Coping with a family Christmas for an anxious teen with autism

tom with chef's hat on carving turkey for Christmas


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.

Visibly on edge, Tom seeks constant reassurance about what will happen. He worries about not being able to understand or contribute to conversations. He fears that he will be negatively judged for talking about his special interest, Swiss trains.

These are some of the strategies we’ve developed to help him cope with and enjoy the day.

Use a visual schedule and plan, plan, plan

Tom uses a note-making app on his ‘phone as a visual schedule tool. This reminds him what time our guests are expected to arrive, when we anticipate eating and what family games and entertainment there is likely to be after the meal has finished.  We used a more traditional, physical visual schedule when he was younger to explain about what was going to happen.

christmas tree background with tomtag overlay
Choose an age-appropriate visual schedule tool

This pre-planning has been a good opportunity to work on Tom’s flexible thinking. We’ve brain stormed possible reasons why, on the day, there may be a slight change to the schedule; our guests may be late due to traffic delays, the dinner might not be ready at the exact time, not all our guests may want to engage in party games!

Have an important role to play

Giving Tom a role helps him feel involved but without the pressure to join in. It’s important to strike the right balance so that I don’t make him feel doubly anxious by putting demands on him. Tom is looking forward to greeting the guests on arrival, passing round the drinks and helping to carve the turkey. 

tomas with chef's hat on carving turkey for Christmas

When it’s time for the family games we opt for a quiz. So that he doesn’t feel under pressure to answer questions, Tom becomes the quiz master  – a role he just loves! It’s also a family tradition that Tom chooses a favourite Swiss train video that we all watch together. This is his opportunity to share his special interest with us.

Make our expectations clear

Tom has fortunately outgrown many of the dietary restrictions he had as a young boy. He is happy to sit at the table with us now to enjoy his meal, which is fantastic. However, we know that immediately after eating he will need to leave the table for a movement break. We reassure him beforehand that this is OK and allowed so that he doesn’t become anxious about it or feel forced to sit at the table against his wishes.

Tom also knows that if, at any point during the day, the experience becomes overwhelming for him and he needs time away then it’s ok to go to another, quieter room to listen to his music. We explain that our guests will not be disappointed or disapproving about this ‘escape’. He understands that he can come back and join in whenever he feels ready.

Learning and understanding at Christmas for an anxious teen with autism

It takes time to learn what works best for your child and family so don’t be disappointed if things don’t go as smoothly as you’d like. Being able to recognise and understand what makes Tom anxious at Christmas is something that we have had to work on and develop over the years. 

Calm and consistent reassurance, given both verbally and visually, has proven the most effective way to help Tom enjoy this special occasion,  which makes for a happier time for all the family.

What tips can you share that make Christmas social events more manageable and less stressful in your house?

Useful resources:

Simple things

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.

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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.

My TomTag Feelings Notebook is available at an introductory offer price of £10 (normally £12.50) until 31st July 2018

Joining the SBS family

sbs winners logo roundOrkid Ideas was founded in October 2010, the same month that Theo Paphitis (of Ryman Stationery and Dragons’ Den fame) created his Small Business Sunday #SBS initiative on Twitter.

Each week, Theo chooses his favourite small businesses from the thousands that tweet him on a Sunday evening and rewards them by re-tweeting their tweets to his 500k+ followers the following day.

Monday 26th March marked the start of Autism Awareness Week. Autism awareness, understanding and acceptance is close to our hearts at Orkid Ideas; it’s the reason we are even here at all and underpins our passion for TomTag and how it can help individuals with autism cope better with daily life. So it was an especially delightful surprise when Theo chose this Monday to pick Orkid Ideas at the top of his weekly list of six businesses to join the amazing #SBS winners family.

Not only does this mean a boost for us as a business but we hope it has also helped to spread a little more autism awareness to a wider audience. 

“It is imperative that you have an idea you really believe in, and you also have to be absolutely determined you can make it work.” – Theo Paphitis

To celebrate our win, we’re offering 20% off any order until 30th April using the code TPSBS at checkout.
TP SBS winning tweet

Surviving Christmas with help from TomTag

family visits tags

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

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TomTag Feelings tag-o-meter

feelings tag with what's wrong tag

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:

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

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. 

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The guide for this topic also covers the information in our post Understanding feelings and emotional intelligence.

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