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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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Dyslexia – it’s not just about reading

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?

  • school girl carrying rucksack with packing checklist attachedTomTag 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.  
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Back to school – new bundles to help with anxiety and organisation

School routines

girl carrying backpack with tomtag attached

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 to find out more about each product or view the bundles here Back to School Bundles.

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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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School morning routines

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

Getting back into a routine after a long break or when starting school for the first time can be really difficult, especially for very young children or those on the autistic spectrum.

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.
self care i can remember

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

self care follow instructionsTaking 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

pack for school carrying bagGiving 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

We used the kits I can do it self care skills and I can do it pack my bag for school 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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Teach toothbrushing with TomTag

With startling statistics of widespread tooth decay in children being published this week in the latest Children’s Dental Health Survey, it’s clearly an issue in many households.

brush teeth tag
Having a regular and efficient toothbrushing routine is a step in the right direction for putting your children on the road to good dental health.

Keeping a simple checklist on hand in the bathroom is a great way to get started.

We made this one using images from our Self Care pack. A tag and a pack of stickers = £5.20, far cheaper than a lifetime of fillings and dental treatment!

We also recommend downloading the free, NHS-approved Brush DJ app onto your phone or tablet. This app plays 2 minutes of music taken from the user’s device to encourage brushing for an effective length of time.

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TomTag for all the family

Reading through our recent blog posts you could be forgiven for thinking that TomTag is just for children with special needs. As an avid list-maker and user myself, I know that it can be a useful tool for any member of the family.

I find the last few weeks of school a frustrating time. All the good habits my children had at the start of the year are falling by the wayside and I’m powerless to stop them. What’s the point of trying to enforce a routine when all they care about is the end of term school trip and staying up late to watch TV?

So I’ve decided that if I can’t change things now then I’ll prepare for a time when I can whilst the problems are still fresh in my mind. I’m fortunate to have two fairly independent and reasonably well organised children – one already in secondary school and another about to start in September. Yet somehow I still seem to find myself sounding like a broken record when they come home from school every evening!

Using TomTag, I’ve made a list for each of them which will hang by the coat hooks or on the bedroom door. To paraphrase the famous saying, hopefully these pictures will save me 1,000 words.

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TomTag for all the family

 

 

Do you think it will work? Check back in September and find out!

Have you got any interesting ideas for how to put TomTag to use in your house – why not share them with us and our readers?

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10 top transition tips – smoothing the move from primary to secondary school

Transitions are on my mind at the moment as I’m busy training for my first triathlon. I’m anxious about how I’m going to manage the transition between swim, bike and run but I know that the secret is in being prepared and making sure I’ve got everything I need in the right place at the right time.

Major transitions

One of life’s major transitions – the move from primary to secondary school – is about to be faced by thousands of children around the country. It’s natural that they will all experience some level of worry and apprehension about this but for many children on the autistic spectrum this transition can be particularly difficult.

Transitions issues

Change in itself is a problem because many children with ASD find it difficult to think flexibly and so become anxious about the unknown. They will prefer to stick with the familiar routines established in primary school as they will have difficulty predicting what might happen in the new setting.

A lack of social understanding and the ability to read and understand social cues accurately mean that children with autism may not know how to behave or respond in the many new social situations they will encounter in secondary school.

Add sensory processing difficulties to this mix and it’s easy to see why children on the spectrum can quickly become overwhelmed by the sensory stimulii of this new environment.

Preparation is key

When my own autistic son faced the transition from his small and familiar primary school to a large comprehensive I tried to prepare him as much as possible beforehand. By investing time in preparation now using some of the tips and tricks we’ve listed below, we hope you’ll be able to make those first days and weeks in the new school a lot less worrying for you and your child.

Top 10 transition tips

School-map_annotated
Make a map of the school

1. Make a map of the layout of the school with photographs of important places e.g. school canteen, main hall, classrooms

2. Try to obtain photographs of key staff particularly the teaching assistants that are going to support during lessons

3. Establish a link with a member of staff who can act as a mentor and home-school liaison. Set up a home-school book to pass on information about any worries/concerns or any relevant developments at home.

4. Get used to a homework routine in advance of the new start. Start simply with a 10-15 minute task at a regular time each evening in a quiet environment.

5. Make a visual timetable showing the school day to make lesson order & break times more predictable.

6. Practice the journey to and from school, making sure the child knows the location of bus stops, road-crossings, meeting points or anything else significant on their journey.

7. Familiarise your child with the new uniform and deal with any irritating seams or labels.

8. Practice packing the correct items for school (TomTag is perfect for this!)

GFI264-Calendar

9. Use a calendar to count down the days to starting the new school

10. Create a personal profile written with help of your child to include all the information new staff should know about them

 

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Sensory strategies for personal care

Our lives are full of sensory experiences. We take in information about the world around us through our senses – we touch, move, see, hear, taste and smell.

Many people with autism have difficulties interpreting this sensory information. Sensory sensitivity can significantly impact an individual’s behaviour and ability to develop independence in life skills.

Here are a few of the personal care strategies that have helped me to better manage my son’s sensory-driven behaviours.

DRESSING

  • Use comfortable clothes – consider particularly the type of fabric and length of sleeve
  • Cut off care labels from inside clothes
  • If seams cannot be tolerated try wearing undergarments (eg leggings under trousers) to reduce friction
  • Wash and dry clothes in unscented products
  • Dressing in front of a mirror can help provide visual cues to improve sequencing and body awareness

PERSONAL HYGIENE

  • Use non-perfumed soap
  • Apply firm pressure when shampooing or drying with a towel
  • Be aware of bathroom lighting levels and reduce any loud noises e.g. run the bath before the young person goes into the bathroom
  • Provide deep touch using a towel to head, hands and feet

HAIR CARE

  • Use a firm stroke or pressure as you comb or wash their hair
  • Count or have the young person count as you comb, wash or cut their hair
  • Give a definite time limit to the task e.g. brush or cut until you or they count to 10

 

TOILETING

  • Use moist toilet roll if the young person is sensitive to toilet tissue
  • If feet don’t reach the ground when sitting, using a stepping stool to rest feet on will help the child feel safer
  • Try a padded seat insert if the young person doesn’t like how the toilet seat feels

It’s important to talk to the young person to try and understand their individual issues and to explain each step of what you are doing to help them.

Visual aids can also be used to help the young person understand the activity and remember the order or sequence of actions. Our TomTag self care pack is designed to help guide self care tasks such as dressing, washing, toileting etc.

We also recommend Little Grippers socks which use “stay on technology” to help them to stick rather than grip the skin so they don’t fall down or move around. 

For more tips, this friendshipcircle blog has some really useful information.

Please feel free to share and let us know which strategies have worked well for you.

  • cover image minikits brush teeth

    I can do it – brush my teeth

  • I can do it – self care skills

  • cover image minikit toilet routines

    I can do it – toilet routine

  • cover image minikit morning evening

    I know what to expect – morning and evening

  • cover image sticker pack self care

    Self care