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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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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]
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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. 

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. 

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

  • 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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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.

How are you feeling?

What type of emotions and feelings do we have? 

 

Anger

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.

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Sadness

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.
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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.
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Happiness

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.
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Excitement

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.

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How to use a TomTag feelings tag-o-meter to develop the skills for good emotional intelligence

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TomTag: your stories – Elizabeth

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:TomTag examples at home Elizabeth

  • 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: 

Younger child tag examples

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. 

 

 

 

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TomTag tips and tricks

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!

Locked in

tag lock info

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.

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We’re here!

features website nameNeed some spare buttons or want to try a new sticker pack but can’t remember the website address? It’s right here, on the back of every tag!

No need for Google – just turn over a tag.

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Heads or tails

features button turnThe 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.

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Rewards

features rewardsThink TomTag is just for making lists? Think again!

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.

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Take it away

customer oct14 2You’ll already know what the small hole at the top of each tag can be used with our attachment loops to join tags together or hang individual tags in handy places.

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?

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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.