Self-talk was key in helping Tom manage his back-to-school anxiety.
Self-talk is rehearsing silently something that you think someone you trust would say to you in a situation you find tricky or challenging. Being able to self-talk is useful as it is something a child can do to help themselves. It has been a game-changer for Tom as he can use this whenever he is feeling overwhelmed.
Let’s get started
You can use this Prompt Sheet to help your child develop self-talk to manage their back-to-school anxiety.
Here are our tips for using the sheet which is available as a free download using the link below:
Let your child know that lots of people are anxious about going back to work or school. This helps them feel that their worries about going back to school are valid.
Give your child the words to describe their feelings. Introducing and explaining the phrases ‘back to school blues’ and the ‘oh no feeling’ help them understand the emotion and feeling behind their back-to-school anxiety.
Ask your child to show you how strong their ‘oh no feeling ‘is. If they struggle with language try simple visual scales using either numbers ( 1-5) or the intensity of colours (green – red) to make it easier for them to rate their feelings. The TomTag feelings tag, a thermometer-style sequence of 6 feelings faces, is a good option to use.
Explain that their ‘oh no feeling’ is the right feeling but too big. Like a shout that needs to be shrunk to the right size – a whisper. The drawings on the Prompt Sheet are a good way to show this
Tell them that to shrink the ‘oh no feeling’ they should think of 3 good reasons why going back to school is ok and say these reasons to themselves when they feel the ‘oh no feeling’ starting
Imagine being able to send your child off to school without the usual dramas, panic, shouts, and screams over lunch boxes, PE kits or homework!
Anxieties over forgotten items can be avoided with a little preparation and practice.
When children have the skills to pack their school bag independently, they can start taking responsibility for their belongings without you having to remind them all the time. This also helps them at the end of the school day when they need to know what to bring home again.
Even the youngest or most disorganised child can soon get the hang of finding and packing everything they need for school, giving them a great sense of achievement too.
Visual checklists are an ideal tool to use when helping your child learn how to get organised and become more independent.
Find the right school bag
With so many bags to choose from it is important to find one that matches your child’s needs.
The main consideration is comfort.
• Does the bag feel good to wear?
• Do the straps feel sufficiently strong?
• When filled, is the weight of the bag evenly spread about?
Choose a sturdy bag that has multiple compartments and zipped pockets. Check that all the fastenings work cleanly and it is easy to access. If you child gets frustrated finding things or struggles with fiddly zips, opt for fewer pockets and Velcro fastenings instead.
Let’s get organised
Start with an empty school bag.
Ask your child to sort out their school things into clear categories. For example, school supplies such as pens, pencils, notebook, communication book in one pile. Items that go back and forth to school like lunch boxes, water bottles and PE kit in another pile.
Assign each item to a compartment or pocket. A big compartment can be for books and their lunch box. A smaller pocket for writing equipment.
A school-home folder is ideal for any loose papers, letters, or permission sheets that need to go back to school.
Make a map
Once everything has its place, help your child draw a picture of their school bag and label what goes where. This school bag ‘map’ will help remind them where things go when they are packing up for the
Encourage your child to practice emptying their bag and putting everything back in the right place.
Keep a copy of the map in the front pocket of their school bag plus a copy at home.
Pack all the right kit
Use a simple checklist attached to their school bag listing all the things they need to remember to take to school for each day of the week. The checklist should be sturdy and easily seen. Using different coloured lists makes it easy to identify the right list for each day.
Picture cues work well for younger children or non-readers as well as older children and those with additional needs such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, autism, or ADHD.
Getting into the habit of packing the night before is a great way to avoid the last-minute panic searching for homework or PE kit in the morning when you really should be leaving the house!
Bear in mind that children may need lots of practice before they can organise and pack their school bag independently.
Give lots of opportunities to practice these techniques and make forgotten school items a thing of the past.
My autistic son Tom (the inspiration for TomTag visual schedules) struggles with changes to his routines. His autism means that he perceives the world differently to other people. For him, the world can often seem a strange, unpredictable, and confusing place. It is understandable why he craves the stability and predictability of repetitive routines and activities, and the comfort of familiar food. However, as a wise man once said, the only constant in life is change. Learning how to be flexible and less rigid about routines is a crucial life skill. It is one that Tom has developed over the years, with the help of visual supports.
Visual schedules are a great tool for teaching flexibility around changes to routines. This may seem surprising – surely a schedule means sticking to a repetitive routine? However, it’s not the visual schedule that makes changes to a routine difficult but the way it is used.
In this blog, I’d like to share with you an approach you can use with TomTag visual schedules to help your child be less rigid and more tolerant of changes to their routines.
Use a schedule
Make sure that your child understands how their schedule works and uses it regularly. If your child doesn’t understand their schedule or use it regularly then it is unrealistic to expect them to deal with changes to it.
A TomTag I am flexible tag is a great way to introduce your child to changes to routines when used alongside their normal routine tag. Using the format ‘instead of‘ … ‘I am flexible’… is a simple visual way to familarise your child with a proposed change in their routine.
Words can have a powerful effect. I am flexible is a positive affirmation that will give your child a sense of achievement and boost their self esteem.
Start with positive changes
Start with something positive, for example, a change to a preferred activity or food choice.
In the examples shown- sand play instead of inside play, fish fingers instead of pizza (go with the preferred activities/ food choices for your child!)
Start with a change that is not upsetting. This also reinforces the idea that a change does not always have to be negative.
Giving initial warnings
Although the aim is to get to a stage when you don’t have to give warnings about changes – life is unpredictable after all – you shouldn’t expect your child to immediately accept changes without doing the necessary groundwork.
Like all new skills, the best way to learn is to break the skill down into small sequential steps.
Refer to their morning schedule tag and show them the proposed change. In this example, if their morning routine shows inside play then show them the I am flexible tag with the new play activity at the earliest opportunity e.g. before breakfast.
Ask them to change the activity on their schedule to the new activity themselves. Our symbol packs include 2 copies of every symbol so you don’t have to worry about running out of symbols. Their morning schedule tag now shows the new activity.
Keep the I am flexible tag handy. Depending on your child’s level of understanding, a short verbal explanation of why the change has taken place would also be helpful.
Give another warning just before the changed activity happens. Show your child the I am flexible tag to reinforce your verbal warning. This will help them remember the change and prepare for it.
Praise and encouragement
Praise your child specifically for handling the change well using supportive positive statements like, “I like how well you managed it when we changed the schedules” or “Change can be hard, but you are doing a great job!”
Saying “You are so brave handling that change in the schedule without getting upset!” is particularly useful if your child is very anxious about change.
Try not to say “See it wasn’t so bad was it!” as this could belittle your child’s genuine feelings of anxiety about changes and make them feel anxious about having these feelings.
Fade the warnings
Once your child can manage changes to their routines with warnings, start moving the warnings nearer to the time when the actual change is going to happen.
So in the example tags I have used above, you could move the warning about the change of play activity to later in the morning.
Make sure that your child’s schedule is always accurate.
Being prepared makes changes to routines so much easier to manage. It also keeps the schedule consistent so your child knows they can rely on it.
I hope you find this approach useful in helping your child learn to accept and manage changes to their routine.
Want to make your own schedules, routines and I am flexible tags like the ones shown in the examples here or need more advice before getting started on introducing routines or changes to routines? Take a look at the resources below or get in touch with Clare via our contact page.
Set your child up well for later life by by helping them learn a life skill such as household chores when they’re young (and eager!).
Children learn how to look after themselves and their home and become familiar with concepts such as teamwork and the discipline of routine. Household chores can also be a way to improve self-worth and encourage independence for the future.
We all like the feeling that we can help! Make use of the increased shared time we are having together at the moment and give your child a sense of pride and accomplishment at being able to contribute and enjoy some time with you.
TomTag is an ideal tool for teaching a life skill such as household chores. Here’s some ideas from our Help at Home kit of how you might use it :-
Use a set of tags to give step-by-step instructions for cleaning different rooms in the house.
Label a tag with the name of each child and list the chores they need to complete that day/week.
List the jobs you want completing on separate tags. Let each child pick a tag out of a hat to find out what their task is.
Start them young
Building good habits from an early age always makes things easier in the long run. Children as young as 2 years old can pick up their own toys, put dirty clothes in a washing basket and wield a duster.
Make it fun
Turning tasks into a game always makes things more fun. Turn the radio up and dance while hoovering, shout out colour names when sorting laundry or let kids compete to be the first to tidy their room (to your standard!).
The right chores
This will naturally depend on your child’s age and developmental level. You’ll find plenty of guides online but you’re the best judge of what your child’s ready for. Watering plants is always a favourite in our house. Who doesn’t like pouring water! Build up gradually to the more difficult tasks so they don’t get frustrated if they can’t complete the task independently. Our Pinterest Household Chores board has lots of ideas for age-appropriate chores.
A family affair
Set a good example by making sure that everyone helps out – in an age-appropriate way. If you child is old enough, involve them in a family discussion to decide who should do what around the house. Offer options so that children can choose the jobs they prefer. If no-one wants to do a particular task (such as cleaning the toilet!), use a rota system so that everyone takes a turn.
Praise and encouragement
Don’t expect perfection, especially at first or if they are very young. Praise those things they did well and they’ll feel proud of what they got right and motivated to do the job again next time. Tell them how much it helped you and they’ll feel they are making an important contribution to the family.
This will depend on your own family values and views but if you want to add an extra incentive, chores can be linked to giving pocket money or earning other treats. Use a blank sticker to add a £ button to each chore checklist, like this one for helping out at mealtimes and doing the dishes.
Getting dressed independently is an important life skill for autistic children. Teaching dressing skills to my autistic son required a lot of time, practice, and patience.Putting on clothes in the right order, fastening buttons and zips and tying shoelaces involves mastering many skills. Add sensory triggers into the mix and it is easy to see why it took him longer to develop dressing skills compared with other children his age.
However, it is worth the effort. Being able to get dressed by themselves gives autistic children confidence to function independently at school and it’s one less thing for you to worry about in the mornings!
Now is the perfect time for your autistic child to start developing their dressing skills. With schools closed, there’s no pressure to get everyone fed, dressed and out of the front door in the morning so there’s plenty of time to practice at your child’s own pace.
Getting dressed takes a lot of motor skills that autistic children may need time to develop. Balance and co-ordination of movements are needed to get their limbs in all the right places. Fine motor skills help them deal with many types of fastenings.
Improving motor skills does not have to be boring! Here are some activities you can do at home with your child to make practice fun.
Practice balance by making a line on the floor and step with one foot in front of the other like “tightrope walking”. You could make it more interesting by pretending that they are walking a tightrope across a river full of snapping crocodiles!
Work on fine motor skills with a hidden treasure hunt. Fill a tub with rice or another pulse and hide small objects such as cars, or small figures and ask your child to find them. Sand play and messy play are also activities which practice fine motor skills.
Therapy putty is ideal for developing the hand strength needed to manipulate clothing and fastenings.
Use a TomTag visual list to help your child choose their preferred activity. Our new Early Years Activities sticker pack has lots of activities that make fine motor skill practice part of playtime.
Once you’re ready to practice dressing try ‘backward chaining‘ . This method lets the child feel accomplished every time. They start with the last step then work backward from there.
Little changes can make a big difference in reducing your child’s frustrations while dressing. Here are some things you can do to make things easier for them.
Choose trousers or skirts with elasticated waists where possible and opt for loose fitting items with velcro or large buttons which are easier to put on than tight fitting ones.
Use a simple visual checklist like TomTag showing what order each item of clothing should be put on. You could also lay the clothes out in the shape of a body to help with visualisation.
Offer a choice, “ you can wear the blue shirt or the red shirt”.
Lay out clothes the night before, making sure they are the right side out.
Organise the wardrobe separating play clothes, school clothes and ‘going out’ clothes
Begin with large, short socks that slip more easily over the feet.
Show your child how to scrunch longer socks up first before pulling them on
Socks with colored heels make it easier to get them the right way round. We love the brightly coloured Ez Socks from Special Kids Company that also have handy pull up loops.
Try Little Grippers school socks for socks that stay on – and up! – all day long.
Having a designated place for shoes will save valuable time spent hunting for them
Teach shoe tying with a step by step approach. The ‘bunny ears’ is a popular method and YouTube is an excellent resource for demonstrations of this and other tying methods.
Start practising with different, larger types of coat.
If the sleeve by sleeve approach isn’t working try this flip flop over the top method wonderfully described by Connectability.ca – you might want to stand well back until they get better at this one though!
Attach a zip pull or a key ring to the zip to help with gripping the tab and make zipping easier.
Don’t forget to give plenty of praise to your child for their efforts at each stage and consider using a star chart to help them establish their routine.
Sensory and developmental issues
If your child is sensitive to clothing consider how to reduce their sensory triggers .
Check for labels and seams that might cause irritation and cut them out where possible. Wash clothes several times before wearing to help soften them.
The Sensory Smart Store started by a mum of an autistic boy with sensory processing disorder has a great range of clothes to help sensitive and sensory children and adults. Whilst EcoOutfitters offer school clothing made from 100% pure organic cotton.
Dressing in front of a mirror provides important visual cues that can help a child with sequencing, body planning and body awareness. If your child continues to have difficulty with dressing, a qualified occupational therapist should be able to help.
Have you any tips or experiences to share about teaching dressing skills? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
This year’s World Autism Awareness Week takes place against the backdrop of a global pandemic. With a third of the global population under lockdown our daily lives have been dramatically changed. Forced to remain in our houses and adapt to new circumstances, many of us will be feeling bewildered, frustrated and anxious.
Sweating it out!
The anxiety many of us are now experiencing around these unprecedented changes gives us an insight into how many young people with autism, like my son Tom, experience an unwanted change of plan – it’s fraught with worry, it’s out of anything we could have predicted and it’s not what we wanted.
Our ‘new normal’ in these strange and unsettling times is very much how he feels all the time. Imagine having to deal with that level of anxiety every single day!
So, given everyone’s heightened levels of anxiety how can you manage autism and anxiety in a lockdown?
We’d like to share some daily strategies which we are using to support Tom’s mental health during this lockdown period. We’ve called it the SWEAT approach – let’s sweat this one out!
Socialise – maintain social connections
Tom misses his dad, grandparents and college friends. Thankfully technology makes it relatively easy to keep connected. However, just as in normal social situations, we’re careful not to put demands on him to socialise virtually either. We offer him a choice of how he stays connected and how often he wants to have contact.
Work – provide structure and routine
Routines and rituals help establish stability and order for children and young people with autism like Tom.
Like many young people with autism Tom struggles with flexible thinking. That means he finds it difficult to adjust and readjust to changes in his routine and this can cause him anxiety. A useful strategy has been to highlight what has stayed the same and what has changed. This reassures him that even with all the uncertainty some things, like his college work, mealtimes and bedtime routines, remain the same.
Keeping familiar routines going as much as possible is therefore important to provide structure and reassurance. Tom accesses his college work and sessions with his speech therapist, English tutor and German teacher online. A simple written visual schedule shows him what to expect each day and can help navigate these confusing times. You can also create symbol-based home visual schedules quickly and easily with TomTag.
However, it’s important not to set the bar to high! Be mindful that there will be days when the ‘home-schooling’ isn’t done and instead it is just a day of being together. An example of this was during the recent warm weather when we abandoned the schedule and went for a family walk.
Emotions – share worries and concerns
Set aside time each day to talk about worries and concerns. Try to contain your own anxieties around the current situation because this anxiety gets transferred to our children. Now more than ever our autistic children need patience and support from the people they love.
Tom, like all of us, is naturally worried about events and this is amplified by worries about whether he is catching or spreading the disease.
We keep news coverage to a minimum and explain things in a clear and consistent manner using language appropriate to his level of understanding.
Making a wish list, where we write down all the things we want to do after the pandemic has passed, is also working well – though at the moment, it mostly revolves around football and Swiss trains!
Active – encourage physical activities
Keeping active is good for both our physical and mental well being. Tom has a daily fitness programme and he’s set up an exercise challenge with his speech therapist.
Focusing on activities and encouraging him to do some chores – like washing the car and helping his sister deliver essential shopping to his self-isolating grandparents and other vulnerable members of the community – provides positive reinforcement that is so vital to keep up his self-esteem, confidence and sense of purpose.
Time alone – relax with special interests
Build in lots of down time, together with time to indulge special interests. With all the family thrust together it’s important for mental well being that we all carve out some time for ourselves.
It’s a difficult time for all of us particularly for children with autism and anxiety. Hopefully by following these strategies we can sweat out this lockdown period.
What tips can you share that make this lockdown period more manageable and less stressful in your house?
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.
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.
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.
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.
With this month playing host to Safer Internet Day we’ve some tips on helping our kids stay safe in the home, looking at both online and physical safety.
With an almost daily diet of stories about the negative impact of the internet and new technology on children and young people, it’s easy to forget the positive aspects: the ability to learn, to connect with others, to be creative.
Safer Internet Day (February 11th) offers an ideal opportunity for parents and carers to start a conversation with their children about online safety. By teaching children to understand and navigate the risks you can help them to have a safer and more positive experience online.
Start by reading these tips for parents from the UK Safer Internet Centre and explore the many other fantastic resources on the site.
This article from the Guardian takes a interesting look at how the internet can be a great learning tool and includes some really simple ideas for changing how we approach our children’s use of it.
Drawing up a family agreement that all the family sign up to is a useful way to help everyone make better decisions and display appropriate behaviour. Here’s a great example from Digizen.org.
You can also find a wealth of information and advice on the subject from CEOP’s ThinkuKnow website.
Safe at home
Of course, we’ve all been consciously protecting our children from harm from the moment they were born but we have a responsibility to teach them the skills to keep themselves safe too.
Talking about potential dangers as part of everyday conversation and using games to teach what to do will really help to prepare your child for emergency situations without scaring them.
Play the ‘What if’ game
What if … the smoke alarm sounded?
What if … you cut yourself badly?
What if … someone came to the house when no-one else was home?
You’ll get a feel for how your child would react in a real emergency and can guide them to how they might deal with it.
Using some of the blank stickers you’ll find in each TomTag sticker pack, draw or write a list of safety rules and apply each sticker to a blank button. Put the buttons into a TomTag holder and hang or stick it up (eg. on the fridge) where it will be seen every day.
Hold a scavenger hunt
Once you’ve played the What If game and discussed ideas about how to deal with different situations, does everyone in the house know where to find the things they might need to deal with an emergency? Where’s the first-aid kit, keys to open doors, fire blanket, emergency phone numbers? Give each child a TomTag with some items on it that they need to find and let them race to be the first to find everything on their list.
Teach your child how to use what’s in the first aid kit too to treat minor injuries. The British Red Cross have a great web resource to help children aged 6-11 learn life saving first aid.
Make an escape plan
Every household should have an emergency escape plan in case of fire. Hopefully you will never need to use it but having a plan will prevent delay and help you to escape faster if you need to. Anyone can ask for a free Home Fire Safety Check from their local fire service.
Don’t forget that a weekly test of your smoke alarm is the simplest and easiest way to help prevent fire emergencies.
Give your child a clip-board and pen and let them pretend to be a safety inspector. Ask them to look around the house for safety features and hazards and let them help you fix any deficiencies.
Know your numbers
Make sure everyone knows the number for emergency services and try role-playing a call so that they know what they might be asked.
Teach children their home address and telephone number so that they can give it if they need to call the emergency services (also useful if they get lost when out of the house!).
Keep a list of names and numbers of friends, neighbours, family doctor, etc. by the door or telephone in case of emergencies, particularly if your child is old enough to be left at home alone.
Christmas. Love it or hate it, it’s coming our way again – sooner than you think!
Because we know that this can be such a difficult, fraught and stressful time of year for families like ours, we’re sharing our best Tom Tag tips for an autism-tastic Christmas.
Follow these tips of planning, preparation and patience to get ready for an autism-friendly Christmas that’s just right for you and your family.
PART 1: Planning
#1: Project Christmas: Decide what’s the best way to ‘do’ Christmas for YOU and YOUR family
We love this idea from the Gina Davies Autism Centre. Grab a cuppa, a notebook and pen and start planning. Think about the whole upcoming Christmas period, not just the day itself. Reflecting on what was stressful last Christmas is a good starting point.
✍Make a list with four columns headed up Achievable, Desirable, High Risk, Impossible!
🤔Think about what is planned or expected over Christmas and place each activity under one of the four columns.
🗞Keep your plan to hand and add to it as necessary.
👏Don’t aim for 100% – if you can manage most of the achievable, one or two things in the desirable column and manage to come through everything in the risky column be proud of yourself – you’ve helped your family enjoy the bits of Christmas that work for them.
#2: Make a personalised ‘All about Christmas’ visual guide to show all the different things you might find or do at this time of year.
For example, a photo collage or Christmas scrapbook showing Christmas objects, Christmas food and activities that only happen at Christmas e.g. meeting Father Christmas or pulling Christmas crackers. You could also include pictures of your family celebrating Christmas.
Children with autism tend to forget social information so a permanent visual guide is a great way to remind them what Christmas looks like.
#3: Talk to your child’s school or support team so you know what different things they might be doing and when.
Ask them if they have a copy of this excellent autism advent calendar for schools from the National Autistic Society. If not, print a copy off for them to use to help your child manage during the Christmas period at school.
Have a meeting with your child’s teacher to plan together how you can help your child cope with the activities coming up. Keep communication going throughout the Christmas period with a ‘Home- School’ book such as the lovely one available from That Beautiful Mind.
#4: Take time to sit down with your child and talk through anything they might be finding confusing or unsettling about Christmastime and all its festivities. It’s often the little things we don’t even notice that can seem so huge to them.
Look back at your Christmas plan (see Planning tip #2) and for each planned activity or event, make a two-column list headed ‘Concerns and Solutions’. Ask your child what concerns they may have and then together think about and write down a solution.
🏘 a visit to family or friends
😟 worry about what they will drink
👍agree to take their favourite drink or ask the hosts whether they have it.
This think-say-do approach is a great way for dealing with uncertainties that occur throughout the year not just at Christmastime.
#5: Make realistic plans for your shopping needs.
Choose quieter times of day, take a list, use a babysitter, bring snacks, shop online.
Christmas shopping with a child who has autism is definitely a high-risk activity! Sounds, lights and the hustle and bustle of crowds – it’s easy to see why meltdowns occur and shopping trips are abandoned. There’s no need to be superhuman. Keep it simple, practical and do-able!
#6: Talk about social rules and different expectations that people might have around Christmastime.
Christmas is usually a time of increased social contact and festive events with family and friends. Use a visual schedule to show what’s going to happen before any visitors come to the house or when going to parties, visiting family and friends. Roleplay and practise greeting visitors appropriately and saying please and thank you.
#7: If your child has little or no interest in typical toys, make a list of alternative gift ideas that you can suggest to relatives and friends when they ask what presents they can buy.
Sensory Direct have a wide range of sensory toys and equipment for autistic children. You could also suggest something small and inexpensive and ask that any money left over is put towards an activity that your child enjoys or time with a favourite babysitter.
#8: Make sure visual schedules are updated to show any changes to routine or special festive events.
Using a visual schedule, like TomTag, at home or school is a great way to make sure that children with autism (like ours) know about and can prepare themselves for anything different that’s going to happen.
In our experience, front-loading any changes to routine early on means that they can be coped with. Later changes to routine (however small) can cause distress and anxiety. Check out our I know what to expect at Christmas and birthdays kit for ideas.
#9: Let your children help to choose and put up the decorations in and around your home.
Christmas decorations can be disruptive to children with autism. Consider decorating gradually over a few days so they are not overwhelmed immediately. If inside decorations are too much then decorate outside the house only.
Twinkly, shiny, glittery Christmas lights whilst enjoyable to look at can lead to sensory overload. Consider limiting the number on display and choose lights that have different settings you can control.
PART 2: Preparation
#1: Keep sensory armour to hand for trips to the shop, parties and other festive events where sensory experiences can easily become overloads
Sensory armour could include:
🎧 headphones to cut out some of the noise and sound
🧢 a cap to help shut out some of the flashing lights or people
🕶 dark glasses to reduce the light intensity
🧸 a favourite comforter for reassurance
🍪 small portions of snacks to help when things get tricky
#2: Prepare for visitors and visits from family and friends by talking to your child about who they are going to see and how to greet them
A personalised visual checklist is a great way to show your child who all the family members are that they may be meeting and what an appropriate social contact might be for each group. You can find appropriate symbols in our Christmas & Birthdays sticker pack (links below).
#3: Leave some areas of the house undecorated so there’s always a quiet place for your child to retreat to if they need it
Flashing lights, glittery objects and jingling bells all around the house are natural triggers for sensory overload. Having a Christmas – free zone to escape to can help bring stress levels caused by sensory overload down to more manageable levels.
#4: Discuss the escape plans that it’s ok for your child to use if everything gets too much for them
Having a calm and quiet place to escape the noise and bustle of Christmas is crucial. Agree with your child how they will let you know that they need to use it. For us, Tom showing me a simple red card when he’d had enough worked well.
#5: Think and talk about the extra social demands that might trigger anxieties or sensory problems
Spending time with family and friends, the expectation to be ‘happy’ and join in can be stressful for all of us – particularly for children with autism.
Use a visual schedule to explain what is going to happen and try to avoid social visits on consecutive days to allow for some downtime.
#6: Advent calendars are a great way to prepare for and understand the count down to Christmas
We love this idea from The Autism Page for a Christmas Book Advent Calendar. It combines the excitement of unwrapping a new Christmas book each day with the benefit of using the books to build up an understanding of Christmas.
#7: Be prepared that your child might not be able to sit at the table for as long as you would like (or maybe not at all). Warn your host if you are not having Christmas dinner at home.
It can be stressful to have your child’s behaviour ‘on display’ to family and friends at shared meals. Be practical, realistic and upfront about it. If your child only sits at the table for say three minutes usually then Christmas day is unlikely to be any different. Take turns to supervise them or provide them with something to keep them occupied.
Keep working on mealtime skills at home and maybe next year will be different!
#8: For children who won’t eat a traditional Christmas dinner or the main meal you’re serving, prepare and freeze their meals in advance to reduce workload on the day
Just don’t forget to get them back out of the freezer in time!
#9: Consider your child’s sensory needs when wrapping up presents. There’s lots of great alternatives to traditional Christmas paper such as foil or fabric.
The choice of alternatives will depend on whether the sensory issues relate to over or under sensitivities. Aluminium kitchen foil is brilliant for quickly wrapping all sorts of odd shapes and sizes as well as being shiny and noisy if your child likes that kind of sensory input. For something more gentle, calming and simple to open, try fabric tied with a ribbon where just a quick pull will reveal the gift. The bonus is that these options are eco-friendly too.
#10: If toys need assembling or batteries putting in before they can be used, do this before wrapping them up so that they can be played with straight away on Christmas day
It’s always worth checking inside boxes and packaging even if you’re not expecting there to be any assembly required as those pesky ties and tape seem to get everywhere!
PART 3: Patience
#1 In the build up to Christmas, remember to exercise some self care so that you can manage your energy levels and remain focused on what you and your child can realistically achieve
Play some relaxing music, burn some scented candles, take a relaxing hot bath to relax. Practise breathing!
#2 Take the time to read social stories with your child about what to expect at Christmas, including meeting with Santa.
Social stories are particularly helpful for activities that only happen at Christmas. You can make your own or check out the FREE printable Christmas social story about meeting Santa on the wonderful parenting blog And Next Comes L – Hyperlexia & Autism Resources
#3 Christmas is a time when sensory issues are greater than ever. To help prevent sensory sensitivities becoming overloads, allow your child to have some control over these experiences.
Where possible let your child have direct control of their sensory experience. For example, hand them control of buttons for the lights (if appropriate) or provide sensory defences like ear defenders or sunglasses.
#4 Many children with autism don’t like surprises so it might help not to wrap presents up.
You could also just tell them what’s inside or use clear cellophane or plain paper for wrapping. If your child finds wrapping paper highly confusing, e.g. thinks that pictures on the paper show what’s inside, then using plain wrapping paper with a clear picture of the contents stuck on the outside will help.
#5 If your child has dietary restrictions, don’t despair. Accept where your chid is now with their food and be patient.
Preferences change so it might not be the same next year!
If you are eating with other people at their house and your child won’t eat any of the food or insists on a particular plate, cup, spoon etc. provide these things so your child can join the party briefly and tell the hosts in advance.
#6 Get some Christmas helpers! Be patient with yourself and ask for help with preparations from family and friends.
Encouraging the whole family to get involved makes everyone feel included and part of the Christmas build-up. Don’t feel like you have to power through on your own.
#7 Buy or make your child’s Christmas costume or party outfit early and let them wear it around the house for short periods of time to help them become comfortable with how it feels.
Costumes and new clothes can be challenging for children with sensory sensitivities. Encouraging them to wear these around the house helps them become more tolerant of the different fabrics against their skin.
#8 Playfully and patiently practise Christmas traditions such as receiving and unwrapping presents and pulling crackers so that your child knows what to expect and can join in.
Play wrapping games by wrapping up items so your child gets used to opening the paper and finding something inside. Buy some cheap crackers and show your child how to pull them and shout ‘bang’ so the noise doesn’t come as a surprise. Practise wearing hats and reading jokes.
#9 Some children may be overwhelmed by a large number of presents all at once.
It’s natural to want to spoil them but be patient and try introducing gifts one at a time over the day or over several days. Alternatively, adopt an advent style approach and bring out a small gift each day on the run-up to Christmas day.
#10 Have the Christmas that suits your family as it is now. Forget about the perfect day, embrace the imperfections and enjoy your special moments
Remember that this is your Christmas too. Try and relax and enjoy the bits that work well. Recognise that some things are too hard at the moment but with patience and practise they may well be achievable next year.