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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.

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:

  • 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

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

Download this guide for free

We’re building a collection of handy guides and tip sheets that you can download for free and print at home.

  • cover image download christmas

    Christmas survival guide

  • cover image download feelings tag

    Feelings tag-o-meter

  • cover image download going shopping

    Going shopping

  • cover image download school morning routines

    School morning routines

 

 

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Coping with going shopping

sensory overload tags

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.

general shopping prep tag

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.

shoe shop what to expect tag

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.

Sensory overload

sensory overload tags

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

shopping list checklistGiving 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.

Download this guide for free

We’re building a collection of handy guides and tip sheets that you can download for free and print at home. 

  • cover image download school morning routines

    School morning routines

  • cover image download going shopping

    Going shopping

  • cover image download feelings tag

    Feelings tag-o-meter

  • cover image download christmas

    Christmas survival guide

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Autism – understanding and managing anxiety

We all experience stress during our daily lives but for many autistic people the experience of stress can feel very intense and cause severe difficulties.

stress

Like many young people with autism, my son has been experiencing anxiety related to an overly-literal understanding of what it means to follow school rules and when he is faced with an unplanned change both inside and outside the school setting. He has a very narrow view of what it means to be in the correct uniform or be on time for lessons or appointments. When he is feeling stressed he will rock on his feet, pace the floor and ask repetitive questions. In these situations, he finds it difficult to respond to any reassurance.

Together with his Speech and Language therapist  (‘SLT’) and Occupational therapist  (‘OT’) we have been using some strategies to help him. We have taught him that the concept of feeling overwhelmed means either too many feelings all at once or a very strong reaction to a situation. He can now use this word to express how he is feeling. He has been taught a format for identifying the worry and setting out actions to help resolve it. The actions relate to what he can think, say or do to make things better. We’ve taught him the phrase self talk and he is beginning to understand what a trusted adult would do or say to him  in that situation to help and to use this as self talk. We are sharing this work with his teachers and support staff to ensure a consistent approach to talking about worries and solutions.

On the suggestion of my son’s OT we are trialling a tactical breathing programme developed for the military and emergency services to use in times of extreme stress. We wanted to have activities that were discreet and applicable to the classroom environment. Tactical breathing is a great strategy as no one needs to know that he’s doing it and he can use it to prepare for stressful situations as well as once he is feeling stressed.  We’ve incorporated tactical breathing into an anxiety busting resource for him called the 3 O’s- Overwhelmed, OT, OK.

One of the resources we’re using is a simple free app called ’Tactical Breather’ which I’ve downloaded onto his phone so it’s readily to hand for stressful situations. I’m also encouraging him to use his phone to record worries and solutions so that these can be kept and built up to form a ‘library’ of helpful strategies for managing situations.

It is hoped that over time and with continued support in this area he will become more able to self soothe and manage his anxiety. Incidentally, studies have shown that stress levels of mothers of kids with autism are similar to that of combat soldiers. Perhaps I should download that app for myself too!

Recommended products:

  • cover image sticker pack feelings & emotions

    Feelings & emotions

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    Feelings tag-o-meter

  • I can do it – manage my feelings

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    I know what to expect at Christmas & birthdays

  • My TomTag Feelings Notebook

  • cover image download school morning routines

    School morning routines

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    Staying away from home