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Autism and anxiety in lockdown – sweating it out!

Exercise routine

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!

tips for good mental health
Daily SWEAT

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

written timetable
Tom’s written weekly timetable

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

talking at table
Discussing 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.

using exercise bike
Tom training hard!

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

reading book
Spending time alone

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?

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Home visual schedules for children with autism -TomTag tips

At the present time, we’re all facing unprecedented uncertainty. Now that schools are closed and we are stuck at home, families like ours are under a lot of stress. For children with autism, like Tom, this is a highly confusing and anxious time. Using a visual schedule at home will help to build a sense of consistency, predictability and security for him. In this blog we discuss the reasons why home visual schedules can help children with autism and how you can get started with using them.

Why should you use visual schedules at home?

Visual schedules at home can help you to communicate to your child when activities or events will happen throughout their day.

They use a sequence of drawings, symbols, text or pictures to show what a child is expected to do.

The more children can anticipate what is happening, the safer and more secure they will feel in these rapidly changing times.

Tips for creating home visual schedules

Here are some of our tips which we have taken from our Show me guide – visual timetables, Schedules and Routines.

We call it the TomTag 4 P’s approach!

Plan

Notebook and pencil for planning schedules
Planning is key

Depending on your child’s developmental age, sit down each evening and try and plan out a rough schedule for the next day. Decide which activities for the day or part of the day you want to show. Choose the length of the schedule that you think will be appropriate for your child and adjust as necessary.

A simple daily visual schedule could include some education, fun activities and chill time (for them and you!) to help give some meaning and purpose to the day. If you’re interested in creating or using educational resources have a look at Twinkl and Education.com.

Try to replicate some elements of your child’s typical day. For example, encourage them to get dressed, brush their teeth, eat breakfast, etc. You could use a mini schedule to target these specific skills by breaking down a single activity into smaller steps.

Symbols showing a bedtime routine
Example of an evening routine using Widgit symbols

Make sure the schedule includes things like bedtime, time for exercise and meals. You could also consider giving children a chore or job to do to help them feel useful. This could be as simple as clearing the table or putting away their clothes.

Setting aside time every day to do a family activity that you know helps everyone in times of stress is also important. This could be watching a movie or playing a game.

Worried about challenging behaviour?

Try starting with activities that your child usually does willingly. It makes sense to structure the day so that harder tasks are done first when children are likely to be more rested. After schoolwork or chores are complete you can follow with easier tasks as a reward for accomplishing the harder tasks.

Prepare

Boy playing with lego as shown on his visual schedule

A home visual timetable or schedule doesn’t have to be complicated– a simple written, maybe colour-coded, chart pinned on the wall so your children can see it and refer to it will do the trick. 

There’s lots of examples of visual schedules and timetables online to copy or download. For a quick and easy way to create home visual schedules our TomTag Primary Home toolkit or Early Years Home toolkit are great options.

Prompt

Most children will be used to seeing a visual timetable and prompts at school to show them what to expect during the day. Introduce a visual schedule at home using the following steps:

  • Cue your child with a brief verbal instruction when its time for an activity to begin e.g. “check your schedule”
  • Gently guide them to look at it or place it in their hands and prompt them to look at the next activity picture
  • Using the least amount of words, describe the activity e.g. get dressed
  • Help them do the activity or model how to do it.
  • Praise them for completing the activity
  • Cue them to check their schedule again so they can move smoothly onto the next activity.
  • Fade the prompts one your child learns how to follow the schedule

Patience

Keep prompting, praising and be patient!

It may take some time but it’s also important to acknowledge the pressure we’re all under. If the schedule goes pear-shaped, take a break and try again another time.

 

Helpful resources

Widgit Online offers a free 21 day trial that would be perfect for creating your own visual schedules for kids to use at home.

Five Minute Mum is a great blog offering lots of ideas for keeping children occupied during the day.

Recommended TomTag products

  • Back-to-School Toolkit

  • Early Years Home Toolkit

  • Early Years Sticker Pack

  • I Can Do It Learn At Home Kit

  • I Know What To Expect – Morning and Evening Mini Kit

  • I Know What To Expect At Home Kit

  • I Know What To Expect Early Years Kit

  • I Know What To Expect-My Christmas Day Mini Kit

  • Learn At Home Sticker Pack

  • Primary Years Home Toolkit

  • School Bag Packing Checklist

Maybe you have a tip on how best to use visual schedules at home? Please get in touch or leave a comment below.

 

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Coping with a family Christmas for an anxious teen with autism


For my son, Tom, thinking about our family Christmas meal is causing him anxiety. Spending time together and creating memories over a shared meal – it’s what many people love about Christmas – but it’s not so easy for an anxious teen with autism. Continue reading Coping with a family Christmas for an anxious teen with autism