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Finding your brave – Children’s Mental Health Week
Day 4: What does ‘finding your brave’ mean for a child with autism?
It’s time to celebrate!
As we’ve talked about earlier, many children with autism show their bravery in the everyday acts of dealing with life. Recognising and celebrating this bravery is just as important, if not more so, as acknowledging it for the ‘big’ brave events.
Showing your child how to see and celebrate their bravery in the seemingly smaller things boosts their self-esteem, confidence and mental health. Congratulating your child on each brave step (big or small) helps them feel good about themselves and they can learn to find courage to do bigger things.
If you’ve missed any of the series so far, you can recap here:
Bravery often doesn’tfeel like bravery. It can feel like butterflies in your tummy, sweaty hands, racing thoughts or maybe a moment of intense focus and concentration. It’s only after being brave that we feel proud, happy and confident – that elusive ‘I feel good’ feeling! When we are brave we can have fun, meet new people, share a new experience and boost our mental health and well-being.
Bravery can mean so many things: big and small. As a parent of a child with autism, it’s often hard not to compare them with their typically developing peers and their acts of bravery. Others may have learnt to ride a bike, play a musical instrument or been picked for the school football team whilst your child is struggling to put on their shoes, hold a pencil or sleep through the night.
Getting dressed, going to school or keeping calm when there is a change to routine are all examples of bravery if you have anxiety, sensory difficulties or struggle with flexible thinking.
Take time each day to note down an instance when your child has been brave. We use our TomTag Feelings notebook to record these moments but you could also write each moment on a note and pop them into a note jar. Simply pausing and recording these moments highlights the experience of being brave making it more likely to reinforce positive memories. Using a notebook, note jar or similar will help you and your child to revisit and reflect on the ‘brave moment’ entries when similar challenges arise in the future. Together with your child you can build a bravery chain, link by link.
Its also important to reassure your child that not feeling brave is okay and that other children will often feel this way too. This is another time when it can be helpful to use a visual feelings scale (like TomTag’s Share how I feel tag) to help your child show or tell you how they are feeling. Acknowledge their feelings and praise them for ‘finding their brave’ to share them with you. Remind them that it takes time and practice to ‘find your brave’ – be patient if you need to repeat the process we discussed earlier of identifying fears and finding support strategies to overcome them.
Over the years we’ve always tried to celebrate all Tom’s acts of ‘bravery’. We’ve praised and encouraged him with seemingly small things like saying hello, sitting at the table or making food choices. Bravery has unfolded one situation at a time.
Over time, he’s overcome his fear of speaking, meeting new people and learning new skills such as skiing, riding a bike and, more recently, even driving! When he faces new challenges, we remind him how he found his brave on all these occasions to reassure him that he does have the strength within to succeed.
How does your child show their bravery? Share your proud moments with us – we’d love to hear from you and share your joy!
Now it’s time for some action! Let’s look at some ways you can support your child to help them overcome some of their fears and get closer to finding their brave.
Overcoming fears – getting closer to brave
Feeling worried about the unknown or new situations is common and familiar to almost all of us.
For many children with autism, normal daily life can feel like the great unknown every day. If you’re worried about what’s going to happen, struggle with anxiety around people and social situations or can’t communicate what you want or need, every single day can feel scary and overwhelming. It’s very hard to ‘find your brave’ when you’re in a constant state of anxiety. Being scared and anxious is exhausting and can often lead us into more complex mental health problems.
There are strategies we can use to deal with these uncertainties and ways to learn skills that can help combat anxieties. It’s time to meet the superheroes – visual supports!!
Finding your brave – reducing uncertainty with visual supports
An intolerance of uncertainty is a common cause of anxiety for many children with autism, causing them to ‘act out’ or display other unwanted behaviours when their routines change or they are in unfamiliar situations.
A visual schedule or timetable takes away the element of surprise and makes it clear what your child can expect to happen. Their anxiety level will come down and it will be easier for them to transition between activities, finding their brave to move on.
In this diary entry, Tom felt worried because he didn’t know whether his Speech and Language therapist was visiting him at school that day. By reminding him to check the timetable in his planner, Tom was able to reassure himself about when to expect to see his therapist.
Helping your child to ‘find their brave’ for unfamiliar or ‘scary’ situations – things like visiting the dentist, doctor or hairdresser – is eased by good planning and preparation. Using a visual tool like TomTag or a simple social story can help you to communicate and explain to your child what’s going happen before the event, reducing the uncertainty and consequent anxieties.
Finding your brave – learning social skills with visual supports
Social cues can be difficult for many children with autism to understand as they interact with others. They get anxious about what is expected of them socially and can find if hard to interpret other people’s behaviour.
Visual prompts can be useful in teaching social rules such as sharing, taking turns and waiting. With practice and patience, children can learn to use these supports on their own in social situations, providing them with a permanent reminder of expectations and setting the stage for them to find their brave!
In the earlier example, Tom was worried about his speech therapist being late. Using drawings, we reminded him about the concept of waiting. Knowing what was expected of him in this situation and giving him some self-help strategies (OT exercises) helped to calm him down.
Finding your brave – communicating needs with visual supports
Sensory overload, changes to routine, difficulties processing information, being tired or hungry are all common triggers for anger and challenging behaviour. In these situations, it is almost impossible for a child to be brave.
Tom remembers what he sees rather than what he hears as he can’t process too many words at once. Ask him questions or give him instructions and his stress just increases – the more we talk, the less he hears! Offering children like Tom a non-verbal means of communication to use allows them to understand and express their feelings without the stress of having to process language at the same time.
The TomTag Share how I feel visual feelings scale is one of our best sellers – and you can see why! It’s such a simple device but a very quick, effective and efficient way for your child to show or tell you how they are feeling. Once they’re learnt to identify and understand what each feeling means, you can use more detailed visual guides to build self-help strategies they can use to cope with different feelings and emotions, giving them the reassurance and confidence they need to find their brave.
What stops us being brave and why can being brave be so difficult?
Being brave generally means facing something difficult or a situation we’re unsure, worried or scared about and going ahead anyway.
To help your child with autism ‘find their brave’, you need to understand what those fears, worries or anxieties are that are their barriers to being brave. It’s the thoughts and feelings we create ourselves that are most often what get in the way of doing something or trying something new. These unhelpful thoughts might include worries about getting something wrong, being embarrassed or people laughing at you.
Firstly, let your child know that it’s normal to have these emotions but that there things we can do to help ourselves to stop these thoughts and feelings getting in the way of what we want or need to do and affecting our mental health. To find out what their barriers are you may just be able to ask them. If your child is non-verbal or finds it tricky to talk about their feelings – perhaps because they have limited language skills – you will need to try some other tactics.
For Tom, who has autism, just talking about his fears can be a cause of stress too. We’ve used the TomTag Feelings Notebook to help him communicate with us and share his concerns in a less direct or confrontational way.
In this example, he describes feeling nervous about meeting his teacher as he was unsure about what to say to her. He goes on to share that he always feels nervous when he sees other people. An example of how unhelpful thoughts – like saying something wrong or that people might laugh at him – are the barriers to bravery here.
You can use also use a diary format like this to help you and your child keep a record of feelings, anxieties, worries or behaviour which will help you to track any patterns and identify underlying triggers. Turn detective, be curious and think about what might be beneath their behaviour to see what the real issues are.
Right feeling, wrong size?
Sometimes, your child won’t even be sure what they’re afraid of, which can in itself make them feel more anxious and afraid. It’s also possible that they may have difficulty understanding the size or intensity of their feelings, something Tomas finds quite difficult.
When he was younger, Tom was terrified of flies. This was particularly difficult in the summer months as he would scream and become extremely anxious about going to sleep. Every evening we would have to make sure that his bedroom was free of the unwelcome guests before he would even go into his room.
With support, Tom was able to use drawings as a visual tool to help him share what it was about flies that frightened him and how they made him feel. He thought that the fly would eat him and he felt panic! Once we knew what the fears were, we could reassure him that it was normal to have feelings about flies. We were able to show him that his feeling of panic was unhelpful as it made things feel more scary than they really were. A case of the right feeling but the wrong size.
Doing the detective work was crucial. Had we not known about the fear then Tom’s reluctance to go to bed might have been misinterpreted as challenging behaviour around bedtime routines. By understanding his fears, providing him with reassurance and making him feel safe, we could encourage him to be brave with the help of positive thinking and a bright new fly swatter which we showed him how to use!
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.
You’ve got the uniform, the new shoes, pencil-case and stationery and they’re all neatly labelled with your child’s name – but being ready to start or go back to school isn’t just about having all the right kit.
Starting school for the first time, going to a new school or moving to a new class, teacher or environment are some of the biggest transitions in a child’s life. It’s normal to feel anxious or worried at times of transition or change and the routine and environment of daily school life can present many challenges in itself for some children. It can often be difficult for children to understand and express these feelings and know how to cope with them effectively. If a child can share their worries and concerns with their parents and teachers it will be easier to help them develop good coping skills and strategies.
My TomTag Feelings Notebook is an ideal tool for communication between child, parent and teacher. It helps a child to express, understand and communicate their feelings and anxieties. Parents and teachers can better understand the causes and triggers for a child’s anxiety or behaviour, by identifying patterns over a number of days or weeks. This written record can help them to work in partnership to give a consistent and coordinated level of support to the child.
The TomTag Share how I feel tag and Manage my feelings kit are additional complementary products that can be used in conjunction with My TomTag Feelings Notebook to help a child further explore, express and understand their feelings and emotions.
The brand new lunch box you bought just a few weeks ago gets left on the kitchen table in the rush to get everyone to school on time – what now? Arriving at school without all the right kit for the day ahead is a common cause of anxiety and stress for many school children. Not being able to take part in activities, being in trouble with teachers, not being comfortable and having attention drawn to them are all unwelcome consequences of forgotten pe-kits, lunchpacks, jumpers and the like. TomTag’s I can do it – pack my bag for school kit is a simple checklist that attaches to a child’s school bag to remind them what they need to take to school and bring home again each day.
We’ve created some new amazing value bundles incorporating all these products to help you prepare and support you child as they head back to school or if they’re starting school for the first time. Click on the product links below to find out more about each product and details of our bundles.
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
At 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.
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:
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?
Sensory 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.
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
You 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.