new school, whether it be primary, secondary, mainstream or special school. There’s even plenty of room to make notes so why not print off a few copies to take with you on your school visits.

A parents and carers’ guide to finding a school for your child with autism

 

Images courtesy of photostock at FreeDigitalPhotos.net