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21 Years Living With Autism – Lessons I Have Learnt

                                                                                                                                ‘While we try to teach our children all about life, our children teach us what life is all about‘ ~ Angela Schwindt

My son, Tom, the inspiration for  TomTag visual supports, turned 21 years recently. It seems like only yesterday that he was a new born baby snuggled in my arms. Like any new mum it felt like the beginning of new things. A rainbow of hopes, dreams and possibilities spreading out before us. 

Autism cast a shadow on that rainbow.

But the rainbow was always there. It  just needed to be looked at from a new perspective.  With the understanding that hopes, dreams and possibilities mean different things to different people. 

Over the last 21 years Tom has taught me so much. Not  just about lorries,  swiss trains and football 😉 But, about the important qualities in life – patience, resilience, humility and determination.  That each of us has a right to be here, to be heard and to live life to its fullest potential.

To celebrate Tom turning 21, I’m sharing 21 lessons I’ve learnt from living with autism. I know what a rollercoaster it can be parenting an autistic child so I hope our experiences bring some positivity and hope to those of you who may be going through similar  experiences.  Please know that however hard it is now,  with time, things do change, the shadows lift and the rainbow reveals itself🌈

Clare ❤

Lesson 1: Let Go Of Expectations

Tom having fun with the gravel!

As a new mum, ‘What to Expect the First Year ‘ by Heidi Murkoff was my bible for the first 12 months of Tom’s life.

Like every new mum, every  month I proudly ticked off Tom’s achievements– sitting, crawling, first solid food. Then I almost burst with pride.  Aged 10 months, he pulled himself up on the sofa and walked across the room!

But when I took him to the playground, I noticed that Tom ignored the other children. He  wasn’t interested in playing on the slides and swings. Instead, he spent his ‘playtime’ picking up handfuls of the gravel and watching it fall between his fingers.

I was a bit confused by Tom’s reaction and obsession with the gravel. I felt  sad for him that he was missing out. Over time I found the joy at seeing him engrossed in HIS form of play. It was an early lesson in letting go of MY expectations. Now I understand that playtime was always going to be a sensory experience for Tom. He always wanted to touch things and liked to know how things tasted or smelt. Even railings, but that’s another story!

I didn’t know it then but  letting go of expectations was to become my mantra.

 

Lesson 2: Live In The Moment 

Tom memorised in his water play

From an early age Tom was fascinated with water. As a toddler he loved to pour water into and out of small cups  or jugs for hours on end.

The joy of watching him completely absorbed in his water play, his curiosity for the  waters feel, look and movement taught me to live in the moment.

I realise now it was a sensory need for him. The  visual stimulation from the patterns made when the water dripped and poured into various containers made him feel happy and calm. 

 

 

 

 

Lesson 3: The World Is Loud And Bright

Tom having some quiet time with his favourite teddy

When Tom was a toddler, I often thought he had superhuman powers of hearing and seeing. He could hear a dog bark from miles away, get agitated  during loud conversations and react immediately to bright lights.

Yet…he didn’t seem to hear me calling his name.  These powers, far from helping him, seemed to cause him acute distress. He covered his ears and eyes with his hands, hid under tables and tried to run away. Anything to get from the noise and brightness. If he couldn’t get away, he would have a meltdown. 

I was confused and worried by his reactions.  I instinctively knew what would help him. He  needed his favourite Tellytubby, a cuddle and a quiet place to make him feel safe.

Since having Tom I’ve realised how loud, bright and intense the world can be. I know now that he sees, feels and hears things that I’d never paid much attention to much more intensely. This sensory overload was the reason for his meltdowns. Heck, maybe that’s why he walked at such an early age …so he could escape!

I’m now more aware of the sights and sounds around us. I’ve even noticed that the intensity of fluorescent lights in offices and shops often affects me .  During these moments of sensory overload I need to find a quiet place and take time to collect myself.

Lesson 4: Silence Can Speak Volumes

Reunited with Tom after retuning from hospital

When I came home from hospital after giving birth to Toms sister I expected a grand home coming. I was looking forward to an excited toddler giggling and rushing towards me arms outstretched, impatient for a cuddle.

Instead I was greeted with a silent hug . A seemingly underwhelming welcome.  I knew, however, from the way Tom hugged me, so tightly. The way he looked at me that he had missed me, that he loved me.

This was the start of my understanding that we didn’t need words to communicate. It was a good thing as he didn’t start to talk until he was nearly 5.

We’ve had a humongous amount of hugs since then!

 

 

Lesson 5: Never Take A Milestone For Granted

Biscuit time- Tom’s favourite part of the day!

Tom was nonverbal until almost 5 years old. 

When I was told by doctors that it was highly likely Tom may never speak. I was devastated. I could feel his frustration at not being able to tell us what he wanted. We had to find some way he could communicate with us.

Tom used to take me by the arm and pull me towards what ever he wanted.  For example, the fridge if he wanted a drink or the front door if he wanted to go outside.  We had to find a better way.

 We started using objects and picture cards. These gave him a way of showing us what he needed or wanted. He’d give me the drink card if he wanted a drink or show me the coat card if he wanted to go outside. Guess which card was always top of the pile!? The biscuit card!

It’s not the milestone we were expecting but we didn’t take his progress for granted.

 

 

Lesson 6: Celebrate Every Unique Moment

Tom playing with his sister Hannah

The arrival of Tom’s sister Hannah marked the start of Tom’s shut down period.

Most of us sadly, are all too familiar with a lockdown but Tom was ahead of the curve! Back in 2002, he went into his own self-imposed lockdown. Showing zero curiosity about his new baby sister, Hannah, other children, or visitors. He screamed when she cried. There was only one thing he wanted to do all day, every day. Lie on the floor and move a piece of a toy wooden train track up and down in front of his face.

It was heart-breaking to watch. I felt intensely sad. Tom was missing out on all the fun toddler things I had planned to do with him. I was also fearful. Worried  that Tom would forever resent his little sister.

One afternoon, without warning,  Tom abandoned his beloved train track (seen in the photo at the edge of the rug). He spontaneously started  to play with Hannah. Tears of joy streamed down my face. I knew that this was a unique moment to be celebrated.

From this small precious moment, the most incredible bond between the two of them has grown and developed over the years.

Lesson 7: Life Goes On

Some of the cards for Tom’s ABA programme

Receiving Tom’s diagnosis of autism just before he turned 4 came as a mixture of relief and sadness.

Relief as for almost 2 years I’d had a nagging feeling that something wasn’t quite right. Tom’s lack of speech, repetitive play and extreme reactions to any changes in his routine now made sense . However, I felt an equal measure of sadness. The future I imagined had been taken away. I felt isolated, overwhelmed, and missed having my family and friends on the doorstep.

But life goes on. I quickly became the CEO of Tom, Plc!

Soon after the diagnosis, we were offered a place on a home-based therapy programme – 40 hours a week of applied behavioural analysis therapy (ABA). A  2-year programme (the first of its kind in Switzerland) which took over my life. My weeks became a flurry of appointments, assessments, and the day-to-day management of the therapy sessions. Not to mention all the resources, the hundreds of picture cards I made to support the programme. 

I hit the ground running! Working as a therapist on the ABA team gave me a sense of purpose. It also  allowed me to adapt Tom’s  programme so it reflected the things that mattered to him. More TBA than ABA!

Lesson 8: The Power Of A Hug

A reassuring hug during a busy family party

Three months into Tom’s  ABA programme we flew to the UK to attend my mums 60th birthday party. A  gathering of over 70 family and friends in a local pub.

It would have been easy to opt out of going. My mum knew how challenging it was for Tom to be out of routine.  She would have understood if we had chosen to stay at home. But seeing family was important . My mum had survived breast cancer, so I really wanted to mark this landmark birthday with her.

The journey didn’t worry me as much as the party. We had made frequent visits to the UK since Tom was a baby. We  often joked he had been on a plane more times than a train or bus. My travelling preparation  was therefore honed to a tee particularly my ‘survival bag’. A handy assortment of books, toys and treats which went on all our travels. It could be deployed to help distract and calm Tom in situations he found stressful or overwhelming.

But,  it was often a simple hug,  which had the real power to calm, reassure and comfort him.

 

Lesson 9: The Importance of Perseverance

Tom working on his ‘l’ sounds in his speech therapy session

Tom made huge progress on his ABA programme. He started to speak and repeat phrases.

We were so excited to hear his voice.  When he randomly said ‘Nanny’s greenhouse’  we flew back to the UK as soon as we could. Delighted that he  could see Nanny and her greenhouse!

I’d have to wait a bit longer to hear him say ‘I love you mummy’. Tom had significant speech and language difficulties. He was unable to express his ideas and thoughts in complete sentences and had trouble pronouncing certain sounds. I admit I found the way he said ‘wamp’ for lamp charming.  However, other people found it difficult to understand him.

He started regular speech and language therapy which included work on his ‘l’ sounds both in the therapy session and lots of practice at home.

With hard work and perseverance, he finally mastered that tricky ‘l’ sound.

Lesson 10: The World Is a Beautiful Place

Tom in awe and wonder during a forest hike

Tom loves patterns. He is fascinated by lines, shapes and colours 〰🔴🔻🌈

When he was younger, he would often stop and stare at the shadows cast by railings. Fascinated by the shapes made by the lines. He’d be mesmerised looking at a crack in the pavement. Captivated by the glow of the setting sun and transfixed by a falling leaf, as shown in this photograph.

 Tom  taught me to take notice of all the little things that make our world so beautiful 🌍

 

 

 

 

Lesson 11: The Power of Sharing

 

Tom having fun at Pre-School

Like every mum dropping their child off for their first day of school, I felt the usual mix of emotions . Proud yet worried about how Tom would settle in.  Twelve   months earlier it seemed inconceivable that we would find anywhere suitable for Tom. It had been quite a journey to get him to this point.  Leaving him in the classroom was so emotional and overwhelming. I had to dash to the car for a cry. 

 I knew that it would not be possible for Tom to attend school fulltime. His communication difficulties, limited attention span and sensory issues. made full time attendance too challenging.  I didn’t want to set him up for failure. For him to feel defeated by education at the very offset.

 I wanted Tom to have the opportunity to learn alongside his peers. To  have the shared cultural experience of education. I wanted a flexible option – sharing his education between home and school.

We discounted local primary and special schools because they were German speaking. Tom was just learning to communicate in English, so this was a no-no.  The international school was our only option. Would they be prepared to share Tom’s education and allow him to have a mix of school and home-based learning?

We were lucky. They did.

Aged 4,  and a year older than his peers, Tom started at the Zurich International Preschool for 2 morning per week with an assistant. His ‘at home’ time was spent following his ABA program and with me. It gave him time to sort out some of things he found confusing at school and space to recharge.

This collage of pictures taken during Tom’s Preschool year shows just how happy he was at school.   Tom was able to enjoy a shared education for the next six years . We are forever grateful to the staff at ZIS  for their patience, respect and commitment to Tom’s flexi-schooling. 

Lesson 12: Making Sense of Senses

Tom in hospital waiting for an x-ray

En route to Cornwall for a summer holiday, Tom broke his arm. He fell off a climbing frame at a service station.

We didn’t realise he’d broken his arm – he didn’t scream, shout or make any fuss. He simply picked himself up and headed back to the car. It was only when we were back on the road that I noticed him clutching his elbow. His face drawn, ashen and etched with pain. We veered of the motorway to find the nearest A& E. This photograph was taken as we waited to be seen at the hospital. 

 The X-rays showed that it was nasty break. I felt terrible. He must have been in the most horrendous pain and we had been unaware of his suffering.

It was just so confusing. Haircuts, having his toenails cut, washing his face caused him to scream to high heavens.  Breaking his arm – not even a whimper.

We already knew that Tom had difficulties with his language and communication. This this couldn’t explain the lack of any emotion to his injury. Even without words, tears would have at least alerted us to his pain. I realised then that there must be major issues with how he was interpreting sensory information. This was having an impact on how he was behaving and responding. It just seemed so unfair for one little boy to have to deal with yet another set of difficulties. I felt defeated…

It was time for an occupational therapist to join team Tom!

Amongst other sensory issues, OT assessments showed that Tom was both overly and under sensitive to touch. His  behaviour and certain reactions started to make sense.Tom  had always disliked messy play but would be unaware of his hands and face being dirty. He loved being hugged by me but would recoil in horror if anyone else tried to touch him. He touched and mouthed objects but was fussy with his food and avoided certain textures.

So, aged 5, Tom started weekly sessions of OT at school and a programme of activities and exercises at home.  With patience, commitment, and hard work, Tom has steadily improved his ability to interpret sensory information from his body and the environment. Haircuts and nail cutting are no longer an issue though he still has a relatively high pain threshold and tolerance for being cold.

This experience with Tom also taught me the importance of providing a nonverbal way to communicate aches, pain (including broken limbs!) and sensory overload to others in a simple and effective way. That’s why we’re proud to include a ‘I can do it manage me feelings ‘ kit in the TomTag range. 

Lesson 13: Less Is More

As part of his occupational therapy programme Tom had a series of daily activities to practice at home. There were movement exercises to encourage the right and left side of his brain to talk better to each other. This interhemispheric integration would  improve how he could react to his surroundings. There were also lots of fine motor activities. Tasks to help improve the small muscles in his hands and wrists to help him with skills like, grasping, dressing ( zips & shoelaces) writing and drawing.

I was willing to work and put in the time with Tom but sometimes he wasn’t interested in the activities. On days like these it was easy to feel disheartened and resentful.

Short of bribing him with his favourite biscuits (!) I learnt that the secret to getting him to do his OT exercises regularly was to do a little often. It also helped to spread them out during the day and turn them into a game. It was also important not to take things personally. If Tom was stressed or agitated during the activities then we would leave it and start again the next day.

Lesson 14: Joyful Collaboration

 Tom’s ABA programme was a success. Now he could communicate what he wanted, concentrate much better and was behaving appropriately at school. But life isn’t just about getting your needs met and fitting in. It’s about connection and friendship. The joyful experience of sharing our ideas and feelings with another person.

How could we help Tom develop meaningful conversation, cooperation, flexible thinking and empathy. All  the skills he needed to make and keep a friend?

I discovered Relationship Development Intervention (RDI) by chance in a magazine article. This programme based on Developmental Psychology was the perfect fit. It’s  guiding principle is Joyful Collaboration. The  idea that joy comes not from a toy or game but from sharing an experience.

Tom moved from ABA onto RDI at the same time as receiving OT and SLT (got to love an acronym or two!). It was a full-time job coordinating all these programmes and collaborating (joyfully!) with various professionals.

For RDI, we practised different activities at home working on joint attention, collaboration, teamwork, and communication.

In this short video clip, Tom (aged 8) and I are sharing the job of watering flowers. We take turns with the watering can with the aim of helping Tom practise being a ‘team member’. Although he was reluctant to water the flowers, he accepted my instructions . I loved how the ‘job’ developed into a fun chasing game. A true Joyful Collaboration!

Lesson 15: Planning Is Key

Tom, happy and relaxed ready for his first day at school

When Tom was 10 years old, we relocated back to the UK from Switzerland.

For any family moving home can be stressful, moving to a new country -double the stress! I was worried about how Tom would manage this major change in his life.

 It was potentially a huge challenge for him. He craved familiarity, had built up excellent relationships with his various therapists and was thriving under his bespoke educational arrangement. How would he cope with a new home, attending school for a full day, wearing a school uniform for the first time?  

Tom coped.

The relocation went relatively smoothly because we planned and prepared for it. Creating  a picture book of the new house and school was a great help .We  focused on the positive aspects of the move such as being able to see more of his grandparents and cousins . We  encouraged him to share any worries he had about the move. He worked on a story about his mixed feelings about leaving Switzerland with an amazing counsellor at the international school.

Critically, we took his routines with us -his morning, bedtime, get-ready for school routines.  

He settled in remarkably well at the local mainstream village primary school. There was some regression in his language and behaviour. But, with the support of a sensitive and dedicated teacher and assistant Tom soon found his feet and voice.

I quickly formed a new Team Tom with a new speech and language therapist and occupational therapist.

Planning was therefore the key to making the relocation a success.  

Lesson 16:  The Importance of Special Interests

All things Eddie Stobart!

It was one of my biggest worries when we relocated back to the UK from Switzerland. How would Tom manage without his special interest. -Swiss transport.  He loved swiss trains . His favourite part of any journey was spotting lorries  from the Swiss firm Galliker.

 Fortunately, I had a secret weapon. Eddie Stobart – the iconic green delivery lorries that criss- cross the UK 24 hours a day.

I cunningly introduced Tom to Eddies and signed us up to the Eddie Stobart Spotters Club. We live near to the M62 – prime Eddie Stobart spotting territory! We could go out to eat as a local pub overlooked the motorway. The staff got to know us . They  always gave us a window seat where Tom would quietly sit, happily keeping a tally of all the lorries he spotted on the nearby motorway (using his Eddie Stobart writing pad and pencil!)

 Eddie Stobart lorries were a source of comfort and enjoyment for Tom. For us, they became a source of inspiration.  Birthday cakes, biscuits, and presents also assumed Eddie status.

More importantly, Eddie Stobart became a means of encouraging him to engage in his learning.  Art projects, tricky writing tasks and maths problem could all be given the Eddie treatment! Tom approached any task that had a hint of Eddie, with enthusiasm, happiness and a willingness to learn.

Tom’s love of Eddies lasted 3 years. The most memorable event was a tour of an Eddie Stobart depot and a chance to sit behind the wheel. I don’t know who was more excited – Tom or I!

Lesson 17: Fussy Eating Habits Can Change Over Time

Tom, aged 12 and his signature dish- cheese-less pizza!

When Tom was younger, he was a picky eater.

I knew that Tom needed a balanced diet – a variety of fresh, healthy food for good health and development. For the first few years, I felt guilty and responsible that he would only eat a limited amount of food.

 Tom’s diagnosis of autism and the results of his OT assessment helped me understand his fussy eating habits.

He needed familiarity and routine. Trying new experiences including eating new foods were therefore difficult. It was obvious now why he was preoccupied with certain foods. They  provided him with reassuring predictability. 

 Tom craved soft food like ice cream.  He liked the feeling of coldness in his mouth.  Bland foods like pasta, bread and chips  were his preferred choice.  He disliked meat  because he found chewing difficult. Though he did make an exception for chicken nuggets! He disliked tomatoes but liked ketchup or tomato sauce because he didn’t like the texture of tomatoes . His favourite meal was pizza but without any topping other than tomato sauce.

Sharing regular meals and snacks and introducing new foods gradually helped Tom get comfortable with new foods. However, the biggest change came when he was 15. He started a Jamie Oliver cooking course at school. By preparing and cooking food with the encouragement from two talented teachers, Tom’s food preferences changed. He was more willing to try different foods.

This Christmas aged 20, Tom enthusiastically dipped carrot sticks and chunks of olive bread into his baked camembert. His food choices have come a long way since this photograph was taken! 

Lesson 18: Detective Work

Tom happy and relaxed in the mountains

When Tom was younger it was difficult for me to know what his feelings meant. It was also difficult for him to pick up clues about how I was feeling.

Although Tom feels the same thing as everyone else, the nuances can be blurred. His feelings are much more intense and can be harder to distinguish. Feeling sadness could lead to him crying but also to laugh or shout for no good reason. He has difficulty interpreting gestures and expressions – often thinking I’m angry when I’m not!

With his SLT, we  created a book of feelings to help Tom understand his own and other people’s feelings. We used this book to teach him the words he needed to express and recognise different feelings.

This work made me look at my own feelings and emotions.  I had to understand what feelings mean to me before explaining them to Tom. We were both developing our feelings detective skills!

Helping him to identify the size of his feelings and relate this to his physical reaction was also important. Often,  a little feeling could grow into a gigantic feeling. Tom could spend hours, days, even weeks catastrophising.  Churning over thoughts and feelings in his mind like a sticky record.

Teaching and modelling simple self-help strategies like self-talk (phrases Tom could say to himself when he was feeling worried) helped. At secondary school he used  a sensory levels chart (a visual chart to recognise his sensory stressors)  to help him  to manage his feelings.

Our experience led to the development of the TomTag Feelings Notebook. A resource for other families to use to support their feelings and emotions detective work.

That’s a thumbs up from Tom!

Lesson 19: Look At Ability Not Disability

Tom with his award for effort and all ready for Prom

Like any parent I was anxious about Tom’s move to secondary school.  I had managed to keep him a year behind cohort, so he started at age 12 . However he was both academically and socially behind his peers and it felt like the gap between them was widening. Like a train picking up speed out of the station and you can’t get on it  no matter how fast you run.

It was unrealistic to expect any exam success – unless there was an exam in Swiss train timetables and routes! Tom gets anxious even at the mention of the word test.  Furthermore,  his language difficulties meant that he struggled to understand complex sentences, instructions and specific vocabulary.

Despite the anxieties and challenges he faced, Tom always worked hard and tried his best . He was the only young person at his school to consistently achieve straight A grades for attitude across all subjects. This exemplary attitude to learning was motivated by his need to please his teachers and not disappoint or upset anyone. Though,  he did enjoy many of his lessons. I felt so proud when he was regularly awarded prizes for effort at school prize giving.

Tom left school with few formal qualifications, but he left smiling, confident and with the motivation to continue learning. He even enjoyed Prom!

 

Lesson 20: Say What You Mean

Tom at home in the Etihad stadium

One of the biggest challenges for Tom due to his language difficulties is making sense of what people are saying.

When Tom’s grandad suggesting taking him for a spin in the car Tom looked horrified!

Before I had Tom, I didn’t think about the extent to which we play games and  hide behind words.  How often we use sayings like ‘Pull your socks up’, ‘we’ve run out of milk ‘,’Get a move on’ . Many of which are confusing for Tom because he takes what is said literally.

 When he was younger, I learnt to tell him exactly what I wanted him to do using as fewer words as possible. I helped him to learn how to look out for expressions on faces and realise the importance of how expressions are more important than the words themselves by emphasising my facial expressions and using exaggerated gestures . Some days I felt like a CBeebies presenter in full flow!

Tom can still become confused by words with similar or related meaning. Encouraging him to say when he hasn’t understood something and talking about some of the saying we use regularly and what they actually mean helps. His love of football is helping him experience playful teasing in a light heated way.  Some good old footy banter with people he trusts. Thankfully his team are doing well so he can banter from a position of strength!

Lesson 21: It takes a village.

Photo collage of memories

After 21 years living with autism, I have learnt that it really does take a village to raise a child.

My village is larger than most. My  family, friends, the dedicated therapists, teachers, teaching assistants and personal trainer we’ve been privileged to work with over the years . Plus, the many people we’ve met who have shown us the character of their humanity.  The hairdressers, barbers, dentists, shops assistants, waiters  who when faced with difference have responded with patience, empathy and decency.

Every victory we experience with Tom whether it’s trying a new food,  meeting new people or dealing with a change of plan belongs to us all.

Tom has taught me that it’s okay to ask for help. He’s taught me that just like any other child he needed me and our village to believe in him. His potential to learn, grow and thrive alongside his peers and community.

 

 

Thank you, Tom, for these lessons in what really matters.  I know you will continue to face the next 21 years with courage, determination and the enduring support of your village.

I’d love to know in the comments below what lessons you have learnt from your children.

                                                                                                                                          Clare ❤

Resources

 

  • Back-to-School Self-Talk Prompt Sheet

  • cover image feelings notebook extra stickers

    Extra sticker sheets for Feelings Notebook

  • Feelings & Emotions Sticker Pack

  • Feelings Bundle

  • Feelings Tag-O-Meter

  • I Can Do It Manage My Feelings Kit

  • I Can Do It Share How I Feel Mini Kit

  • cover image product feelings notebook

    My TomTag Feelings Notebook

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10 ways to have fun with occupational therapy

  Occupational Therapy Week takes place this  week in the UK .

It has prompted me to reflect on the occupational therapy (OT) my son, Tom  has received over the years. Gulp… it’s also focused my mind on the amount of money I’ve spent on buying OT resources!

The main emphasis for Tom has been Sensory Integration Therapy  to help him cope with his sensory difficulties.  A personalised programme of activities focusing on developing his gross and fine motor skills and his sensory perception (i.e. touch, body awareness, balance, auditory & visual skills) has been game changing. 

Naturally some activities and resources have proved more successful than others so I  thought it would be helpful to select our TOP 10 to share with you.

1. HUG & TUG

hug and tug

Tom followed a series of activities from The Handle Institute . Hug and Tug was one of his favorites and an exercise he still uses today. 

This simple exercise can calm anxiety, increase concentration and help develop fine motor skills.  Just needs two hands and can be done at any time!

Here’s how:

  1.  Rest your arms on a supportive surface or place them lightly against your lower ribcage.  Interlock your index fingers.
  2.   Squeeze and pull with your interlocked index fingers – one relaxes as the other pulls, then the other relaxes and the other finger pulls. Both of your arms remain relaxed – only the fingers are moving.
  3.  Repeat the back and forth pull-release three or four times as the index fingers stay hooked together.
  4.  Unhook your index fingers and interlock your middle fingers , and repeat.
  5.  Continue with all fingers and then, finally, hug and tug your thumbs

 2. SCOOTER BOARD

At his last school  Tom cut quite a dash scooting along the corridor propelled by his arms! Great for building up shoulder stability and core strength.

Sensory Direct have some reasonably priced boards.

3. ANIMAL ACTION CARDS

card exercise 1

Make a set of cards showing different animal walks then take it in turns to choose a card and complete the exercise shown on it. Try dog walks, bunny hops, kangaroo jumps, crab walks – whatever takes your fancy. Great for building upper body strength and a sense of humour!

This is a good activity to do with siblings and as a rainy day or birthday party game.

Stuck for ideas? Pop over to the blog Pinning With Purpose for some good tips on how to make your own animal exercise cards.

4. TIME SHOCK

time shock puzzle

Have you got a steady hand? This frantic beat-the-clock game is great for developing fine motor skills and also uses visual memory.

The aim of the game is to place the shapes in the matching slot before the time runs out. Need nerves of steel though and can get competitive!

5. POP-UP TUNNEL

play tunnel

Crawling helps develop shoulder stability which is important for writing skills. This simple item also offers hours of fun playing peek-a-boo which encourages eye contact.

IKEA, Tesco and the like all have similar versions.

6. PUTTY

Great for developing hand muscle strength. You could even try making your own putty.

Fledglings have are some lovely reasonably-priced Rainbow Putty which comes in a variety of different colours and is colour-coded to indicate the level of resistance.

7. HIDDEN TREASURE

sensory bean box

Fill a tub with rice or another pulse and hide small objects such as toy cars, figurines or sweets. Great to develop fine motor skills and another fun party game.

8. SWING

cuddle swing

Swinging is good for vestibular movement. My son particularly liked this cuddle swing.

They can be expensive to buy so here’s some tips on how to make your own cuddle swing and there’s even some ideas for versions that don’t need attaching to the ceiling.

9. CRAFT ACTIVITY

There are plenty of options here – we chose to make our own domino game using card, craft foam, marker pens and stickers.

There were lots of opportunities to practice fine motor skills with all that cutting, sticking and drawing and we all enjoyed playing the finished result.

10. CHEWY TUBE

chewy aid

Our bright red T-shaped Chewy Tube saved many a shirt cuff and tie being shredded! Very resilient and helps develop chewing skills as well as reducing anxiety. Sensory Direct and  Chewigem both have a good range of oral motor aids to choose from.

Click here to find out more about what occupational therapists do and how occupational therapy can help . 

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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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Games for Children with Autism – 5 Fun TomTag Activities

Plastic tags showing examples of games for children with autism

Play is one of the main ways that children learn and develop. There’s no reason why children with autism who use visual supports are any different. So why not bring play and fun games for children with autism into your visual supports too. To them they’re playing games, but you know that they’re getting some occupational therapy, speech activities and thinking skills thrown in. Games may also help children with autism engage more readily with using their visual supports. It’s a win-win!!

Here’s some of our ideas you could use to help your child engage with TomTag. 

#1  Indoor I- Spy.

Colouful plastic tags showing examples of an indoor I-Spy gameStuck indoors? Why not encourage language and memory skills with a fun indoor I -Spy game.

Instructions:

🌈Ask you child to choose a colour tag and room in the house.

👀Can they look round that room and find, name or point to items that are the same colour?

✔Click a reward button into the tag for each item found.

😊Praise them for their effort and move onto another colour and room.

In the examples shown, we used stickers (rooms and stars) from our In the house sticker pack. We drew the other symbols onto blank stickers. 

#2 Outdoor I-Spy

Colourful plasticm tags showing examples for an outdoor I-Spy gameUse your daily walk to play  I- Spy and spot things you may see in your city, town or village using a personalised TomTag checklist.

TomTag is also super portable and robust – ideal for taking with you when you’re out and about!

Instructions:

🗨Ask your child to suggest things they are likely to see on their walk – perhaps they can guess what order they will spot them in!

✍Make up the checklist together – we’ve used stickers from our Out and About sticker pack but you can just as easily draw or write on some blank stickers.

👀 On your walk, encourage your child to spot the things, find it on their tag and turn the button over. This shows  they’ve seen that thing.

🧐Praise them for keeping their eyes open and being a good detective.  

#3 Feelings & Emotions Charades

Colourful plastic tags showing images of feelings and emotions Help your child understand, recognise and express their feelings and emotions with a simple game of charades.

No Oscar winning performances required!

Instructions:

💬Talk to your child about the feelings and emotions included in the game – choose ones that your child needs some help with.

🤏 Jumble up the feelings and emotions symbol buttons and ask your child to choose one for you.

😀Act out the feeling or emotion shown. Can they guess it? If so, pop it in the tag otherwise have another go.

🔁Swap places and ask your child to act out the feeling or emotion for you to guess.

We’ve used symbol stickers from our Feelings and Emotions sticker pack but you can easily draw or write on blank stickers.

#4 Categories and Pairs

Colourful ploastic tags showing examples ot items that belong togetherDevelop vocabulary with a game of categories or matching pairs

Instructions:

▶Categories

🤏Choose a category. For example, things to wear.

🧦Ask your child to find all the symbol buttons showing things that can be worn and click them into the tag.

🚿Repeat with a different category, e.g. things I need to do in a morning.

▶Pairs

🧼💧Ask your child to find the items that go together e.g. what do I need to clean my teeth or wash my hands?

We’ve used symbol stickers from our self-care sticker pack, but you can easily draw or write on blank stickers.

#5 Sequencing skills

Colourful plastic tags showing daily activity sequencesPractice sequencing skills with a simple game of “what happens next”.

This game can also help reinforce familiar daily routines so it’s a win-win for everyone!

Here’s how to play the TomTag way.

🤏Choose an activity sequence

🤔Jumble up the symbol buttons and ask your child to find the one they think they should come first, second etc.

✔Click them into the tag into that order and ask them to check it is correct.

🗣Call out an activity and ask them to find it in the tag and turn the button over to show they have completed the activity.

Depending on your child’s ability, you could take out a few of the steps and build up to the longer 6-step sequence. We’ve used symbol stickers from our two popular mini-kits: teeth brushing and morning and evening routine.      

                                                                                                                              

Do you have any tips for games you can play with your TomTag? Please let us know in the comments below.

Useful resources

  • Out & About Sticker Pack

  • Feelings & Emotions Sticker Pack

  • Self Care Sticker Pack

  • Blank Stickers -Sticker Pack

  • Blank buttons – pack of 40

 

 

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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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Home visual schedules for children with autism -TomTag tips

At the present time, we’re all facing unprecedented uncertainty. Now that schools are closed and we are stuck at home, families like ours are under a lot of stress. For children with autism, like Tom, this is a highly confusing and anxious time. Using a visual schedule at home will help to build a sense of consistency, predictability and security for him. In this blog we discuss the reasons why home visual schedules can help children with autism and how you can get started with using them.

Why should you use visual schedules at home?

Visual schedules at home can help you to communicate to your child when activities or events will happen throughout their day.

They use a sequence of drawings, symbols, text or pictures to show what a child is expected to do.

The more children can anticipate what is happening, the safer and more secure they will feel in these rapidly changing times.

Tips for creating home visual schedules

Here are some of our tips which we have taken from our Show me guide – visual timetables, Schedules and Routines.

We call it the TomTag 4 P’s approach!

Plan

Notebook and pencil for planning schedules
Planning is key

Depending on your child’s developmental age, sit down each evening and try and plan out a rough schedule for the next day. Decide which activities for the day or part of the day you want to show. Choose the length of the schedule that you think will be appropriate for your child and adjust as necessary.

A simple daily visual schedule could include some education, fun activities and chill time (for them and you!) to help give some meaning and purpose to the day. If you’re interested in creating or using educational resources have a look at Twinkl and Education.com.

Try to replicate some elements of your child’s typical day. For example, encourage them to get dressed, brush their teeth, eat breakfast, etc. You could use a mini schedule to target these specific skills by breaking down a single activity into smaller steps.

Symbols showing a bedtime routine
Example of an evening routine using Widgit symbols

Make sure the schedule includes things like bedtime, time for exercise and meals. You could also consider giving children a chore or job to do to help them feel useful. This could be as simple as clearing the table or putting away their clothes.

Setting aside time every day to do a family activity that you know helps everyone in times of stress is also important. This could be watching a movie or playing a game.

Worried about challenging behaviour?

Try starting with activities that your child usually does willingly. It makes sense to structure the day so that harder tasks are done first when children are likely to be more rested. After schoolwork or chores are complete you can follow with easier tasks as a reward for accomplishing the harder tasks.

Prepare

Boy playing with lego as shown on his visual schedule

A home visual timetable or schedule doesn’t have to be complicated– a simple written, maybe colour-coded, chart pinned on the wall so your children can see it and refer to it will do the trick. 

There’s lots of examples of visual schedules and timetables online to copy or download. For a quick and easy way to create home visual schedules our TomTag Primary Home toolkit or Early Years Home toolkit are great options.

Prompt

Most children will be used to seeing a visual timetable and prompts at school to show them what to expect during the day. Introduce a visual schedule at home using the following steps:

  • Cue your child with a brief verbal instruction when its time for an activity to begin e.g. “check your schedule”
  • Gently guide them to look at it or place it in their hands and prompt them to look at the next activity picture
  • Using the least amount of words, describe the activity e.g. get dressed
  • Help them do the activity or model how to do it.
  • Praise them for completing the activity
  • Cue them to check their schedule again so they can move smoothly onto the next activity.
  • Fade the prompts one your child learns how to follow the schedule

Patience

Keep prompting, praising and be patient!

It may take some time but it’s also important to acknowledge the pressure we’re all under. If the schedule goes pear-shaped, take a break and try again another time.

 

Helpful resources

Widgit Online offers a free 21 day trial that would be perfect for creating your own visual schedules for kids to use at home.

Five Minute Mum is a great blog offering lots of ideas for keeping children occupied during the day.

Recommended TomTag products

  • 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

Maybe you have a tip on how best to use visual schedules at home? Please get in touch or leave a comment below.

 

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Visual schedules at home – making sure they work

If you’ve been following our mini-series of posts for Autism Awareness Week, you’ll already know what a visual schedule is and how it might benefit your child (Visual schedules – what, who and why) and you’ll have thought about what type you’re going to try (Visual schedules at home – choosing the right one).

Now none of that is any use unless you’re able to make it work effectively for you and your child so we’re finishing off with some top tips to making visual schedules work for you.

Start small

You might start with a daily schedule that shows the major events in your child’s day but then you can add a number of mini schedules to target particular tasks or events. Breaking activities or parts of the day down into smaller sections avoids having one schedule that is too long or difficult for your child to follow.

bedtime routineFor example, if you are having difficulty with a particular routine then try a mini schedule just for that activity. A simple way is to make up a sequence of pictures showing the individual steps in the routine and the sequence of them such as this example for a bedtime routine.

Get your child involved

FULL IMAGE FUNThe extent to which you can do this will obviously depend on the age and ability of your child but the more you can involve them in helping to make their own schedules, the more likely they are to take ownership and be committed and motivated towards using them.

This was an important consideration for us when we designed TomTag and we chose bright colours for our tags to encourage children to want to use them. We have also found that TomTag is very tactile and children really enjoy applying the stickers and clicking the buttons into place.

Be consistent – use it every day

It may take a little more effort in the beginning but using a schedule consistently and integrating it into your normal routines is a key factor to success. Have your schedules prominently displayed so that your child can see them in the places they need to use them. Use the schedule to guide your child back to an activity if he wanders away.

Encourage your child to use their schedule by using it as a reference when talking with them about what they have just experienced, what is happening now or what is coming next.

Make sure that the language you use to talk about the schedule matches your child’s level of understanding and, if appropriate, model how to use it by performing the steps yourself.

Review and adapt

SUCCESS!Just because a schedule is working now unfortunately doesn’t mean you can put your feet up and relax! Remember that the aim at the end of the day is more independence so change is a necessary (and welcome) part of the process.

Monitor how your child is using their schedules. If after a few weeks of use they no longer need the same prompts to complete the activity then congratulations! Move on and target another routine or area of difficulty. If on the other hand there’s been no progress with independence, try changing the format of your schedule or reducing the number of steps in it. Do bear in mind any other factors that may be holding things back eg. illness or problems at school and if necessary, wait and try again with the same schedule another time.

Remember to keep schedules up to date and be consistent in showing all the child’s activities especially if there are frequent changes.

Long term benefits

There are many advantages to using visual schedules at home for a child with autism/ASD and their family. As well as the more obvious immediate benefits you will gain, time and effort invested now will bear dividends in later life so be persistent – it is worth it!

The ability to follow a schedule independently is a universal skill that makes many areas of life more accessible, impacting on education (attending school, completing homework, etc), daily living tasks and ultimately employment.

We value the use of schedules at home very much and so we’re delighted that we’ve been able to add a set to our range specifically for this purpose – our I know what to expect at home pack.

 

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Visual schedules at home – choosing the right one

Now that you’ve read about the benefits of using visual schedules at home – what, who and why, you’re ready to move on to finding out more about how to choose the right kind of schedule for your child.

Keep it simple!

keep it simple The most important thing to think about when deciding which type of schedule will best suit your child is that it has to work when they are having a really bad day as well as a good one. That’s the time when you and your child are going to be the most stressed and probably need the support provided by a schedule even more than when things are going well.

Most of us don’t perform to our best when we’re stressed so why would your child? Consider choosing a visual schedule that is easier than you think your child can handle. More complex is not necessarily better – keep your focus on the goal of independent usage.

Object schedules

object schedulesThis is the simplest type of schedule and works well for children with few language skills or who are mostly non-verbal. Tangible objects are chosen to represent activities; for example, a cup for snacktime, a spoon for meals or a shopping bag for trips to the supermarket.

Hand the object to the child to indicate the activity they are moving or transitioning to next. It’s important to make a list of which objects you are going to use to represent each activity and above all, be consistent. Pinterest is a fabulous resource for ideas!

Picture schedules

A child is ready for a picture or photograph schedule when they can consistently match pictures in the same way you would in a simple lotto game. Some children find photographs easier to recognise whilst others can use drawings.

shower TomTag For my own son I started by laminating photographs of real objects and built up a series of activity cards he could follow. I included images of household items such as his clothes and toys as well as places we visited regularly like the park and shops. When he was ready to recognise drawings I used printable pictures from websites such as do2learn.com.

TomTag is a form of picture schedule. From my own experiences of late nights spent printing, cutting and laminating pictures and symbols, I knew when designing TomTag that it had to be an easy to use system where none of that would be necessary. 

Written schedules

written schedule exampleWe use these often in our daily lives although we may not recognise them as such. Diaries, organisers, shopping and task lists are all forms of written schedules. They obviously work best for children who can read but you can transition from picture to visual schedules by adding words alongside the pictures and then gradually work towards replacing them completely.

You might start with a basic written list and cross off items as they are done. As skills emerge, you can move on to more complex written schedules such as day planners and electronic organisers.

 

These are the three main types of schedule you will come across although there are obviously many variations you can create for each type. Sometimes it’s a matter of experimenting with different ones until you find something that’s right for you.

In part 3 Visual schedules at home – making sure they work we’ll share some top tips for using schedules and how best to make them work effectively. 

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Visual schedules at home – what, who and why?

Have you been advised by your child’s school or therapist to use a visual schedule at home and you’re not sure where to start or indeed if it’s really worth the effort?

To coincide with Autism Awareness Week we’re featuring a series of blogs in which we’ll look at the benefits of using visual schedules at home, the different types of schedules you can use and how to get the most out of them. We’ll start by looking at what a visual schedule actually is and why you’d want to use one.

What is a visual schedule?

what is a visual scheduleIn simple terms, any series of pictures, photographs, drawings, words or numbers which depict a sequence of events or activities can be described as a visual schedule or support.

Most of us rely on some form of schedule to help us organise our lives. Think about your calendar, to-do list or a recipe you recently followed; these are all examples of visual schedules that help us remember what we’ll be doing and when things will happen.

We rely on these supports to help us navigate our day-to-day lives and can quickly get anxious if we don’t have them. Think of a time when you’ve misplaced your diary or mobile phone and missed an important meeting or turned up late as a result.

A visual schedule (sometimes referred to as a visual timetable or timeline) for an autistic child is a way of showing them information about daily activities, objects or events using pictures, photographs, symbols or written words.

Who uses visual schedules?

As you can see, in some form or other we all do! In most cases though, we don’t need to use the same sort of visual reminders for the regular and predictable parts of our daily lives.

However, children with autism/ASD often have difficulties dealing with unstructured time and benefit from the increased structure and reassurance provided by a visual schedule. They can feel lost or anxious if daily activities aren’t clearly indicated or a sequence of events is not understood.

Imagine being totally dependent on family and friends to remind you of your daily activities and the frustration you might feel if the information they gave you was inconsistent or difficult to understand. A physical visual support provides consistency and avoids the transiency of verbal instructions.

Why use visual schedules at home?

Research has shown that many children with ASD have strong visual skills and that visual schedules are one of the most effective interventions for these children. Visual learners are more likely to remember and understand what they see than what they hear and a visual schedule can also reinforce verbal instructions that may have been missed or forgotten.

Most children will be used to seeing visual timetables and prompts at school that show the class what to expect during the school day and how to navigate around the classroom.

I know what at home collage OU smaller

For children with autism and other learning difficulties, it can be even more important to use visual schedules at home than at school. Whilst the school day is largely based on routine the same structure doesn’t usually happen at home and this can often lead to tantrums and meltdowns.

Using a visual schedule at home can help to:

  • establish clear expectations and prevent behaviour problems
  • reduce anxiety about what is happening next
  • increase self-help skills
  • develop independence which fosters self-esteem
  • reduce the amount of time spent leading an over-dependent child through activities

Sounds like a lot of effort – is it worth it?

There are clearly many advantages to using visual schedules but we know from experience that getting started and persevering can be a daunting and time consuming task.

These days there’s certainly plenty of information and resources available online and elsewhere but finding the right thing for you and your child amongst it all can be a challenge. Where do you start?

In part 2 Visual schedules at home – choosing the right one we’ll be looking at different types of visual schedules and how to choose the most suitable one for you and your child. 

In part 3 Visual schedules at home – making sure they work we’ll share some top tips for using your schedule and how best to make it work effectively.

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Fine motor skills

Fumbling in my purse for loose change today, I’m reminded how important fine motor skills are for daily life.

What are ‘fine motor skills’?

Fine motor skills are the small muscle movements in the body. They enable activities such as writing, grasping small objects and fastening clothes. Children who have a weakness in fine motor skills struggle to develop strong muscles in their fingers, hands and wrists. They may also have poor eye-hand coordination.

Why are fine motor skills important?

Problems with fine motor skills can have a detrimental effect on education and impact on life in general. For example, the ability to hold a fork and eat, write legibly and complete personal self care tasks such as washing and dressing all depend on the coordination of small actions.

My own son still struggles with pen & paper tasks, his ability to tie shoe laces remains a work in progress, not to mention the hours of frustration spent battling with fiddly zips!

What can I do if my child needs help?

There are lots of inexpensive resources and ideas to help strengthen fine motor skills.

Drawing, colouring and craft activities can all help build these skills in a fun, informal way.

We’re lucky to have Star Tree Studio nearby who host a range of craft and creative classes (as well as art & craft birthday parties) where kids can ‘play-create-learn’ without messing up the house! Check out your local free papers and family magazines to find something similar in your area.

The imagination tree has a great blog post ’40 fine motor skills activities’

OT Mom Learning Activities has some useful suggestions for fine motor activities for older kids

Make it fun

Kids learn best when they don’t realise they’re learning! For example, we always recommend that children are involved with putting together their own TomTag ready to use. As well as helping them to understand their own routine it is a very tactile and fun activity that can help strengthen fine motor skills. Peeling off and sticking stickers onto buttons requires hand-eye coordination and pincher grip – both important for writing. Hand and finger muscles come into play too when clicking buttons into tags and removing them.

Zip it up!

Getting hold of a zipper to fasten up a jacket, bag or pencil case can be incredibly difficult for children with fine motor difficulties. We’ve now got funky zip pulls to help with those fiddly zips!

We’re giving them away free right now to anyone who recommends TomTag to a friend who then places an order.

We’d also recommend Zipz by MERU – colourful, ergonomically designed zip pulls which are also great for glove wearers: skiers, bikers, winter & outdoor activities lovers.