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
“I’m feeling worried about eating in the canteen.”
“I am concerned that the lessons are going to be a long time.”
“I worry about wearing my blazer all day.”
These were some of the worries my autistic son Tom had when he was moving from his beloved small and familiar mainstream primary school to a much larger secondary school.
The move from primary to secondary school is one of the major transitions in a child’s life. All children are likely to feel some level of worry about this move but for many children on the autistic spectrum, who crave stability and predictability like Tom does, this transition can be particularly difficult.
Secondary school transition issues
Like many children with autism, Tom has anxiety about the unknown and finds it difficult to think flexibly. He felt safe and secure with familiar routines established in primary school. Not being able to predict what might happen in his new secondary school and the thought of dealing with change and different rules was a real worry to him.
As a parent, my worries were mainly around his lack of social understanding, his communication difficulties, and his sensory challenges.
How would he:
cope with the many new social situations he would encounter in secondary school?
manage his feelings and emotions when things didn’t go as planned?
deal with the increased sensory demands of his new environment?
Preparation is key
Every child with autism is different so a ‘one size fits all’ approach to transition is therefore not going to work. It’s vital that transition planning should be personalised to each child. By preparing your child as much as possible beforehand using some of the tips we’ve listed below, we hope you’ll be able to make those first days and weeks in the new school a lot less worrying for you and your child.
Top 10 transition tips
Arrange for your child to visit their new school several times before they start and at different times of the day e.g. lunchtime, breaktime and during lessons. Tom made frequent, short visits which helped make his new school more familiar to him and took away some of the worry he felt about eating his lunch in the canteen.
Make a “My School transition booklet” which your child can keep and use as they need in order to reduce anxiety.
Tom’s booklet included a map of the layout of the school, photographs of key staff (particularly the teaching assistants that were going to support him) and photographs taken of him in the important places, like the school canteen, main hall, classrooms and a safe place for times of stress.
A photograph of Tom on the stairs in the school corridor with his written note of the correct corridor etiquette – “walk on the left hand side so we don’t get squashed and we can let other people pass” was a simple inclusion in the booklet but meant that he knew what was expected of him when the corridors filled with students.
Establish a link with a member of staff who can act as a mentor and home-school liaison. Set up a home-school book to pass on information about any worries/concerns or any relevant developments at home.
Create a personal profile written with the help of your child to include all the information new staff should know about them. Tom’s profile mentioned his need to have frequent movement breaks and his worry about the long lessons.
Get used to a homework routine in advance of the new school start. Start simply with a 10-15-minute task at a regular time each evening in a quiet environment.
Make a visual timetable showing the school day to make lesson order & break times more predictable. The TomTag School Timetable kit is ideal for creating portable and personalised timetables for your child without the hassle of printing, laminating or Velcro!
Practice the journey to and from school, making sure your child knows the location of bus stops, road-crossings, meeting points or anything else significant on their journey.
Familiarise your child with their new school uniform and deal with any irritating seams or labels. Tom practised wearing his blazer at home so that he got used to how it felt and was also told he could take it off during lessons.
Ask your child’s current primary school to work on preparing your child for the transition by including activities around organising and managing their own items at school.
Set aside time to discuss your child’s worries and concerns about the transition. Encourage them to write down or draw about any concerns they have about moving to their new school. Remind them of relaxation and self-help techniques they could use if they are anxious. The TomTag Feelings Notebook is a helpful place to record worries and concerns.
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.
We learn a great deal from listening to our customers about their experiences with TomTag. It’s always interesting to find out about the different ways they use our products and wonderful to hear how it often makes such a real difference to their lives.
We thought it might be helpful to share some of those experiences and ideas with you too so we’ve interviewed a number of our customers who have been kind enough to talk about their different stories and backgrounds with us.
First up is Elizabeth, a childminder from London, and mum to two girls aged 4 and 12.
Why did you purchase TomTag?
I bought TomTag to use with my daughters as both girls are on the autistic spectrum. Although they are both verbal and relatively high functioning they still need some support with their daily life activities.
I’d describe my youngest daughter as being in a permanent ‘fight or flight’ mode, always needing reassurance about what to expect during the day. The eldest has executive functioning issues and needs support to help her sequence activities and with organisation.
Did you use any other type of visual supports before you tried TomTag?
I used to make my own picture timetables and sequences. It was very time consuming having to print off the pictures, laminate them and then attach them to Velcro. My youngest daughter really didn’t like the Velcro system so when I saw TomTag advertised in Aukids magazine I decided to give them a try.
So, how do you use it?
In lots of different ways!
For my younger daughter I have set up:
daily timetables that I create by prominently displaying 3 tags on hooks on the fridge (and also in the other rooms where she needs to use them) to show her what her morning, afternoon and evening routines should be
a toilet routine reminder hanging in the bathroom which is a simple picture sequence checklist to break the routine down into small steps.
social story resources to help prepare for things like visits to the doctor and hairdresser. I explain what’s going to happen and the order of events whilst we look at the pictures together.
as a picture sequence to check she has followed the correct steps for washing her hair
How has TomTag helped your children?
My little one finds TomTag very comforting. She feels in control of her day now and is less anxious about what is going to happen next. Seeing her routine in pictures also helps with teaching her sequences and time concepts. She loves the ‘hands on’ system – she particularly enjoys clicking the buttons in and out!
My older daughter finds TomTag really helps with her organisational skills. She feels less anxious at school knowing she has all the right things with her. She also likes the ’hands on’ nature of TomTag and she’s now started taking responsibility for planning and organising her day. For example, when she started going to choir as an after school activity, she changed her tag by herself to show this change of routine.
Do you have any suggestions for how we could make TomTag even better?
The range of images supplied in the various sticker packs is generally good. I have used the blank stickers to draw some personalised images – an umbrella, keys and phone charger.
I think there could be some additional ‘days out’ type images e.g. summer fair, fun fair, adventure park or castle. Perhaps a jumbo version of the tags and buttons would be useful for children who have sight problems but I appreciate the product would not then be as portable!
Overall I think TomTag is a wonderful product and it has really made life easier for both my daughters.
Thank you Elizabeth for sharing your story and for giving us some insightful tips on how TomTag works in your home.
Follow the highlighted links in the interview to find out more details about all the products used by Elizabeth and her family.
Would you like to share your story with us?
All it takes is a short chat with us on the ‘phone, ideally send us a few pics of your TomTags in use then just leave the rest to us. It’s easy to get in touch with us, all the details are on our Contact Us page.
How do you teach a reluctant child how to pack their own bag with all the right things they need for the day ahead and to bring it all home again?
Clare, whose own children learnt this important skill with TomTag, recommends the following simple steps:
1. Select one day when there are not many items to take to school. Use only one tag from the TomTag pack to make a list of the relevant items and activities for that day.
2. Set aside some time the night before to pack the bag with your child and attach TomTag to their bag. Praise your child for remembering and packing everything they need for the day.
3. Ask your child to repack their bag at school using TomTag as a reminder of what to bring home. Check their bag when they return from school and praise them when they have been successful in bringing the correct items home.
4. Ask the child to pack their bag on their own for the same day using TomTag as a visual reminder of what items are needed. Then check their bag for them. Praise your child’s success. If something is forgotten, refer back to the tag and repack.
5. Ask your child to repack their bag at school using TomTag as a reminder of what to bring home. Check their bag when they return from school and praise them when they have been successful in bringing the correct items home.
6. Your child packs their own bag using TomTag as a visual reminder and does not have it checked. Praise your child’s success.
7. Choose another more complicated day and repeat the process. Gradually build up to a full week and using the full TomTag set on the child’s bag.
Packing their school bag independently, being organised and taking responsibility for their belongings are great life skills for all children to learn but are especially important for those with additional or special needs. TomTag uses only picture cues so it’s easy for any child to use.