Christmas can be a magical and exciting time but for many autistic children like my son Tom, the festive period is anything but wonderful.
Tom struggles with changes to his routine, worries about not understanding what is happening and why his usual activities and food are different. When he was younger, if visitors came to the house or we visited family and friends he’d become confused and unsettled as he didn’t know what was expected of him. He was often tearful, frustrated, and distressed.
We tried lots of things and now we know what to do to help Tom and our family have a more enjoyable and relaxing Christmas. As he turned 21 this year, Tom shares 21 of his favourite tips to help you and your family prepare for an autism-friendly Christmas.
#1: Decide what’s the best way to ‘do’ Christmas for YOU and YOUR family.
Making a plan in the following way helped us:
✍🏻Grab a notebook and pen and have a think about the whole upcoming Christmas period.
📝Make a list with four columns headed Achievable, Desirable, High Risk, Impossible
🤔Think about what is planned or expected over Christmas and place each activity under one of the four columns
👏🏻Don’t aim for 💯%- if you can manage most of the achievable, one or two things in the desirable column and come through everything in the risky column you should rightly feel proud.
Don’t give up hope if nothing goes to plan. In our experience, over time many of our risky column activities became achievable.
#2: Make a personalised visual ‘All about Christmas ‘guide.
Showing all the different things you might do at this time of the year this guide could include Christmas objects, Christmas food and activities that only happen at Christmas e.g., meeting Father Christmas or pulling Christmas crackers
You could make one together like mum and I did with drawings. A photo collage, Christmas scrapbook, or pictures of your family celebrating Christmas also work well.
Like many children with autism, I tend to forget social information, so a permanent visual guide was a great way to remind me what Christmas looks like.
#3: Take time to talk with your child about things that may be worrying them
I was worried about not having my usual breakfast – jammy toast and hot chocolate on Christmas day.
This might seem a little thing to worry about, but it was a huge feeling for me. Mum explained to me that I would have my usual breakfast and that made me feel better.
#4: Make realistic plans for shopping.
Mum tried to avoid taking me shopping during Christmas. The noisy crowds, strong smells, and bright lights in the shops made me feel confused and worried. If she couldn’t find a babysitter, we used to go at quieter times of the day with plenty of snacks to distract me!
Online shopping now makes things much easier
#5: Talk about social rules and different expectations that people might have around Christmastime.
When I was younger, having visitors to my house or going to visit family and friends over Christmas made me feel worried. I didn’t like being out of routine and felt anxious about what I should say and do. Practicing what to say when meeting people and having pictures to remind me what would happen and how I should behave, for example saying hello, please, and thank you really helped.
#6: Talk to your child’s teacher so you know what different things they might be doing and when.
Mum used to have a meeting with my teacher and support assistant to find out what activities were going to be happening and how best to help me.
By letting us know when there would be changes to my routine, for example, doing Christmas crafts instead of my usual lessons or practicing for the carol service I could prepare myself for the changes and didn’t get as anxious.
Planning for the Christmas party so that I could have my favourite drink and a quiet area to go to when things got too much also made me feel much calmer about going to the party.
#7: Make a list of special interest gift ideas that you can suggest to relatives and friends when they ask what presents they can buy.
When I was younger, I didn’t get excited about getting toys as presents. But I loved getting things about what I was interested in, for example, lorries and trains. Activities based on my special interests were also good ideas.
Among my favourite Christmas presents were a pillowcase with trains on, a trip to the railway museum and of course getting lots of Eddie Stobart lorries!
#8: Make sure any visual schedules are updated to show any changes to routine or special Christmas events.
Sudden changes to my usual routine like a last-minute practice, craft activity or even something small like moving to a different classroom or popping to see a friend can upset me and cause me to worry. It’s always better to give me as much warning as possible of any changes so I can prepare and cope with them.
It can be exhausting to keep up with all the different things that are happening. A TomTag visual timetable really helps to show me what is happening and when. It’s perfect for use at home and school.
#9: Involve your child in deciding where the decorations should go.
I get worried when there are unexpected changes in things around me. So, if Christmas decorations suddenly appear at home or school, it can shock me. Involving me in deciding where the decorations go and letting me help decorate the Christmas tree can help me feel less overwhelmed.
It’s also important to let me know when the decorations are being taken down too. It’s less stressful for me when there is a warning and a reason given.
#10: Keep sensory armour to hand for trips to the shop, parties, and other festive events where there might be sensory overload.
Loud music, twinkly lights, everything and everyone looking different can be overwhelming for me.
Sensory armour can help and includes:
🎧Headphone to cut out some of the noise and sound. I can also listen to my favourite music to help reassure me when things get tricky
🧢A cap to help shut out some of the flashing lights
🕶Dark glasses to reduce light intensity.
#11: Let your child wear their Christmas costume or party outfit around the house
When possible, buy or make your child’s Christmas costume or party outfit early.
Let them wear it around the house for say, 5-10 minutes over a few days to help them become comfortable with how it feels.
I don’t like the feel of any clothes made out of wool or anything with a label in it as it feels scratchy on my skin. Fancy dress costumes are also a no-no. I much prefer to wear my own clothes. I don’t mind wearing a Christmas hat– if the label is cut out and I don’t have to wear it for a long time – just long enough for mum to get some photographs is usually ok!
#12: Use an advent calendar or other visual to prepare for and understand the countdown to Christmas.
I used to find traditional advent calendars quite fiddly. When I was younger, we had a large fabric Christmas tree with 24 large, numbered pockets. Each pocket contained chocolate that I could easily reach.
Other ways to make an advent calendar include a Christmas Book Advent Calendar – unwrap a Christmas book each day, little gift boxes filled with knick-knacks, or a treasure hunt with clues.
You can use TomTag to make a fun countdown too!
#13: Prepare your child for how to greet family and friends
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.
I spent lots of time practicing with mum how to greet people. Being hugged makes me feel uneasy so I learned how to shake hands with friends and family. I do love being hugged by my sister though!
#14: Discuss the escape plans that it’s ok for your child to use if everything gets too much for them.
It was so important for me to know that if things got too much for me there was a quiet space I could go to ‘escape’ Christmas. When I was younger I agreed with mum that I would show a red card when I needed some time out in the quiet space.
#15: Be prepared that your child might not be able to sit at the table for as long as would like (or maybe not at all).
Be upfront about this with your family and friends if you’re having Christmas dinner at their homes.
I’m happy to sit at the table now for my meal but often need to leave the table when I’ve eaten for a movement break. Knowing that this is OK and that I’m not going to be forced to sit at the table means I don’t get anxious. When I was younger, I had a favourite book or toy to keep me distracted during mealtimes.
#16: For children who won’t eat a traditional Christmas dinner prepare and freeze their meals in advance to reduce the workload on the day.
I used to be a very picky eater. This was because I don’t like changes. I liked things including my food, to be predictable. Having the same foods such as pasta, bread and chips meant I didn’t have to worry about new tastes or feelings in my mouth. I preferred to eat foods that I knew tasted and felt the same. I also avoided eating meat as this was difficult for me to chew.
My favourite Christmas dinner used to be chicken nuggets and chips – Mum always put some peas on my plate, just in case!
As I’ve got older my fussy eating has changed. I now love a traditional Christmas dinner and my favourite vegetable is broccoli!
#17: Playfully and patiently practice Christmas traditions
These could include receiving and unwrapping presents, pulling crackers, and wearing hats so that your child knows what to expect and can join in.
Here are some things that we did to help me understand what happens at Christmas:
Play wrapping games. Mum wrapped up some of my things – clothes, books, toys and I had to open the paper and find what was inside. We’d play a guessing game by trying to guess what was inside by the feel and shape of the parcel. We used to have something square, round and rectangular so I could also practice my shape names. Chocolate was always my favourite thing to unwrap!
Pulling crackers. We bought some cheap crackers and practiced pulling them, so I got used to the ‘bang’ sound and it didn’t come as a surprise. I got used to wearing the paper hat from the cracker and looking for the joke inside them.
#18: Think and talk about the sensory overload and extra social demands at Christmas parties.
The school Christmas party used to be very overwhelming for me. Loud music, everybody looking different and the expectation that I should be joining in with dancing and games.
These things helped the party be less stressful for me:
📝Using a visual schedule showing me what was going to happen
🤗Having a ‘buddy group of friends to help me join in
🕺🏻Practicing dancing at home!
🤫Making sure there was a quiet place for me to go to if things got too much.
#19: Some children may be overwhelmed by many presents all in one go. 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.
On Christmas day, I used to stagger my present opening. I opened some presents in the morning and some in the afternoon. Often, we went on holiday at Christmas time so I would open most of my presents after Christmas once we were back home and in my own time. This worked well for me as I didn’t feel stressed about deciding what to unwrap and doing it all at once. I could enjoy opening my presents.
#20: Leave some areas of the house undecorated so there’s always a quiet place for your child to retreat to if they need it.
I liked having a Christmas-free zone to escape to when I got fed up with the flashing lights, glittery things, and loud music around the house. This decoration-free space helped me feel calmer when things got too much.
#21: Many autistic children 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 with a picture attached showing what’s inside.
When I was younger, it didn’t bother me to get a wrapped present, but I didn’t have the ‘surprise feeling’ you usually get before you open it. I didn’t really understand the idea of a surprise, so I had a mixture of wrapped and unwrapped presents.
I used to love anything to do with numbers so receiving a large pack of number cards one Christmas was a lovely surprise!
Tom and I would love to know any tips you have to make Christmas more autism-friendly?
‘While we try to teach our children all about life, our children teach us what life is all about‘ ~ Angela Schwindt
My son, Tom, the inspiration for TomTag visual supports, turned 21 years recently. It seems like only yesterday that he was a new born baby snuggled in my arms. Like any new mum it felt like the beginning of new things. A rainbow of hopes, dreams and possibilities spreading out before us.
Autism cast a shadow on that rainbow.
But the rainbow was always there. It just needed to be looked at from a new perspective. With the understanding that hopes, dreams and possibilities mean different things to different people.
Over the last 21 years Tom has taught me so much. Not just about lorries, swiss trains and football 😉 But, about the important qualities in life – patience, resilience, humility and determination. That each of us has a right to be here, to be heard and to live life to its fullest potential.
To celebrate Tom turning 21, I’m sharing 21 lessons I’ve learnt from living with autism. I know what a rollercoaster it can be parenting an autistic child so I hope our experiences bring some positivity and hope to those of you who may be going through similar experiences. Please know that however hard it is now, with time, things do change, the shadows lift and the rainbow reveals itself🌈
Lesson 1: Let Go Of Expectations
As a new mum, ‘What to Expect the First Year ‘ by Heidi Murkoff was my bible for the first 12 months of Tom’s life.
Like every new mum, every month I proudly ticked off Tom’s achievements– sitting, crawling, first solid food. Then I almost burst with pride. Aged 10 months, he pulled himself up on the sofa and walked across the room!
But when I took him to the playground, I noticed that Tom ignored the other children. He wasn’t interested in playing on the slides and swings. Instead, he spent his ‘playtime’ picking up handfuls of the gravel and watching it fall between his fingers.
I was a bit confused by Tom’s reaction and obsession with the gravel. I felt sad for him that he was missing out. Over time I found the joy at seeing him engrossed in HIS form of play. It was an early lesson in letting go of MY expectations. Now I understand that playtime was always going to be a sensory experience for Tom. He always wanted to touch things and liked to know how things tasted or smelt. Even railings, but that’s another story!
I didn’t know it then but letting go of expectations was to become my mantra.
Lesson 2: Live In The Moment
From an early age Tom was fascinated with water. As a toddler he loved to pour water into and out of small cups or jugs for hours on end.
The joy of watching him completely absorbed in his water play, his curiosity for the waters feel, look and movement taught me to live in the moment.
I realise now it was a sensory need for him. The visual stimulation from the patterns made when the water dripped and poured into various containers made him feel happy and calm.
Lesson 3: The World Is Loud And Bright
When Tom was a toddler, I often thought he had superhuman powers of hearing and seeing. He could hear a dog bark from miles away, get agitated during loud conversations and react immediately to bright lights.
Yet…he didn’t seem to hear me calling his name. These powers, far from helping him, seemed to cause him acute distress. He covered his ears and eyes with his hands, hid under tables and tried to run away. Anything to get from the noise and brightness. If he couldn’t get away, he would have a meltdown.
I was confused and worried by his reactions. I instinctively knew what would help him. He needed his favourite Tellytubby, a cuddle and a quiet place to make him feel safe.
Since having Tom I’ve realised how loud, bright and intense the world can be. I know now that he sees, feels and hears things that I’d never paid much attention to much more intensely. This sensory overload was the reason for his meltdowns. Heck, maybe that’s why he walked at such an early age …so he could escape!
I’m now more aware of the sights and sounds around us. I’ve even noticed that the intensity of fluorescent lights in offices and shops often affects me . During these moments of sensory overload I need to find a quiet place and take time to collect myself.
Lesson 4: Silence Can Speak Volumes
When I came home from hospital after giving birth to Toms sister I expected a grand home coming. I was looking forward to an excited toddler giggling and rushing towards me arms outstretched, impatient for a cuddle.
Instead I was greeted with a silent hug . A seemingly underwhelming welcome. I knew, however, from the way Tom hugged me, so tightly. The way he looked at me that he had missed me, that he loved me.
This was the start of my understanding that we didn’t need words to communicate. It was a good thing as he didn’t start to talk until he was nearly 5.
We’ve had a humongous amount of hugs since then!
Lesson 5: Never Take A Milestone For Granted
Tom was nonverbal until almost 5 years old.
When I was told by doctors that it was highly likely Tom may never speak. I was devastated. I could feel his frustration at not being able to tell us what he wanted. We had to find some way he could communicate with us.
Tom used to take me by the arm and pull me towards what ever he wanted. For example, the fridge if he wanted a drink or the front door if he wanted to go outside. We had to find a better way.
We started using objects and picture cards. These gave him a way of showing us what he needed or wanted. He’d give me the drink card if he wanted a drink or show me the coat card if he wanted to go outside. Guess which card was always top of the pile!? The biscuit card!
It’s not the milestone we were expecting but we didn’t take his progress for granted.
Lesson 6: Celebrate Every Unique Moment
The arrival of Tom’s sister Hannah marked the start of Tom’s shut down period.
Most of us sadly, are all too familiar with a lockdown but Tom was ahead of the curve! Back in 2002, he went into his own self-imposed lockdown. Showing zero curiosity about his new baby sister, Hannah, other children, or visitors. He screamed when she cried. There was only one thing he wanted to do all day, every day. Lie on the floor and move a piece of a toy wooden train track up and down in front of his face.
It was heart-breaking to watch. I felt intensely sad. Tom was missing out on all the fun toddler things I had planned to do with him. I was also fearful. Worried that Tom would forever resent his little sister.
One afternoon, without warning, Tom abandoned his beloved train track (seen in the photo at the edge of the rug). He spontaneously started to play with Hannah. Tears of joy streamed down my face. I knew that this was a unique moment to be celebrated.
From this small precious moment, the most incredible bond between the two of them has grown and developed over the years.
Lesson 7: Life Goes On
Receiving Tom’s diagnosis of autism just before he turned 4 came as a mixture of relief and sadness.
Relief as for almost 2 years I’d had a nagging feeling that something wasn’t quite right. Tom’s lack of speech, repetitive play and extreme reactions to any changes in his routine now made sense . However, I felt an equal measure of sadness. The future I imagined had been taken away. I felt isolated, overwhelmed, and missed having my family and friends on the doorstep.
But life goes on. I quickly became the CEO of Tom, Plc!
Soon after the diagnosis, we were offered a place on a home-based therapy programme – 40 hours a week of applied behavioural analysis therapy (ABA). A 2-year programme (the first of its kind in Switzerland) which took over my life. My weeks became a flurry of appointments, assessments, and the day-to-day management of the therapy sessions. Not to mention all the resources, the hundreds of picture cards I made to support the programme.
I hit the ground running! Working as a therapist on the ABA team gave me a sense of purpose. It also allowed me to adapt Tom’s programme so it reflected the things that mattered to him. More TBA than ABA!
Lesson 8: The Power Of A Hug
Three months into Tom’s ABA programme we flew to the UK to attend my mums 60th birthday party. A gathering of over 70 family and friends in a local pub.
It would have been easy to opt out of going. My mum knew how challenging it was for Tom to be out of routine. She would have understood if we had chosen to stay at home. But seeing family was important . My mum had survived breast cancer, so I really wanted to mark this landmark birthday with her.
The journey didn’t worry me as much as the party. We had made frequent visits to the UK since Tom was a baby. We often joked he had been on a plane more times than a train or bus. My travelling preparation was therefore honed to a tee particularly my ‘survival bag’. A handy assortment of books, toys and treats which went on all our travels. It could be deployed to help distract and calm Tom in situations he found stressful or overwhelming.
But, it was often a simple hug, which had the real power to calm, reassure and comfort him.
Lesson 9: The Importance of Perseverance
Tom made huge progress on his ABA programme. He started to speak and repeat phrases.
We were so excited to hear his voice. When he randomly said ‘Nanny’s greenhouse’ we flew back to the UK as soon as we could. Delighted that he could see Nanny and her greenhouse!
I’d have to wait a bit longer to hear him say ‘I love you mummy’. Tom had significant speech and language difficulties. He was unable to express his ideas and thoughts in complete sentences and had trouble pronouncing certain sounds. I admit I found the way he said ‘wamp’ for lamp charming. However, other people found it difficult to understand him.
He started regular speech and language therapy which included work on his ‘l’ sounds both in the therapy session and lots of practice at home.
With hard work and perseverance, he finally mastered that tricky ‘l’ sound.
Lesson 10: The World Is a Beautiful Place
Tom loves patterns. He is fascinated by lines, shapes and colours 〰🔴🔻🌈
When he was younger, he would often stop and stare at the shadows cast by railings. Fascinated by the shapes made by the lines. He’d be mesmerised looking at a crack in the pavement. Captivated by the glow of the setting sun and transfixed by a falling leaf, as shown in this photograph.
Tom taught me to take notice of all the little things that make our world so beautiful 🌍
Lesson 11: The Power of Sharing
Like every mum dropping their child off for their first day of school, I felt the usual mix of emotions . Proud yet worried about how Tom would settle in. Twelve months earlier it seemed inconceivable that we would find anywhere suitable for Tom. It had been quite a journey to get him to this point. Leaving him in the classroom was so emotional and overwhelming. I had to dash to the car for a cry.
I knew that it would not be possible for Tom to attend school fulltime. His communication difficulties, limited attention span and sensory issues. made full time attendance too challenging. I didn’t want to set him up for failure. For him to feel defeated by education at the very offset.
I wanted Tom to have the opportunity to learn alongside his peers. To have the shared cultural experience of education. I wanted a flexible option – sharing his education between home and school.
We discounted local primary and special schools because they were German speaking. Tom was just learning to communicate in English, so this was a no-no. The international school was our only option. Would they be prepared to share Tom’s education and allow him to have a mix of school and home-based learning?
We were lucky. They did.
Aged 4, and a year older than his peers, Tom started at the Zurich International Preschool for 2 morning per week with an assistant. His ‘at home’ time was spent following his ABA program and with me. It gave him time to sort out some of things he found confusing at school and space to recharge.
This collage of pictures taken during Tom’s Preschool year shows just how happy he was at school. Tom was able to enjoy a shared education for the next six years . We are forever grateful to the staff at ZIS for their patience, respect and commitment to Tom’s flexi-schooling.
Lesson 12: Making Sense of Senses
En route to Cornwall for a summer holiday, Tom broke his arm. He fell off a climbing frame at a service station.
We didn’t realise he’d broken his arm – he didn’t scream, shout or make any fuss. He simply picked himself up and headed back to the car. It was only when we were back on the road that I noticed him clutching his elbow. His face drawn, ashen and etched with pain. We veered of the motorway to find the nearest A& E. This photograph was taken as we waited to be seen at the hospital.
The X-rays showed that it was nasty break. I felt terrible. He must have been in the most horrendous pain and we had been unaware of his suffering.
It was just so confusing. Haircuts, having his toenails cut, washing his face caused him to scream to high heavens. Breaking his arm – not even a whimper.
We already knew that Tom had difficulties with his language and communication. This this couldn’t explain the lack of any emotion to his injury. Even without words, tears would have at least alerted us to his pain. I realised then that there must be major issues with how he was interpreting sensory information. This was having an impact on how he was behaving and responding. It just seemed so unfair for one little boy to have to deal with yet another set of difficulties. I felt defeated…
It was time for an occupational therapist to join team Tom!
Amongst other sensory issues, OT assessments showed that Tom was both overly and under sensitive to touch. His behaviour and certain reactions started to make sense.Tom had always disliked messy play but would be unaware of his hands and face being dirty. He loved being hugged by me but would recoil in horror if anyone else tried to touch him. He touched and mouthed objects but was fussy with his food and avoided certain textures.
So, aged 5, Tom started weekly sessions of OT at school and a programme of activities and exercises at home. With patience, commitment, and hard work, Tom has steadily improved his ability to interpret sensory information from his body and the environment. Haircuts and nail cutting are no longer an issue though he still has a relatively high pain threshold and tolerance for being cold.
This experience with Tom also taught me the importance of providing a nonverbal way to communicate aches, pain (including broken limbs!) and sensory overload to others in a simple and effective way. That’s why we’re proud to include a ‘I can do it manage me feelings ‘ kit in the TomTag range.
Lesson 13: Less Is More
As part of his occupational therapy programme Tom had a series of daily activities to practice at home. There were movement exercises to encourage the right and left side of his brain to talk better to each other. This interhemispheric integration would improve how he could react to his surroundings. There were also lots of fine motor activities. Tasks to help improve the small muscles in his hands and wrists to help him with skills like, grasping, dressing ( zips & shoelaces) writing and drawing.
I was willing to work and put in the time with Tom but sometimes he wasn’t interested in the activities. On days like these it was easy to feel disheartened and resentful.
Short of bribing him with his favourite biscuits (!) I learnt that the secret to getting him to do his OT exercises regularly was to do a little often. It also helped to spread them out during the day and turn them into a game. It was also important not to take things personally. If Tom was stressed or agitated during the activities then we would leave it and start again the next day.
Lesson 14: Joyful Collaboration
Tom’s ABA programme was a success. Now he could communicate what he wanted, concentrate much better and was behaving appropriately at school. But life isn’t just about getting your needs met and fitting in. It’s about connection and friendship. The joyful experience of sharing our ideas and feelings with another person.
How could we help Tom develop meaningful conversation, cooperation, flexible thinking and empathy. All the skills he needed to make and keep a friend?
I discovered Relationship Development Intervention (RDI) by chance in a magazine article. This programme based on Developmental Psychology was the perfect fit. It’s guiding principle is Joyful Collaboration. The idea that joy comes not from a toy or game but from sharing an experience.
Tom moved from ABA onto RDI at the same time as receiving OT and SLT (got to love an acronym or two!). It was a full-time job coordinating all these programmes and collaborating (joyfully!) with various professionals.
For RDI, we practised different activities at home working on joint attention, collaboration, teamwork, and communication.
In this short video clip, Tom (aged 8) and I are sharing the job of watering flowers. We take turns with the watering can with the aim of helping Tom practise being a ‘team member’. Although he was reluctant to water the flowers, he accepted my instructions . I loved how the ‘job’ developed into a fun chasing game. A true Joyful Collaboration!
Lesson 15: Planning Is Key
When Tom was 10 years old, we relocated back to the UK from Switzerland.
For any family moving home can be stressful, moving to a new country -double the stress! I was worried about how Tom would manage this major change in his life.
It was potentially a huge challenge for him. He craved familiarity, had built up excellent relationships with his various therapists and was thriving under his bespoke educational arrangement. How would he cope with a new home, attending school for a full day, wearing a school uniform for the first time?
The relocation went relatively smoothly because we planned and prepared for it. Creating a picture book of the new house and school was a great help .We focused on the positive aspects of the move such as being able to see more of his grandparents and cousins . We encouraged him to share any worries he had about the move. He worked on a story about his mixed feelings about leaving Switzerland with an amazing counsellor at the international school.
He settled in remarkably well at the local mainstream village primary school. There was some regression in his language and behaviour. But, with the support of a sensitive and dedicated teacher and assistant Tom soon found his feet and voice.
I quickly formed a new Team Tom with a new speech and language therapist and occupational therapist.
Planning was therefore the key to making the relocation a success.
Lesson 16: The Importance of Special Interests
It was one of my biggest worries when we relocated back to the UK from Switzerland. How would Tom manage without his special interest. -Swiss transport. He loved swiss trains . His favourite part of any journey was spotting lorries from the Swiss firm Galliker.
Fortunately, I had a secret weapon. Eddie Stobart – the iconic green delivery lorries that criss- cross the UK 24 hours a day.
I cunningly introduced Tom to Eddies and signed us up to the Eddie Stobart Spotters Club. We live near to the M62 – prime Eddie Stobart spotting territory! We could go out to eat as a local pub overlooked the motorway. The staff got to know us . They always gave us a window seat where Tom would quietly sit, happily keeping a tally of all the lorries he spotted on the nearby motorway (using his Eddie Stobart writing pad and pencil!)
Eddie Stobart lorries were a source of comfort and enjoyment for Tom. For us, they became a source of inspiration. Birthday cakes, biscuits, and presents also assumed Eddie status.
More importantly, Eddie Stobart became a means of encouraging him to engage in his learning. Art projects, tricky writing tasks and maths problem could all be given the Eddie treatment! Tom approached any task that had a hint of Eddie, with enthusiasm, happiness and a willingness to learn.
Tom’s love of Eddies lasted 3 years. The most memorable event was a tour of an Eddie Stobart depot and a chance to sit behind the wheel. I don’t know who was more excited – Tom or I!
Lesson 17: Fussy Eating Habits Can Change Over Time
When Tom was younger, he was a picky eater.
I knew that Tom needed a balanced diet – a variety of fresh, healthy food for good health and development. For the first few years, I felt guilty and responsible that he would only eat a limited amount of food.
Tom’s diagnosis of autism and the results of his OT assessment helped me understand his fussy eating habits.
He needed familiarity and routine. Trying new experiences including eating new foods were therefore difficult. It was obvious now why he was preoccupied with certain foods. They provided him with reassuring predictability.
Tom craved soft food like ice cream. He liked the feeling of coldness in his mouth. Bland foods like pasta, bread and chips were his preferred choice. He disliked meat because he found chewing difficult. Though he did make an exception for chicken nuggets! He disliked tomatoes but liked ketchup or tomato sauce because he didn’t like the texture of tomatoes . His favourite meal was pizza but without any topping other than tomato sauce.
Sharing regular meals and snacks and introducing new foods gradually helped Tom get comfortable with new foods. However, the biggest change came when he was 15. He started a Jamie Oliver cooking course at school. By preparing and cooking food with the encouragement from two talented teachers, Tom’s food preferences changed. He was more willing to try different foods.
This Christmas aged 20, Tom enthusiastically dipped carrot sticks and chunks of olive bread into his baked camembert. His food choices have come a long way since this photograph was taken!
Lesson 18: Detective Work
When Tom was younger it was difficult for me to know what his feelings meant. It was also difficult for him to pick up clues about how I was feeling.
Although Tom feels the same thing as everyone else, the nuances can be blurred. His feelings are much more intense and can be harder to distinguish. Feeling sadness could lead to him crying but also to laugh or shout for no good reason. He has difficulty interpreting gestures and expressions – often thinking I’m angry when I’m not!
With his SLT, we created a book of feelings to help Tom understand his own and other people’s feelings. We used this book to teach him the words he needed to express and recognise different feelings.
This work made me look at my own feelings and emotions. I had to understand what feelings mean to me before explaining them to Tom. We were both developing our feelings detective skills!
Helping him to identify the size of his feelings and relate this to his physical reaction was also important. Often, a little feeling could grow into a gigantic feeling. Tom could spend hours, days, even weeks catastrophising. Churning over thoughts and feelings in his mind like a sticky record.
Teaching and modelling simple self-help strategies like self-talk (phrases Tom could say to himself when he was feeling worried) helped. At secondary school he used a sensory levels chart (a visual chart to recognise his sensory stressors) to help him to manage his feelings.
Our experience led to the development of the TomTag Feelings Notebook. A resource for other families to use to support their feelings and emotions detective work.
That’s a thumbs up from Tom!
Lesson 19: Look At Ability Not Disability
Like any parent I was anxious about Tom’s move to secondary school. I had managed to keep him a year behind cohort, so he started at age 12 . However he was both academically and socially behind his peers and it felt like the gap between them was widening. Like a train picking up speed out of the station and you can’t get on it no matter how fast you run.
It was unrealistic to expect any exam success – unless there was an exam in Swiss train timetables and routes! Tom gets anxious even at the mention of the word test. Furthermore, his language difficulties meant that he struggled to understand complex sentences, instructions and specific vocabulary.
Despite the anxieties and challenges he faced, Tom always worked hard and tried his best . He was the only young person at his school to consistently achieve straight A grades for attitude across all subjects. This exemplary attitude to learning was motivated by his need to please his teachers and not disappoint or upset anyone. Though, he did enjoy many of his lessons. I felt so proud when he was regularly awarded prizes for effort at school prize giving.
Tom left school with few formal qualifications, but he left smiling, confident and with the motivation to continue learning. He even enjoyed Prom!
Lesson 20: Say What You Mean
One of the biggest challenges for Tom due to his language difficulties is making sense of what people are saying.
When Tom’s grandad suggesting taking him for a spin in the car Tom looked horrified!
Before I had Tom, I didn’t think about the extent to which we play games and hide behind words. How often we use sayings like ‘Pull your socks up’, ‘we’ve run out of milk ‘,’Get a move on’ . Many of which are confusing for Tom because he takes what is said literally.
When he was younger, I learnt to tell him exactly what I wanted him to do using as fewer words as possible. I helped him to learn how to look out for expressions on faces and realise the importance of how expressions are more important than the words themselves by emphasising my facial expressions and using exaggerated gestures . Some days I felt like a CBeebies presenter in full flow!
Tom can still become confused by words with similar or related meaning. Encouraging him to say when he hasn’t understood something and talking about some of the saying we use regularly and what they actually mean helps. His love of football is helping him experience playful teasing in a light heated way. Some good old footy banter with people he trusts. Thankfully his team are doing well so he can banter from a position of strength!
Lesson 21: It takes a village.
After 21 years living with autism, I have learnt that it really does take a village to raise a child.
My village is larger than most. My family, friends, the dedicated therapists, teachers, teaching assistants and personal trainer we’ve been privileged to work with over the years . Plus, the many people we’ve met who have shown us the character of their humanity. The hairdressers, barbers, dentists, shops assistants, waiters who when faced with difference have responded with patience, empathy and decency.
Every victory we experience with Tom whether it’s trying a new food, meeting new people or dealing with a change of plan belongs to us all.
Tom has taught me that it’s okay to ask for help. He’s taught me that just like any other child he needed me and our village to believe in him. His potential to learn, grow and thrive alongside his peers and community.
Thank you, Tom, for these lessons in what really matters. I know you will continue to face the next 21 years with courage, determination and the enduring support of your village.
I’d love to know in the comments below what lessons you have learnt from your children.
Play is one of the main ways that children learn and develop. There’s no reason why children with autism who use visual supports are any different. So why not bring play and fun games for children with autism into your visual supports too. To them they’re playing games, but you know that they’re getting some occupational therapy, speech activities and thinking skills thrown in. Games may also help children with autism engage more readily with using their visual supports. It’s a win-win!!
Here’s some of our ideas you could use to help your child engage with TomTag.
#1 Indoor I- Spy.
Stuck indoors? Why not encourage language and memory skills with a fun indoor I -Spy game.
🌈Ask you child to choose a colour tag and room in the house.
👀Can they look round that room and find, name or point to items that are the same colour?
✔Click a reward button into the tag for each item found.
😊Praise them for their effort and move onto another colour and room.
In the examples shown, we used stickers (rooms and stars) from our In the house sticker pack. We drew the other symbols onto blank stickers.
#2 Outdoor I-Spy
Use your daily walk to play I- Spy and spot things you may see in your city, town or village using a personalised TomTag checklist.
TomTag is also super portable and robust – ideal for taking with you when you’re out and about!
🗨Ask your child to suggest things they are likely to see on their walk – perhaps they can guess what order they will spot them in!
✍Make up the checklist together – we’ve used stickers from our Out and About sticker pack but you can just as easily draw or write on some blank stickers.
👀 On your walk, encourage your child to spot the things, find it on their tag and turn the button over. This shows they’ve seen that thing.
🧐Praise them for keeping their eyes open and being a good detective.
#3 Feelings & Emotions Charades
Help your child understand, recognise and express their feelings and emotions with a simple game of charades.
No Oscar winning performances required!
💬Talk to your child about the feelings and emotions included in the game – choose ones that your child needs some help with.
🤏 Jumble up the feelings and emotions symbol buttons and ask your child to choose one for you.
😀Act out the feeling or emotion shown. Can they guess it? If so, pop it in the tag otherwise have another go.
🔁Swap places and ask your child to act out the feeling or emotion for you to guess.
Practice sequencing skills with a simple game of “what happens next”.
This game can also help reinforce familiar daily routines so it’s a win-win for everyone!
Here’s how to play the TomTag way.
🤏Choose an activity sequence
🤔Jumble up the symbol buttons and ask your child to find the one they think they should come first, second etc.
✔Click them into the tag into that order and ask them to check it is correct.
🗣Call out an activity and ask them to find it in the tag and turn the button over to show they have completed the activity.
Depending on your child’s ability, you could take out a few of the steps and build up to the longer 6-step sequence. We’ve used symbol stickers from our two popular mini-kits: teeth brushing and morning and evening routine.
Do you have any tips for games you can play with your TomTag? Please let us know in the comments below.
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.
“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.
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 are definitely no prompts needed for eating them!
First, we get out all the equipment
and then the ingredients
Then it’s time to follow the recipe
before choosing our favourite topping
Have fun making your pancakes – I know we did, yum-yum!!
Being 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Serve 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.
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.
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.
Choosing 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.
Talking 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.
A 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?”!
Praise, 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.
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!
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.
Tom 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!
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.