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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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!
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.
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?
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.
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.
Emotional Intelligence – what is it?
Emotional intelligence is defined as the ability to be aware of and recognise our emotions, understand and express them, and to realise how they affect those around us. Emotional intelligence is known to be a key factor in success in life, quality of relationships and overall happiness.
What type of emotions and feelings do we have?
Angry, irritated, mad, furious, upset
We can get angry for lots of different reasons. It can happen when we feel threatened or offended or when we can’t have something that we really want. Our children will often display anger and challenging behaviour when they are finding something difficult, confusing or uncomfortable but are unable to communicate the problem to us in other ways.
Sad, unhappy, disappointed, depressed, hurt
Emotions themselves are not ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Everyone will, and should, experience being unhappy, down or disappointed at times. Learning how to recognise and respond to feelings of sadness in a positive way is good for our emotional health.
Fear & anxiety
Anxious, nervous, frightened, scared, tense
Fear can be a useful emotion when it stops us doing things that might be dangerous or bad for us. It works against us when it stops us doing important things that we need to do or when we are unnecessarily worried or fearful about what might happen to us. Being overly anxious affects our ability to focus, learn, and achieve things.
Calm, satisfied, happy, relaxed, glad
When a child is happy, calm and relaxed they will be more able and willing to focus, listen, learn and communicate. We can help them by learning what they need and would benefit from in their physical and social environments in order to achieve that status.
Excited, antsy, energetic, bouncy, aroused
When children have difficulties communicating, it’s easy to misinterpret their behaviour and wrongly identify the cause. For example, a child with autism may display repetitive motor behaviour such as flapping or spinning but they may need this sensory stimulation to deal with extremes of excitement and arousal as much as they do when overwhelmed by other emotions.
Many shopping experiences can be extremely difficult to cope with for autistic individuals and those who care for them. Changes to routine, difficult social interactions with strangers and overwhelming sensory experiences are just some of the issues that can cause stress, anxiety, fear and meltdowns.
So why do we bother?
We all need food to eat and clothes to wear so going shopping is a necessary and important part of our lives. Online shopping can offer us a great alternative to physically leaving the house and going to the shops but it isn’t always the best way to get what we need or the ideal long term solution.
Shopping can help us develop good life skills. We need to plan and organise to make shopping lists or know which shops to visit. We need to understand money and budgets. Having strategies to cope with social experiences and sensory problems can increase our independence, reduce isolation and help us to be part of a community.
Start planning early
Use a visual routine chart to introduce the idea of your shopping trip. Go at a quieter time of day or week if possible and give as much warning of the upcoming trip as you can. Sneaking in a last minute or surprise visit is best avoided.
You can use your visual chart to show how you will get there (e.g. car then walk), what sort of shop you are going to and what you need to buy. If you regularly use the same route or transport, try to stick to it or make sure you explain the change of route with visual prompts.
What’s going to happen?
Set up another visual list with more detail about what to expect in the kind of shop you are visiting. For example, at the supermarket you need to put things in a trolley or basket, walk together, queue at the checkout, put the shopping in a bag, then pay.
This preparation is particularly useful when shopping for clothes and shoes which can both be especially challenging shopping experiences. Preparing a simple social story and using a visual timeline will help you to talk about why we need to do this kind of shopping, what’s going to happen when you get there and what it might feel like.
Ask and answer questions
Why do we take our clothes and shoes off here but not in other shops or public places? Why does the shop assistant get close and possibly touch us when they need to find out what size we need?
Use the time before you go to ask and answer these sort of questions and think about the strategies you and your child can use to help them stay calm. You could even try some role-playing at home too.
Remember to take your TomTag visual prompt to the shops with you and use it as a reminder of the process once you’re there.
Bright white lights, rows of brightly coloured objects, background music, strong smells and noisy crowds make supermarkets and shopping centres some of the most likely places to trigger sensory overload, leading to meltdowns and consequent behaviour issues.
Try using ear plugs or defenders to dampen noise and dark glasses or peaked caps to reduce the light intensity. Avoid strong smelling areas of shops such as washing powder aisles or perfume sections.
Keep a visual list handy so your child can show you what they are having problems with (too bright, too noisy, too smelly, thirsty, hungry, etc.) and pair it with a list of strategy symbols (deep breathe, count to 10, need to leave, etc.) that you can use to remind them of suitable self-help solutions.
Keep them busy
Giving your child the responsibility for finding items on your shopping list is a great way to avoid boredom and focus their energy. You can also make up games to keep them interested; for example, be the first to find 3 items on your list and turn the symbol over when you find them.
Involving children in helping to prepare the shopping list at home before you go can also be a useful way to encourage engagement and interest.
You might want to take a favourite toy or fidget or let them use a computer tablet or phone as a distraction as well.
Make your own planners and checklists
We used the kit I know what to expect going shopping with the optional symbol packs My shopping list and Shopping for clothes & shoes but TomTag is a versatile system with the flexibility to choose from a range of toolkits or put together your own combination of components and symbol sets. Links to all products below.
This guide is also available as a free download using the link below.
Getting the whole family ready for school and out of the door on time and with all the right kit is never easy. There’s usually lots of shouting, nagging and panic involved!
Chaos or calm?
A less stressful and chaotic morning is possible with a little preparation. When children have the skills to get ready independently, they can start to take responsibility for themselves and their belongings without needing you to remind them every time. It might take a little practice and patience at first but it will be worth the effort in the long run.
Establishing a consistent morning routine (and the evening before) is also key to getting things to run more smoothly and helps everyone to understand what’s expected of them.
Visual checklists and schedules are an ideal tool to use when helping your child learn routines and skills for independence.
Use a consistent morning routine
Create a visual reminder of all the tasks that need to be completed each morning and list them in the order in which you want them to be done.
It’s ok to use more detailed steps at first or attach a separate detailed list for each task to help make the process easier to understand.
Keep this list in a handy place in your child’s bedroom so it’s within reach when they get out of bed. Get them used to following the routine step by step each morning and work towards them checking things off independently each day.
Avoid the dressing battlefields
Keep another checklist in the bedroom that will show your child what clothes they need to wear and what they should put on first. This avoids the pants over trousers scenario!
Setting out clothes the night before saves a lot of stress trying to find clean clothes in the morning. Start by laying out all the clothes for them so that everything’s ready to go the next day and then build up to them taking the responsibility for preparing this themselves.
Tackle hygiene skills
Taking care of personal hygiene is a very important life skill for all our children to learn. We perform these tasks for ourselves everyday without needing to think about exactly what we’re doing.
For children just learning these skills, we need to break the task down into smaller steps. A picture list describing each step in the process is a great visual reminder that they can refer to each time they do the task which will help them to master getting it right.
Keeping a teethbrushing, toilet routine or washing checklist in the bathroom will help your child develop the independence to get ready in the morning by themselves and speed up the whole family’s routine.
Pack all the right kit
Giving your child the responsibility for finding and packing everything they need for school might seem like a crazy idea but even the youngest or most disorganised child can soon get the hang of it, increasing their independence and reducing anxieties that occur over forgotten items.
Use a simple checklist attached to their schoolbag listing all the things they need to remember to take for each day of the week. Then they’ll also have it with them at school to remind them what to bring home at the end of the day too.
Getting into the habit of packing the night before is a great way to avoid that last minute panic searching for homework or games kit in the morning when you really should be leaving the house!
Make your own schedules and checklists
Looking forward to the children going back to school but dreading those chaotic school mornings?
Help your kids learn to get themselves ready for school, know and understand their own routine and remember what they need to pack – with less nagging from you and a lot less stress all round.
It really is easy with a little help from TomTag!
We learn a great deal from listening to our customers about their experiences with TomTag. It’s always interesting to find out about the different ways they use our products and wonderful to hear how it often makes such a real difference to their lives.
We thought it might be helpful to share some of those experiences and ideas with you too so we’ve interviewed a number of our customers who have been kind enough to talk about their different stories and backgrounds with us.
First up is Elizabeth, a childminder from London, and mum to two girls aged 4 and 12.
Why did you purchase TomTag?
I bought TomTag to use with my daughters as both girls are on the autistic spectrum. Although they are both verbal and relatively high functioning they still need some support with their daily life activities.
I’d describe my youngest daughter as being in a permanent ‘fight or flight’ mode, always needing reassurance about what to expect during the day. The eldest has executive functioning issues and needs support to help her sequence activities and with organisation.
Did you use any other type of visual supports before you tried TomTag?
I used to make my own picture timetables and sequences. It was very time consuming having to print off the pictures, laminate them and then attach them to Velcro. My youngest daughter really didn’t like the Velcro system so when I saw TomTag advertised in Aukids magazine I decided to give them a try.
So, how do you use it?
In lots of different ways!
For my younger daughter I have set up:
- daily timetables that I create by prominently displaying 3 tags on hooks on the fridge (and also in the other rooms where she needs to use them) to show her what her morning, afternoon and evening routines should be
- a toilet routine reminder hanging in the bathroom which is a simple picture sequence checklist to break the routine down into small steps.
- social story resources to help prepare for things like visits to the doctor and hairdresser. I explain what’s going to happen and the order of events whilst we look at the pictures together.
My elder daughter uses TomTag for:
- remembering to take her bus pass, umbrella and mobile phone to school with a checklist on her school bag
- a visual school timetable to help remind her which classes and activities she has during the school the day
- as a picture sequence to check she has followed the correct steps for washing her hair
How has TomTag helped your children?
My little one finds TomTag very comforting. She feels in control of her day now and is less anxious about what is going to happen next. Seeing her routine in pictures also helps with teaching her sequences and time concepts. She loves the ‘hands on’ system – she particularly enjoys clicking the buttons in and out!
My older daughter finds TomTag really helps with her organisational skills. She feels less anxious at school knowing she has all the right things with her. She also likes the ’hands on’ nature of TomTag and she’s now started taking responsibility for planning and organising her day. For example, when she started going to choir as an after school activity, she changed her tag by herself to show this change of routine.
I’ve also found the tips and advice for teaching life skills on your website very helpful.
Do you have any suggestions for how we could make TomTag even better?
The range of images supplied in the various sticker packs is generally good. I have used the blank stickers to draw some personalised images – an umbrella, keys and phone charger.
I think there could be some additional ‘days out’ type images e.g. summer fair, fun fair, adventure park or castle. Perhaps a jumbo version of the tags and buttons would be useful for children who have sight problems but I appreciate the product would not then be as portable!
Overall I think TomTag is a wonderful product and it has really made life easier for both my daughters.
Thank you Elizabeth for sharing your story and for giving us some insightful tips on how TomTag works in your home.
Follow the highlighted links in the interview to find out more details about all the products used by Elizabeth and her family.
Would you like to share your story with us?
All it takes is a short chat with us on the ‘phone, ideally send us a few pics of your TomTags in use then just leave the rest to us. It’s easy to get in touch with us, all the details are on our Contact Us page.
The world can be a daunting, confusing and stressful place for children with autism and particularly so when they are at school.
In support of World Autism Awareness Week and the NAS focus on raising awareness, understanding and acceptance of autism at school, we’ve put together some tips on how TomTag visual resources can support pupils with autism in the classroom, help classroom management and make school a more positive and calmer experience for everyone!
TomTag toolkits provide a very simple and effective way of creating personalised visual supports without any time-consuming laminating, printing or Velcro involved. They are convenient for teachers and support assistants to create and neat, portable and robust for pupils to use.
A TomTag I know what to expect at school kit is extremely versatile – here are some ideas for how it might be used.
Do you have pupils who become anxious and stressed about what is going to happen during the school day?
Create a visual timetable of the child’s school day to help guide and remind them of what will be happening. Start by choosing symbols from the school timetable pack that show what lessons and activities are planned and expected throughout each day. Place these into a TomTag coloured tag in the order in which they will happen, using one or more tags for each day, depending on how many different items you need to list.
When a child knows what to expect, the routine becomes easier to understand and they will be less anxious about it, helping them to concentrate and focus on their work.
WAAW OFFER 1: 25% off the At School kit
Do you have pupils who become stressed or upset if there’s a change of plan?
Using a visual timetable helps a child to understand about how the same things happen consistently each day or week but it can also be a useful tool to show when something out of the ordinary is going to take place.
With TomTag’s unique click-in button system, adding or changing symbols to show that a new or different activity or event should be expected is quick and easy. Adapting an existing schedule in this way will help the child prepare for and understand the changes and reduce the likelihood of them being stressed or upset by events.
WAAW OFFER 2: My school day mini-kit reduced from £3.5 to £2.50
Do you have pupils who struggle to understand what is expected of them?
When children are told what they need to do, it’s not always easy for them to hold onto that verbal information and recall it accurately. We can reinforce our language and improve this communication by creating a visual checklist that shows the child the steps they need to take to complete the task required.
They can refer back to this list as often as they need and could even remove each button from the tag once the step is complete to give a visual indicator that it has been done. Our verbal instructions don’t need to be repeated as often and the child can work much more independently, improving their confidence and self-esteem.
WAAW Offer 3: My school kit stickers to help with organisation, only £1 (usually £3.50)
Do you have pupils who struggle with transitions between classroom activities?
One of the simplest ways that TomTag can be used is with the FIRST-THEN or NOW-NEXT concepts. Choose the symbols that represent the activities that need to be completed. Often the first is a less preferred activity (eg writing work) and the second a more preferred one (eg playtime).
Place these symbols in a tag along with the FIRST and THEN or NOW and NEXT prompts. The symbols can represent a simple sequence, separate tasks or a task and reward. The expectations are then clear and understandable, sequences and time concepts can be learnt and anxieties about or resistance to transitions are reduced.
WAAW Offer 4: First-Then mini-kit reduced from £7 to £5
Do you have pupils who constantly need reminding how to behave?
In the TomTag School Timetable sticker pack, we’ve included a range of symbols to help with behaviour management in the classroom (eg. take turns, personal space, kind hands, sit nicely, etc.). These can be used to help remind individual children or the whole class about appropriate behaviour and teach them about boundaries and rules.
Don’t forget to reinforce good behaviour by using the ‘Good work’ symbol, awarding a gold star sticker or reminding them to ask for help if needed.
WAAW Offer 5: Feeling and emotions stickers only £4 (usually £6)
Check out all our other TomTag products for home, school and out & about on our main website pages.
Don’t forget to follow our Facebook page too where we’ll be highlighted one of our WAAW special offers each day this week to coincide with World Autism Awareness Week 27 March – 2 April 2017.
Tips and tricks when using TomTag
We know that one of the things you really appreciate about TomTag is it’s simplicity and easy of use.
That means that sometimes we forget to shout about some of the more subtle design features we included. We’ve also picked up some interesting ideas along the way from our own experience and that of our customers and we’d love to share them with you.
So, here goes!
Ever noticed those ridges at the top and bottom on the reverse of each tag but never been sure what they’re for? That’s our tag lock feature!
Simply line up the back of one tag with the front of another and squeeze together, making sure that the raised ridges on the back sit inside the rectangular areas at the front as you do so. Repeat with the rest of your tags.
Particularly helpful when used with our I can do it pack my bag for school set to prevent tags flapping or moving around too much when being carried on a school bag.
No need for Google – just turn over a tag.
Heads or tails
The natural and obvious way to place TomTag buttons in a buttonholder/tag is with the flat, stickered side facing upwards. After all, we want to see those symbols, don’t we? What about once the task or activity shown in the symbol has been completed?
A very visual strategy can be achieved by popping out each button, turning it over and placing it back in the same space in the holder to indicate that the task has been done before moving onto the next item on the list.
Use a tag, some blank buttons and star stickers to encourage positive behaviour or to incentivise a reluctant child. Give a star button to pop in their tag each time they display the required behaviour or complete a set task and perhaps agree a treat they will receive once their tag is full.
Take it away
You can make TomTag even more portable by using that small hole to attach a keyring, belt clip or lanyard to one or more tags so that they can be carried on the person. This is a really useful idea when using TomTag to promote good behaviour at home or school – handy for teachers or parents to carry with them so they can quickly show the relevant symbol or list as a reminder.
Here’s a picture one of our customers sent to us – she’s a very busy bee and likes to know she can always check what’s happening next during the day, wherever she is.
We’ve been thinking for some time about introducing lanyards with our TomTag logo – what do you think? Would this interest you?
Over to you
What would you add to this list? Have a novel way for using TomTag? Let us know and we’ll share your ideas too.