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
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.
Dyslexia is most commonly understood as a condition that causes difficulties with reading. It is less well known that dyslexia can also impact on organisation and time management skills, which is sometimes referred to as executive functioning.
What are the signs?
A child with dyslexia who has executive functioning issues may have difficulty:
remembering to take to school everything they need for the day
being organised and preparing their kit in advance
sticking with an activity and not being distracted
understanding what day of the week it is and what different things they need to do each day
remembering their routine and prioritising the tasks needed to get ready for school
What can you do to help?
There’s lots you can do to help a child with these issues. Here’s just a few ideas:
Get into a regular routine and stick to it. Children who struggle with time management often feel more secure and less anxious with a familiar routine.
Make checklists to break down a task or routine into smaller steps. Visual prompts work better than verbal reminders as they are constant and consistent.
Use calendars and planners – colour-coding often works really way to identify regular activities and highlight special events.
Encourage development of organisational skills with lots of repetition, reminders and practice.
How could TomTag help?
TomTag is ideal for all children with dyslexia as the picture symbols we use are easily recognisable and don’t rely on a child’s ability to read for TomTag to be effective.
Make morning and evening routine reminders for tasks that need to be completed and the order they should be done using an I know what to expect – morning and evening minikit or for more varied options try these kits I can do it self care skills or I know what to expect at home
Create a school bag packing checklist using the I can do it pack my bag for school kit that will remind them exactly what they need to take to school each day, and bring home again.
Take advantage of TomTag’s colourful tags by colour-coordinating checklist and routine reminder tags with any planners, calendars or charts that you’re also using.
It’s often the simplest things that have the biggest impact.
A seemingly simple thing that gets forgotten, ignored or left unnoticed can cause a big problem down the line. Simple ideas, simple tools, simple changes might be all that’s needed to solve a problem or do a better job than a complex solution.
A Share how I feel tag, with its thermometer-style colour faces scale, has to be one of the simplest uses for the TomTag system but since introducing it less than nine months ago has become our best selling product. It can be used in lots of different ways which is perhaps one of the keys to it’s success – we’ve given some ideas in this free download guide.
Having recommended in our guide that using a feelings diary can help to identify patterns of emotions or behaviour and the triggers that could be causing them, we decided to make our own!
My TomTag Feelings Notebook
Keeping a diary gets you into the habit of noticing and naming how you feel in different situations throughout the day or at times when you feel most anxious or worried.
There’s a scale for rating the strength of your feelings and a guide to help build up a vocabulary to describe your different feelings and emotions.
By making notes about what happened during the day or at key points you can start to build up a picture over time which helps you to see patterns and identify the common triggers or stressors. Quite often these might be simple things that go unnoticed day to day but are easier to spot once patterns emerge.
It’s often the simplest things that have the biggest impact.
New uniform to buy, school shoes to get fitted, pencilcases galore in every shop – it’s that time of year again when our thoughts must inevitably turn to planning for the new school year.
Last summer our own back to school preparations took on a whole new dimension. My autistic son Tomas faced the daunting transition from his much-loved mainstream primary school to our local secondary. Clearly there would be many challenges to face and one big worry was how Tomas would manage the extra organisational demands of dealing with lots of different subjects.
Tomas was going to need a system to help him keep his paperwork organised and in one place if he was to stand any chance of keeping on top of things. We started with eight A4 ring-binders in different colours and labelled each one with a subject. We labelled the pockets of a plastic concertina file with the same subjects and labelled one extra section ‘letters’ to be used for permission slips, newsletters, etc.
I explained to Tomas that he must take the concertina file to school each day and bring it home again every night. Any notes, homework or handouts he was given had to be filed in it immediately after each lesson to prevent them from getting lost in his school bag or left at school! I then showed him how to empty the file each night. We talked through how we made the judgement about what should happen to each piece of paper. It if was needed for lessons the next day it could remain in the file, any homework sheets should be completed and returned to the file and some papers would need filing in the ring-binders for later reference and revision purposes.
The aim eventually was to have Tomas apply the strategy independently. Direct explicit instructions and plenty of practice are often all that is required to help children learn basic organisational or other skills. This approach can be particularly beneficial for a child with organisational difficulties although it is appropriate and useful for most children.
One year on and I am delighted to report that the system seems to be working! With lots of practice and the support of his teachers, Tomas can now collect, sort and file all his own paperwork from school. Now I just need to apply the same rigour to my own filing system!
The phrase ‘special needs’ is a very generic term. Children with special needs are not only different from their so called ‘normal’ peers but they are also different from one another. Each child with special needs presents with a unique profile of strengths and weaknesses.
A lack of organisational skills is the one challenge that the majority of children with special needs face. Coats go missing. Books and lunch boxes are forgotten. Hours are spent each month searching through the lost property box at school looking for gloves, scarves, gym kit and jumpers.
Organisational skills are a challenge for most SEN children because they have limited and inefficient internal structure. They are generally unable to organise their belongings, prioritize their actions or utilize their time efficiently to meet deadlines. They also struggle with temporal (time related) concepts so they have difficulty assessing, for example, how much time it takes to get ready for school or finish homework.
These organisational difficulties can put incredible strain on a family. As a parent of an autistic boy I know how frustrating it is when your child has organisational difficulties. I’m also aware how upsetting it is for Tomas to be constantly scolded and reprimanded for behaviours that are mainly out of his control. Tomas does not forget things because he is lazy or unmotivated. He has a neurological condition that means he struggles on a daily basis to make sense of the world we live in.
School morning organisation
Getting ready for school in a morning is a real test of organisational skills for any child. For a SEN child like Tomas the morning routine can be a source of extreme anxiety. There’s so much to remember – homework, lunch boxes, gym kit. Parents are also under pressure to leave on time and ensure that everyone has the right equipment for the day ahead.
Like many SEN children, Tomas is extraordinarily visual. He needs to see things in order to remember and organise them. If things are out of sight they are out of mind. Tomas’s visual strength was one of the sources of inspiration for TomTag (that’s why it’s named after him!). As TomTag clips easily to any school bag it is always to hand and the problem of misplacing the list is avoided.
Confidence and independence
Learning to pack a bag for school sounds simple but it requires skills and self confidence. Using TomTag as a prompt, Tomas has been able to learn over the last few years how to pack his school bag for himself. The fact that he is now able to pack independently for high school is a real testament to the success of TomTag. By giving him a consistent external tool to use he has learnt to overcome his minimal internal structure.
Teachers and parents benefit from children learning to pack a school bag independently. Fewer items are left in the infamous lost property box, morning routines are less stressful and for children like Tomas they are not only ready for school but have acquired important organisational skills which will pay dividends later in life.