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Your TomTag guide to an autism-tastic Christmas

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Christmas. Love it or hate it, it’s coming our way again – sooner than you think!

Because we know that this can be such a difficult, fraught and stressful time of year for families like ours, we’re sharing our best Tom Tag tips for an autism-tastic Christmas. 

Follow these tips of planning, preparation and patience to get ready for an autism-friendly Christmas that’s just right for you and your family.

PART 1: Planning

#1: Project Christmas: Decide what’s the best way to ‘do’ Christmas for YOU and YOUR family

We love this idea from the Gina Davies Autism Centre. Grab a cuppa, a notebook and pen and start planning. Think about the whole upcoming Christmas period, not just the day itself. Reflecting on what was stressful last Christmas is a good starting point.

  • ✍Make a list with four columns headed up Achievable, Desirable, High Risk, Impossible!
  • 🤔Think about what is planned or expected over Christmas and place each activity under one of the four columns.
  • 🗞Keep your plan to hand and add to it as necessary.
  • 👏Don’t aim for 100% – if you can manage most of the achievable, one or two things in the desirable column and manage to come through everything in the risky column be proud of yourself – you’ve helped your family enjoy the bits of Christmas that work for them.

#2: Make a personalised ‘All about Christmas’ visual guide to show all the different things you might find or do at this time of year.

For example, a photo collage or Christmas scrapbook showing Christmas objects, Christmas food and activities that only happen at Christmas e.g. meeting Father Christmas or pulling Christmas crackers. You could also include pictures of your family celebrating Christmas.

Children with autism tend to forget social information so a permanent visual guide is a great way to remind them what Christmas looks like.

#3: Talk to your child’s school or support team so you know what different things they might be doing and when.

Ask them if they have a copy of this excellent autism advent calendar for schools from the National Autistic Society. If not, print a copy off for them to use to help your child manage during the Christmas period at school.

Have a meeting with your child’s teacher to plan together how you can help your child cope with the activities coming up. Keep communication going throughout the Christmas period with a ‘Home- School’ book such as the lovely one available from That Beautiful Mind.

#4: Take time to sit down with your child and talk through anything they might be finding confusing or unsettling about Christmastime and all its festivities.
It’s often the little things we don’t even notice that can seem so huge to them.

Look back at your Christmas plan (see Planning tip #2) and for each planned activity or event, make a two-column list headed ‘Concerns and Solutions’. Ask your child what concerns they may have and then together think about and write down a solution.

For example…

  • 🏘 a visit to family or friends
  • 😟 worry about what they will drink
  • 👍agree to take their favourite drink or ask the hosts whether they have it.

This think-say-do approach is a great way for dealing with uncertainties that occur throughout the year not just at Christmastime.

#5: Make realistic plans for your shopping needs.
Choose quieter times of day, take a list, use a babysitter, bring snacks, shop online.

Christmas shopping with a child who has autism is definitely a high-risk activity! Sounds, lights and the hustle and bustle of crowds – it’s easy to see why meltdowns occur and shopping trips are abandoned. There’s no need to be superhuman. Keep it simple, practical and do-able!

#6: Talk about social rules and different expectations that people might have around Christmastime.

Christmas is usually a time of increased social contact and festive events with family and friends. Use a visual schedule to show what’s going to happen before any visitors come to the house or when going to parties, visiting family and friends. Roleplay and practice greeting visitors appropriately and saying please and thank you.

#7: If your child has little or no interest in typical toys, make a list of alternative gift ideas that you can suggest to relatives and friends when they ask what presents they can buy.

Sensory Direct have a wide range of sensory toys and equipment for autistic children. You could also suggest something small and inexpensive and ask that any money left over is put towards an activity that your child enjoys or time with a favourite babysitter.

#8: Make sure visual schedules are updated to show any changes to routine or special festive events.

Using a visual schedule, like TomTag, at home or school is a great way to make sure that children with autism (like ours) know about and can prepare themselves for anything different that’s going to happen.

In our experience, front-loading any changes to routine early on means that they can be coped with. Later changes to routine (however small) can cause distress and anxiety. Check out our I know what to expect at Christmas and birthdays kit for ideas.

#9: Let your children help to choose and put up the decorations in and around your home.

Christmas decorations can be disruptive to children with autism. Consider decorating gradually over a few days so they are not overwhelmed immediately. If inside decorations are too much then decorate outside the house only.

Twinkly, shiny, glittery Christmas lights whilst enjoyable to look at can lead to sensory overload. Consider limiting the number on display and choose lights that have different settings you can control.

PART 2: Preparation

#1: Keep sensory armour to hand for trips to the shop, parties and other festive events where sensory experiences can easily become overloads

Sensory armour could include:

  • 🎧 headphones to cut out some of the noise and sound
  • 🧢 a cap to help shut out some of the flashing lights or people
  • 🕶 dark glasses to reduce the light intensity
  • 🧸 a favourite comforter for reassurance
  • 🍪 small portions of snacks to help when things get tricky

#2: Prepare for visitors and visits from family and friends by talking to your child about who they are going to see and how to greet them

A personalised visual checklist is a great way to show your child who all the family members are that they may be meeting and what an appropriate social contact might be for each group. You can find appropriate symbols in our Christmas & Birthdays sticker pack (links below).

#3: Leave some areas of the house undecorated so there’s always a quiet place for your child to retreat to if they need it

Flashing lights, glittery objects and jingling bells all around the house are natural triggers for sensory overload. Having a Christmas – free zone to escape to can help bring stress levels caused by sensory overload down to more manageable levels.

#4: Discuss the escape plans that it’s ok for your child to use if everything gets too much for them

Having a calm and quiet place to escape the noise and bustle of Christmas is crucial. Agree with your child how they will let you know that they need to use it. For us, Tom showing me a simple red card when he’d had enough worked well.

#5: Think and talk about the extra social demands that might trigger anxieties or sensory problems

Spending time with family and friends, the expectation to be ‘happy’ and join in can be stressful for all of us – particularly for children with autism.

Use a visual schedule to explain what is going to happen and try to avoid social visits on consecutive days to allow for some downtime.

#6: Advent calendars are a great way to prepare for and understand the count down to Christmas

We love this idea from The Autism Page for a Christmas Book Advent Calendar. It combines the excitement of unwrapping a new Christmas book each day with the benefit of using the books to build up an understanding of Christmas.

#7: Be prepared that your child might not be able to sit at the table for as long as you would like (or maybe not at all). Warn your host if you are not having Christmas dinner at home.

It can be stressful to have your child’s behaviour ‘on display’ to family and friends at shared meals. Be practical, realistic and upfront about it. If your child only sits at the table for say three minutes usually then Christmas day is unlikely to be any different. Take turns to supervise them or provide them with something to keep them occupied.

Keep working on mealtime skills at home and maybe next year will be different!

#8: For children who won’t eat a traditional Christmas dinner or the main meal you’re serving, prepare and freeze their meals in advance to reduce workload on the day

Just don’t forget to get them back out of the freezer in time! 

#9: Consider your child’s sensory needs when wrapping up presents. There’s lots of great alternatives to traditional Christmas paper such as foil or fabric.

The choice of alternatives will depend on whether the sensory issues relate to over or under sensitivities. Aluminium kitchen foil is brilliant for quickly wrapping all sorts of odd shapes and sizes as well as being shiny and noisy if your child likes that kind of sensory input. For something more gentle, calming and simple to open, try fabric tied with a ribbon where just a quick pull will reveal the gift. The bonus is that these options are eco-friendly too.

#10: If toys need assembling or batteries putting in before they can be used, do this before wrapping them up so that they can be played with straight away on Christmas day

It’s always worth checking inside boxes and packaging even if you’re not expecting there to be any assembly required as those pesky ties and tape seem to get everywhere!

PART 3: Patience

Coming up on 30th November

Useful resources:

  • cover image sticker pack christmas & birthdays

    Christmas & birthdays

  • cover image download christmas

    Christmas survival guide

  • cover image what to expect at christmas kit

    I know what to expect at Christmas & birthdays

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Surviving Christmas with help from TomTag

Christmas is a magical and exciting time but for many children with autism and other SEN, the festive period can be anything but wonderful.

Changes in routine, a house pulsating with flashing Christmas lights and a steady stream of visitors can be too overwhelming and lead to sensory overload, anxiety, distress and confusion.
Making adjustments that help your child cope better at this time of the year will hopefully allow them and all the family to have a more enjoyable and relaxing experience.
It’s also a good opportunity to work on important social skills that can be transferred to other situations at different times of the year as well.

my daily routineJust another day

Keeping to the same familiar routines as much as possible, even on Christmas Day, can be key to helping things run more smoothly. There are no rules to say things have to be done a certain way so do whatever suits your family best.

It’s sometimes not possible to avoid some disturbance or change to the regular schedule at this time of year. Children who struggle with changes to routine can find this very unsettling. If they use a visual schedule at home or school, this is a great way to make sure they know about (and can prepare themselves for) anything different that’s going to happen.

If different or unusual foods are likely to be an issue, think about preparing and freezing your child’s favourite meal ahead of the big day so that it’s easy to serve alongside everyone else’s dinner and gives you one thing less to worry about.

decorations and christmas symbolsDecorations

Flashing lights, glittery objects and jingling bells all around the house are natural triggers for sensory overload. Let your child help to choose the decorations you buy and put up and consider decorating gradually over a few days so they are not overwhelmed immediately. Make sure to leave some areas of the house undecorated so there’s always somewhere for the child to retreat if needed.

Be aware of sensory triggers such as balloons, Christmas crackers, party poppers, festive music – consider using headphones or ear defenders at parties, carol concerts or similar events if sudden or loud noises are disturbing.  

Use an “All about Christmas” symbol list or simple social story to support a conversation with your child to familiarise them with all the different things they can expect to find at Christmas time.

Social expectations

family visits tagsChristmas is usually a time of increased social contact and festive events with family and friends. Use a visual schedule to show what’s going to happen before any visitors come to the house or when you’re going to parties, visiting family and friends, church services, etc.

Maybe even keep a separate tag as a checklist to show all the family members they may be meeting and what an appropriate social contact might be for each group (eg. hugs are ok for family, hand shake for friends, etc.).

There’ll be lots of opportunities to teach social skills such as learning to greet visitors appropriately and saying please and thank you. Include relevant symbols in your visit schedule list or use another tag that you keep handy for a discreet reminder of social behaviour rules.

Presents

Many children with autism don’t particularly like surprises and aren’t good at faking delight if they get an unwanted gift. Some may prefer to have their presents left unwrapped or, if they do like the unwrapping part, they might want you to tell them what’s inside first.

They may also be overwhelmed by a large number of presents in one go. Try introducing them one at a time over the day (or several days) or adopt an advent calendar-style approach, bringing out a small gift each day in the run up to Christmas.

Don’t forget to put batteries in toys in advance so that they can be played with straight away!

Relax!

Above all, remember that this is your Christmas as well. Get as much support from family and friends as possible and share out the workload wherever you can. Get children involved by giving them jobs to do which will keep them occupied and give them something to focus on.

We used the kit I know what to expect at Christmas & birthdays for the examples here. We know it can be a particularly taxing and stressful time of year for our loved ones with extra sensory and emotional needs, so there’s also an expanded version of the basic kit available which includes additional tags and blank buttons plus a Feelings & Emotions sticker pack. We call this our Christmas survival kit

This guide is available as a free downloaded using the link below.

  • cover image sticker pack christmas & birthdays

    Christmas & birthdays

  • cover image download christmas

    Christmas survival guide

  • cover image what to expect at christmas kit

    I know what to expect at Christmas & birthdays

 

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TomTag Feelings tag-o-meter

The TomTag feelings tag-o-meter is a visual feelings thermometer that can be used to support the development of all the skills required for good emotional intelligence.

It can help children to understand and communicate their feelings. By linking with a visual reminder of appropriate actions and strategies, they can learn how to manage those feelings too.

Regular use of this type of visual scale helps children to recognise the causes and triggers for their feelings and emotions. They can work out ways to help themselves improve their responses and handle things better in the future.

Let’s get started

feelings thermometer tag with what's wrong tagAt the start of the school day it’s helpful to know how a child is feeling to assess their readiness for learning today. Use the feelings thermometer as a way for them to quickly and easily communicate this to you. 

You might find it useful to provide a list of further options (like the red tag shown here) to help you identify the cause of any problems. For example, are they sad because they are hungry or tired, too hot or too cold, are the surroundings too noisy or bright?

Once any issues have been dealt with appropriately the child will be more able to access and engage with their learning.

What’s different

Are you expecting a change to routine, an unusual event or a visit to a new place today? Use the same approach to rate how comfortable the child is about this. If they are frightened, worried or anxious you can try explaining more about the reasons for the change or event or what they can expect to happen during the day or the visit.

Encourage the child to think about whether the strength of their feeling is in proportion to the situation. Does their reaction match the level of the problem? If not, discuss strategies they can use to deal with their feelings and talk about what a more appropriate response might be.

Get down to work

Before starting a task or activity, ask the child to rate their anxiety or confidence level about what they have to do. This information can help you to decide what support they might need to be able to complete the task successfully or it can open a discussion about whether their anxiety is proportional and realistic for the task faced. For example, are they:

very anxious and not sure what they need to do or worried that they are not capable of doing it?
reasonably sure of what they need to do but could use a little guidance just to get started?
feeling confident about the task and happy to try doing it alone?

 

How was that?

Revisiting the scale once a task, activity or event has finished offers an opportunity to reflect back and learn from it. Was their actual experience better or worse than they had expected it to be? How would they feel if they were now faced with the same event again?

If they were initially very anxious but with support were able to succeed, should this make them more confident about the next time they face the same task or a new one?

Another good time to check in with the feelings thermometer is after school, particularly as they may keep emotions locked up until they get home. Just as at the start of the school day, it’s a quick and easy way to communicate how they’re feeling and alerts you to any issues that have occurred during the day that might need further investigation or discussion before settling down to homework or evening activities.

What happened there?

strategy tags to manage emotionsSensory overload, changes to routine, difficulties processing information, social interactions or being tired or hungry are all common triggers for anger or challenging behaviour.

Getting a child to think about and try to understand what made them angry or prompted their behaviour begins to develop their emotional self-management skills. Using a feelings diary can be a good way to identify patterns of behaviour and incident triggers and plan for minimising stress at key points.

Encourage the child to use a feelings scale to start recognising how they feel or what their impulses are when their anger level starts to build. Set up some different coloured tags for each level like the ones shown here. Use each list as a reminder of suitable calming ideas they can try to help prevent their progress up the anger/stress scale and bring their feelings under control.

This technique can also be used to identify and respond to inappropriate behaviour from over excitement or a high arousal state.

Just saying

Children not only need to understand and interpret their own feelings, it’s important for them to be able to recognise the feelings of other people around them too.

When a child is familiar with using the feelings tag-o-meter to rate their own feelings and emotions, they can build their skills in appreciating other people’s feelings too.  

As a parent, carer or teacher, you might want to let the child know that you are pleased with their work or attitude today. They may not have behaved well and you want them to understand that makes you sad. Reinforcing your words by showing them on the scale how you feel helps them develop their ability to recognise and interpret verbal and non-verbal emotional signals.

Let’s be friends

school behaviour prompt tagYou can take a similar approach when dealing with social interactions between the child and their classmates, friends and family. If there’s been a disagreement or incident, try using the feelings scale to help those involved communicate with each other about what happened, how they are feeling and how they might be able to better control their actions in the future. Our School Timetable sticker pack (included in the kit “I know what to expect at school”) has a number of useful behaviour-related symbols that would help with identifying positive strategies in these situations.

The more practice a child has at acknowledging and recognising their feelings, using different coping techniques and appropriate communication strategies, the more relaxed and content they can be knowing that they have the skills to cope. A child who can identify his own emotions is more likely to be able to identify the emotions of others. Children who can see a situation from the view point of others are more able to engage in problem-solving and other social activities. 

This guide is available as a free downloaded using the link below. The guide for this topic also covers the information in our post Understanding feelings and emotional intelligence.

  • cover image sticker pack feelings & emotions

    Feelings & emotions

  • cover image download feelings tag

    Feelings tag-o-meter

  • I can do it – manage my feelings

  • cover image for share how I feel minikit product

    I can do it – share how I feel

  • cover image product feelings notebook

    My TomTag Feelings Notebook