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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

  • cover image for product sticker pack early years

    Early years activities

  • Early Years Home toolkit

  • product cover image for minikit morning & evening

    I know what to expect – morning and evening

  • cover image what to expect at home kit

    I know what to expect at home

  • cover pic for early years kit

    I know what to expect Early Years

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

mum hugging boy in school uniform on secondary school offer day

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

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

“I worry about wearing my blazer all day.”

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

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

Secondary school transition issues

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

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

How would he:

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

Preparation is key

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

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

Top 10 transition tips

Tip #1

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

Tip #2

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

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

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

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

Tip #3

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

Tip #4

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

Tip #5

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

Tip #6

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

Tip #7

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

Tip #8

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

Tip #9

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

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

Tip #10

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

Transition to secondary school resources

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

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

  • cover image for back to school bundle products

    I can do it – back to school bundles

  • I can do it – pack my bag for school

  • cover image what to expect at school kit

    I know what to expect at school

  • cover image product feelings notebook

    My TomTag Feelings Notebook

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Making pancakes with children with autism

tomtag holders set up with instruction symbols for pancake recipe

Pancake day – it’s one of our favourite days of the year! 

Tom loves pancakes and helping to make them. With inspiration from this great visual recipe guide from Widgit Software we’ve set up TomTag with appropriate visual prompts so he can follow the recipe with me. There’s definitely no prompts needed for eating them!

 

First we get out all the equipment 

pancake equipment list on TomTag and items displayed

 

and then the ingredients 

 

pancake ingredients listed on TomTag and items displayed

 

 

 

Then it’s time to follow the recipe

 

pancake recipe

 

before choosing our favourite topping

 

pancake toppings choices listed on TomTag and items displayed

 

Have fun making your pancakes – I know we did, yum-yum!!

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Cooking – TomTag life skills

bread on grill tray being put into ovenBeing able to create quick and healthy hot meals becomes increasingly important as children get older and need to learn skills for independent or supported living. Following simple recipes provides opportunities to work on reading and listening skills, sequencing, nutrition, hygiene and learning to use kitchen tools.

The key thing to remember is to start with recipes that are simple enough to follow with limited assistance, building up slowly to add in more complex skills over time.

We’ve looked at preparing some non-cook simple meals for breakfast, snacks and lunches in our Simple Meals blog using symbols from our Food & Drink Basics pack.

With the additional symbols included in our Food & Drink Extended sticker pack, more confident or experienced learners can learn to prepare, cook and serve simple hot meals such as beans on toast, cheese on toast, hot sandwiches and egg recipes.  This sticker pack is available as a stand-alone item or included in the In the Kitchen and Independent Living kits.

Cooking – learning life skills with TomTag

washing hands under running water from tagHygiene

Don’t forget to use the opportunity to teach or reinforce rules about hygiene in the kitchen. We’ve included symbols for washing hands and wearing an apron but you could also use blank stickers to add reminders to wipe worktops or store food in the fridge, or use some of the symbols from our domestic chores Clean & Tidy pack.


tomtag shopping list with trolley and shopping bagPreparation

Show the images for the utensils and food that will be needed to create the recipe you have chosen and check you have everything listed before you begin.

You might also want to incorporate a shopping trip as part of your preparation to find all the ingredients you will need. The My Shopping List sticker pack and Help at the Shops kit would be useful here. For more shopping with TomTag tips, read our Shopping Life Skill blog.


tomtag with symbols for cutting food and preparing fruit Kitchen safety

There are lots of skills required in the kitchen besides dealing with the food itself. Knowing how to turn cookers and ovens on and off correctly, taking appropriate precautions with hot equipment, learning safe use of sharp knifes and other utensils are all essential skills to be learnt before a young person can be left to cook unsupervised.

Build on these skills gradually and move on to the next stage only when the individual is ready and capable of showing the necessary responsibility.


tin of heinz beans with toast, butter and 2 tomtags overlaid with symbols to make beans on toastChoosing recipes

Using a set of TomTag button holders and the symbols we’ve included in our Extended pack, you can quickly create step-by-step instructions for numerous simple recipes such as beans on toast, soup, sandwiches, eggs (scrambled, fried or boiled), cheese on toast and pasta with sauce.


tomas carving turkey at christmasServe it up

Be sure to give compliments and praise and encourage them to keep building on their skills. Let them be the first to taste what they’ve made and ask for suggestions of what they’d like to try next.

Serving and sharing meals with others offers opportunities for practising communication and social skills too.


 

Resources

Jamie Oliver’s Simple Cooking Skills website has a simple and visual layout and many of the recipes even include step-by-step photo illustrations.

Cooking with Autism also have a useful site with easy to follow recipes written in simple language.

Free to download from Widgit Symbols is this accessible symbol-supported recipe sheet for making pancakes

 

  • cover image sticker pack at the shops

    At the shops

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    Clean & tidy

  • cover image sticker pack food drink basics

    Food & drink basics

  • cover image sticker pack food and drink extended

    Food & drink extended

  • cover image download going shopping

    Going shopping

  • I can do it – in the kitchen

  • I can do it – independent living

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    In the house

  • cover image sticker pack my shopping list

    My shopping list

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Simple meals – TomTag Life Skills

I’ll never forget the first time Tom made his own jammy toast. Okay, so there was more jam on the kitchen worktop than the toast, but the pride I could see on his face made the cleaning up instantly forgettable.

And the ‘nomination for the life skill that has made the most positive difference to my life to date‘ goes to …. drum roll, please …. Tom making his own hot chocolate on school mornings! I gain a few precious moments to enjoy my breakfast cuppa whilst it’s still relatively hot!

It’s sad but true that man (or boy) cannot live on jammy toast and hot chocolate alone. However, learning to make simple meals, a favourite hot drink or snack is a great starting point for developing independent life skills for older children or young adults with autism.

Visual supports and guides make teaching these vital life skills so much easier and our TomTag Food and Drink Basics sticker pack is designed specifically to help with this task.

Here’s some of the ways we’d suggest for using this pack:

  • Step-by-step sequencing instructions for making breakfast, snacks, simple lunches or hot drinks. 
  • List the food choices available to your child for breakfast, lunch and snacks. 
  • List each family member’s food preference as a reminder to those preparing the food. 

Whichever way you choose, here’s a few simple tips to follow.

simple meals, choosing the right task, widgit symbol for cut with knifeChoosing the right tasks

Choose tasks that are appropriate to your child’s developmental level. Starter tasks might include washing fruit, cutting soft vegetables with plastic knives or spreading butter on toast (and work surfaces!).

Move on later to more complex tasks requiring greater motor skills, concentration and focus such as using a peeler, chopping with sharper knives or boiling a kettle.

 


simple meals, talking points, widgit symbol for snackTalking points, an opportunity for learning

Having children help make simple meals in the kitchen provides a natural opportunity for learning on a range of topics.

Teaching children to wash their hands and kitchen surfaces before preparing food or showing them safe ways to use knives helps them to understand the importance of kitchen safety and hygiene.

Practice reading and maths skills by comparing packet labels and counting or measuring out ingredients.

Talk about the effects our choice of food has on our health and lifestyle. Try out the NHS Change4Life Sugar Swaps app for a fun way to find out how much sugar is in our food and drinks.


simple meals, foodie fun, widgit symbol for fruit saladA recipe for foodie fun

Research shows that repeated exposure to food increases a child’s willingness to eat. On average, children might need over a dozen exposures to a food before ever putting it in their mouth, even more for a child with sensory issues around food.

Cooking meals therefore provides low pressure, fun, sensory experiences. If children associate food with enjoyable experiences, they’re more likely to be receptive to trying new foods and eating healthily. Involving children in meal choices and preparation of simple meals can help to improve their eating habits and establish a healthy relationship with food.

Cookie cutters are brilliant for turning boring sandwiches into enticing nibbles. A selection of different coloured fruits or vegetables look great laid out to make a rainbow.

This play-dough cafe we set up when Tom was younger was a really fun way to engage him with the experience of food preparation. Tom plays the role of both chef and waiter, helping to develop his communication and social skills too. 

Listen out for my most favourite comment of all from Tomas at the end “Please mummy, can we make our own food?”!


simple meals, praise, widgit symbol for washing upPraise, encouragement and letting go of the mess stress!

Be sure to give compliments, praise and lots of encouragement to your child to keep building on their skills. Let them be the first to taste what they’ve made and ask for suggestions of what they’d like to try next.

Having kids help out often means a bit more mess to clear up afterwards. Try to be patient and allow for a little extra mess whilst they’re still learning.
 


Resources for simple meals

Get free visual recipe sheets for tasty treats and snacks from The Autism helper.

Cheeriosmilkandspoon is Sarah’s personal blog account of parenting a child with food aversions and eating challenges.

  • cover image sticker pack food drink basics

    Food & drink basics

  • cover image sticker pack food and drink extended

    Food & drink extended

  • I can do it – in the kitchen

  • I can do it – independent living

 

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Cooking skills for children with autism and sensory issues

text cooking skills for children with autism and sensory issues. 2 images of Tom preparing and cooking meals

Tom loves to cook and takes a keen interest in meal choice and preparation. We’re immensely proud that he achieved a Jamie Oliver BTEC Home Cooking Skills qualification with the help of two highly skilled and intuitive cooking teachers at school and lots of practice at home.

Learning cooking skills not only benefits a child’s health and well-being but also builds their confidence and independence and boosts life skills in other areas, such as maths, communication and social skills.

Tom has autism, sensory issues, and movement difficulties and finds following instructions tricky; a mixture of challenges that doesn’t naturally suggest a recipe for success in the kitchen! So what happened?

His success certainly didn’t happen overnight. He took many small steps over quite a length of time. We encouraged him through his special interests (like making lorry and number shaped biscuits) and took cues from him as to when he was ready to try new things. There was a lot of planning and preparation and a good-sized dollop of patience!

Are you anxious or worried that similar sensory or motor challenges will make it difficult for your child to help in the kitchen? Does the idea of cooking with your autistic child fill you with dread?!

Be prepared to give lots of physical or visual demonstration, plenty of practice and, above all, be patient. Manage sensory triggers and start with fun cooking activities that match your child’s level of interest and ability. We think you’ll be amazed at how much your child will be able to learn, how creative they can be and maybe even the new foods they might try! 

Sensory issues

Cooking skills, Tom cooking onions in a frying pan, steam coming off, wiping head. Text overlay "frying onions - an intense sensory experience!"Cooking creates a lot of strong sensory experiences like noise, smells and mess that will affect children in different ways.

For sensory defensive children (like Tom), certain textures, smells and tastes when handling and preparing food can trigger a negative reaction. Other children who are sensory seekers are more likely to be distracted by trying to satisfy their sensory needs e.g. chewing or constantly wiping their hands. This lack of awareness can be dangerous when working in a kitchen.

It’s therefore crucial to identify your child’s triggers before inviting them into the kitchen and think about appropriate adjustments you can make in order to avoid meltdowns or bad associations with cooking in the future.

Tips to alleviate sensory issues in the kitchen

  • Keeping a record of your child’s reactions to sensations will help you prepare dishes that do not include any of these triggers. You can use a simple diary or notebook (like our TomTag Feelings Notebook) to jot down your child’s sensory triggers as well as record your child’s culinary successes.
  • Arranging food or utensils is a mess-free food activity for children who love order but aren’t ready for touching food. Let them collect and organise the ingredients, line muffin tins or set the table.
  • Exposing a younger child to play situations with various textures like magic sand, slime or play-dough can help to desensitize them to food-type textures.
  • Try using thin non-latex medical gloves to avoid skin touching food directly.
  • Onion goggles (they really are a thing!) can protect eyes from the chemicals that make our eyes water. A normal pair of swimming goggles would probably work just as well!
  • Consider the utensils you use if your child is sensitive to sound e.g. replace metal mixing bowls and spoons with wooden or plastic.
  • Offer a long spoon to create a greater distance if your child has food phobias.
  • Provide access to sensory props like chewing aids or textured towels so that your child’s sensory needs are supported and managed in a controlled manner.

Motor challenges

cooking skills, banana being cut with a knife on a chopping board. Text reads "Cooking tasks exercise a wide range of gross and fine motor skillsTom found holding knives and other utensils difficult as the small muscles in his hands didn’t always do what he wanted them to do. He also lacked strength and coordination in his arms which affected his ability to cut, chop, peel or grate. Applying the appropriate pressure for different activities (such as slicing bread as opposed to a banana) was also an issue.

Tips to support children with motor challenges in the kitchen

  • Getting the right utensils can make a huge difference. Try supersized cookie cutters to compensate for clumsy fingers or look for child-friendly kitchen knives – we love the look of this simple Ikea set.
  • Practice fine motor skills by tearing herbs and lettuce or rubbing butter and flour into a breadcrumb texture (using the ‘rubbing in’ technique for making pastry and crumbles).
  • For cutting practice, start with easy to cut food that your child likes to eat. Soft fruit and cooked soft vegetables such as strawberries, banana, potatoes and carrots are ideal.
  • There are lots of activities around cooking that involve using different muscles. Mixing is a relatively safe and fun activity. Try pancake batter, dressings or sauces and for added fun you can even try shaking them in a jar!

Following instructions

cooking skills, young girl stirring baking mixture with wooden spoon. Text reads "start with the basics"Children learn best by example and in small steps. 

Start by teaching the basic techniques such as cutting and mixing before moving onto the bigger tasks like following a recipe.
Stand next to your child and ask them to copy you step by step. Hand over hand support can help with movement and pressure issues.

Having a relaxed and fun atmosphere is the best way to teach new kitchen skills. Find a time to cook when everyone is happy and calm. Tackling cooking when you’re trying to get dinner on the table or your child is hungry will only lead to frustration and tears – yours and theirs!

Resources for cooking skills

Deborah French is a mother of four children, including 2 with special needs. Deborah’s wonderful book The Cookbook for Children with Special Needs introduces children to the fundamentals of food preparation, healthy eating and cookery skills.

In this interview with the BBC good food guide, Deborah talks about her experiences as a mother, cook and writer and her remarkable journey from parenting two children with special needs to becoming an author of multiple books.  

To find out more about using visual prompts like TomTag to help your child build confidence and develop their cooking skills, follow the link to our next blog Simple Meals – TomTag Life Skills.

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Sign up for your bravery booster bundle!

Finding your brave – Children’s Mental Health Week

Day 5: What does ‘finding your brave’ mean for a child with autism?

What does ‘finding your brave’ mean for YOUR child? We hope you’ve found some useful advice in our series this week to help you answer that question and support your child and their mental health.

Here’s a summary with links to each of the blogs in this series :

  1. Explain to your child what bravery means and how it relates to their life and their personal challenges – What is bravery?
  2. Turn detective and get a deeper understanding of your child’s fears, worries and anxieties and the thoughts that are holding them back – What are you scared of?
  3. Choose some support tools and create strategies to help reduce uncertainties, learn social skills and aid communication – Overcoming fears – getting closer to brave
  4. Acknowledge and celebrate your child’s bravery in all its forms to boost their self-esteem, confidence and mental health – How does being brave make us feel?

Would you like a bit of help to get started?

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Click the button above to sign up now and we’ll email you our bravery boosters bundle!

You’ll receive a guide to developing good emotional intelligence that you can download and print, a video guide to using a feelings diary and a discount code to use when you purchase any Feelings and Emotional support products. A selection of these products have been featured in our ‘finding your brave’ series. 

  • cover image feelings notebook extra stickers

    Extra sticker sheets for Feelings Notebook

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    Feelings & emotions

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    Feelings tag-o-meter

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    I can do it – feelings bundle

  • I can do it – manage my feelings

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    I can do it – share how I feel

  • cover image product feelings notebook

    My TomTag Feelings Notebook

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How does being brave make us feel?

boy stood on stacked logs with text how does brave make you feel

Finding your brave – Children’s Mental Health Week

Day 4: What does ‘finding your brave’ mean for a child with autism?

It’s time to celebrate!

As we’ve talked about earlier, many children with autism show their bravery in the everyday acts of dealing with life. Recognising and celebrating this bravery is just as important, if not more so, as acknowledging it for the ‘big’ brave events.

Showing your child how to see and celebrate their bravery in the seemingly smaller things boosts their self-esteem, confidence and mental health. Congratulating your child on each brave step (big or small) helps them feel good about themselves and they can learn to find courage to do bigger things.

If you’ve missed any of the series so far, you can recap here: 

How does being brave make us feel?

Bravery often doesn’t feel like bravery. It can feel like butterflies in your tummy, sweaty hands, racing thoughts or maybe a moment of intense focus and concentration. It’s only after being brave that we feel proud, happy and confident – that elusive ‘I feel good’ feeling! When we are brave we can have fun, meet new people, share a new experience and boost our mental health and well-being.

Bravery can mean so many things: big and small. As a parent of a child with autism, it’s often hard not to compare them with their typically developing peers and their acts of bravery. Others may have learnt to ride a bike, play a musical instrument or been picked for the school football team whilst your child is struggling to put on their shoes, hold a pencil or sleep through the night. 

Everyday heroes

Getting dressed, going to school or keeping calm when there is a change to routine are all examples of bravery if you have anxiety, sensory difficulties or struggle with flexible thinking. 

Take time each day to note down an instance when your child has been brave. We use our TomTag Feelings notebook to record these moments but you could also write each moment on a note and pop them into a note jar. Simply pausing and recording these moments highlights the experience of being brave making it more likely to reinforce positive memories. Using a notebook, note jar or similar will help you and your child to revisit and reflect on the ‘brave moment’ entries when similar challenges arise in the future. Together with your child you can build a bravery chain, link by link.

Its also important to reassure your child that not feeling brave is okay and that other children will often feel this way too. This is another time when it can be helpful to use a visual feelings scale (like TomTag’s Share how I feel tag) to help your child show or tell you how they are feeling. Acknowledge their feelings and praise them for ‘finding their brave’ to share them with you. Remind them that it takes time and practice to ‘find your brave’ – be patient if you need to repeat the process we discussed earlier of identifying fears and finding support strategies to overcome them.

Tom’s story

Over the years we’ve always tried to celebrate all Tom’s acts of ‘bravery’. We’ve praised and encouraged him with seemingly small things like saying hello, sitting at the table or making food choices. Bravery has unfolded one situation at a time. 

Over time, he’s overcome his fear of speaking, meeting new people and learning new skills such as skiing, riding a bike and, more recently, even driving! When he faces new challenges, we remind him how he found his brave on all these occasions to reassure him that he does have the strength within to succeed. 

tomas putting letters on a board in front of mum as a child and presenting a display on Switzerland as a young adult

How does your child show their bravery? Share your proud moments with us – we’d love to hear from you and share your joy!

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Overcoming fears – getting closer to brave

COVER IMAGE FOR DAY 3 CHILDREN'S MENTAL HEALTH WEEK BLOG, OVERCOMING FEARS

Finding your brave – Children’s Mental Health Week

Day 3: What does ‘finding your brave’ mean for a child with autism?

We’ve introduced the idea of what bravery means and why being brave can make us feel good and looked at ways to help your child identify and understand their barriers to being brave (what are you scared of?). 

Now it’s time for some action! Let’s look at some ways you can support your child to help them overcome some of their fears and get closer to finding their brave.

Overcoming fears – getting closer to brave

Feeling worried about the unknown or new situations is common and familiar to almost all of us.

For many children with autism, normal daily life can feel like the great unknown every day. If you’re worried about what’s going to happen, struggle with anxiety around people and social situations or can’t communicate what you want or need, every single day can feel scary and overwhelming. It’s very hard to ‘find your brave’ when you’re in a constant state of anxiety. Being scared and anxious is exhausting and can often lead us into more complex mental health problems.

There are strategies we can use to deal with these uncertainties and ways to learn skills that can help combat anxieties. It’s time to meet the superheroes – visual supports!! 

Finding your brave – reducing uncertainty with visual supports

An intolerance of uncertainty is a common cause of anxiety for many children with autism, causing them to ‘act out’ or display other unwanted behaviours when their routines change or they are in unfamiliar situations. 

A visual schedule or timetable takes away the element of surprise and makes it clear what your child can expect to happen. Their anxiety level will come down and it will be easier for them to transition between activities, finding their brave to move on.  

a diary pageIn this diary entry, Tom felt worried because he didn’t know whether his Speech and Language therapist was visiting him at school that day. By reminding him to check the timetable in his planner, Tom was able to reassure himself about when to expect to see his therapist.

tomtag overlaid on an image of a child in the dentist's chair receiving treatmentHelping your child to ‘find their brave’ for unfamiliar or ‘scary’ situations – things like visiting the dentist, doctor or hairdresser – is eased by good planning and preparation. Using a visual tool like TomTag or a simple social story can help you to communicate and explain to your child what’s going happen before the event, reducing the uncertainty and consequent anxieties.

Finding your brave – learning social skills with visual supports

Social cues can be difficult for many children with autism to understand as they interact with others. They get anxious about what is expected of them socially and can find if hard to interpret other people’s behaviour.

Visual prompts can be useful in teaching social rules such as sharing, taking turns and waiting. With practice and patience, children can learn to use these supports on their own in social situations, providing them with a permanent reminder of expectations and setting the stage for them to find their brave!

In the earlier example, Tom was worried about his speech therapist being late. Using drawings, we reminded him about the concept of waiting. Knowing what was expected of him in this situation and giving him some self-help strategies (OT exercises) helped to calm him down.

drawings to help Tom find self-help strategies for waiting for therapisr

Finding your brave – communicating needs with visual supports

Sensory overload, changes to routine, difficulties processing information, being tired or hungry are all common triggers for anger and challenging behaviour. In these situations, it is almost impossible for a child to be brave.

Tom remembers what he sees rather than what he hears as he can’t process too many words at once. Ask him questions or give him instructions and his stress just increases – the more we talk, the less he hears! Offering children like Tom a non-verbal means of communication to use allows them to understand and express their feelings without the stress of having to process language at the same time.

tomtag samples from the feelings and emotions range

The TomTag Share how I feel visual feelings scale is one of our best sellers – and you can see why! It’s such a simple device but a very quick, effective and efficient way for your child to show or tell you how they are feeling. Once they’re learnt to identify and understand what each feeling means, you can use more detailed visual guides to build self-help strategies they can use to cope with different feelings and emotions, giving them the reassurance and confidence they need to find their brave.

Next: How does being brave make us feel?

The benefits and joys of finding your brave 

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Finding your brave – what are you scared of?

background of mountains, 2 children sitting with thought bubbles to show what they are afraid of

Finding your brave – Children’s Mental Health Week

Day 2: What does ‘finding your brave’ mean for a child with autism?

Now that you’ve introduced the idea of what bravery means and why being brave can make us feel good (follow the link if you missed it), we look at helping your child understand what can hold us back and the feelings that can stop us being brave. 

What are you scared of?

background of mountains, 2 children sitting with thought bubbles to show what they are afraid ofWhat stops us being brave and why can being brave be so difficult? 

Being brave generally means facing something difficult or a situation we’re unsure, worried or scared about and going ahead anyway.

To help your child with autism ‘find their brave’, you need to understand what those fears, worries or anxieties are that are their barriers to being brave. It’s the thoughts and feelings we create ourselves that are most often what get in the way of doing something or trying something new. These unhelpful thoughts might include worries about getting something wrong, being embarrassed or people laughing at you.

Firstly, let your child know that it’s normal to have these emotions but that there things we can do to help ourselves to stop these thoughts and feelings getting in the way of what we want or need to do and affecting our mental health. To find out what their barriers are you may just be able to ask them. If your child is non-verbal or finds it tricky to talk about their feelings – perhaps because they have limited language skills – you will need to try some other tactics. 

TomTag feelings notebook with example page filled inFor Tom, who has autism, just talking about his fears can be a cause of stress too. We’ve used the TomTag Feelings Notebook to help him communicate with us and share his concerns in a less direct or confrontational way.

In this example, he describes feeling nervous about meeting his teacher as he was unsure about what to say to her. He goes on to share that he always feels nervous when he sees other people. An example of how unhelpful thoughts – like saying something wrong or that people might laugh at him – are the barriers to bravery here.

 You can use also use a diary format like this to help you and your child keep a record of feelings, anxieties, worries or behaviour which will help you to track any patterns and identify underlying triggers. Turn detective, be curious and think about what might be beneath their behaviour to see what the real issues are.

Right feeling, wrong size?

Sometimes, your child won’t even be sure what they’re afraid of, which can in itself make them feel more anxious and afraid. It’s also possible that they may have difficulty understanding the size or intensity of their feelings, something Tomas finds quite difficult.

When he was younger, Tom was terrified of flies. This was particularly difficult in the summer months as he would scream and become extremely anxious about going to sleep. Every evening we would have to make sure that his bedroom was free of the unwelcome guests before he would even go into his room.

With support, Tom was able to use drawings as a visual tool to help him share what it was about flies that frightened him and how they made him feel. He thought that the fly would eat him and he felt panic! Once we knew what the fears were, we could reassure him that it was normal to have feelings about flies. We were able to show him that his feeling of panic was unhelpful as it made things feel more scary than they really were. A case of the right feeling but the wrong size.

drawing by Tomas to explain his fear of flies

Doing the detective work was crucial. Had we not known about the fear then Tom’s reluctance to go to bed might have been misinterpreted as challenging behaviour around bedtime routines. By understanding his fears, providing him with reassurance and making him feel safe, we could encourage him to be brave with the help of positive thinking and a bright new fly swatter which we showed him how to use! 

Next: Overcoming fears – getting closer to brave

Looking at some ways you can support your child to help them overcome some of their fears and get closer to finding their brave.