It is so hard to believe that the holiday season is already upon us. This year just flew by. If you are anything like me, standing in long lines at the mall fighting for the best deals is not how you want to spend your holiday. While some people enjoy holiday shopping, for busy moms like yourself who have a million things to juggle already, it is probably more stressful than fun. Additionally, kids with Autism often have very limited interests so knowing what to buy your child can make holiday shopping even more frustrating.
I want to take the mystery out of shopping this holiday season for you. One of the number one questions that parents ask me during the holiday season is what they should get their kids. There are a few things that i have found that hold true for almost all kids with Autism.
They respond well to toys that provide visual or tactile sensory stimulation. Because many kids with Autism lack complex play skills, they find solace in simple things that either enjoy watching or touching.
You may have to try a dozen different things before your find something that interests your child.
Children often get bored of things very quickly.
That’s why I put together a list of 6 stocking stuffers you can order right from this blogpost that cost less than 10 dollars. While I cannot guarantee they will work for your child, I chose them because they are the most common toys that the children I work with enjoy. Since none of the toys cost much, there is minimal risk. All of the toys selected will provide your child with some sensory input which is demonstrated to reduce stimming behaviors for some children.
Allen, A. P., & Smith, A. P. (2011). A review of the evidence that chewing gum affects stress, alertness and cognition. Journal of Behavioral and Neuroscience Research, 9, 1, 7–23.
Foss-Feig, J. H., Tadin, D., Schauder, K. B., & Cascio, C. J. (2013). A substantial and unexpected enhancement of motion perception in autism. Journal of Neuroscience, 33(19), 8243-8249.
Stalvey, S. and Brasell, H. (2006). Using Stress Balls to Focus the Attention of Sixth-Grade Learners. Journal of At-Risk Issues, 12, 2, 7-16
5 Steps for Frustrated Parents to Get Your Sensory Child to Eat
What is food selectivity disorder?
A child has food selectivity disorder when they have a very limited selection of foods that they are willing to eat. Having food selectivity disorder is not the same as a child being a picky eater. Usually children with food selectivity wind up being underweight and/or malnourished as a result of eating such limited foods.
Food selectivity looks different for all children. Some children will only eat food with specific textures like pureed food or baby food. Other children will avoid textures like wet foods. Some kids will only eat salty foods, some only sweet foods and others only foods of a specific color.
Many times, when kids are presented with new foods, they will become extremely upset and refuse to eat. When you force selective eaters to try something new, they will spit it out or gag and make themselves throw up. Often times, they are unable to express why they are rejecting the food which leaves parents wondering what is going on! You may be offering them cake, cookies, chips or similar things that it may seem like all kids would want to eat! Either way, it is extremely frustrating and rather than dinner being a fun time for families to spend time together, it becomes one of the most dreaded parts of your day.
Why is my child selective about food?
There is no one answer to why a child is selective about eating particular foods. There is a very high correlation between Autism and Sensory Processing Disorder with food selectivity. The most common reason is that sensory eats avoid specific food textures. Apraxia, a motor speech disorder, also can cause children to reject foods at it makes moving food around the mouth a challenge. The good news is, no matter what the cause of the food selectivity there are five simple steps to overcoming it!
Step 1: Encourage your child to Play with Food Food
Allow your child to play with foods that they do not want to eat without requiring them to eat it. The exposure to the foods without the threat of being required to eat them will create a positive association with the foods and will reduce your child’s stress.
If your child doesn’t like solid foods, you can play with cereals, by dumping them in and out of cups and bowls. You can glue pretzels to paper, string pasta, and even include some of you child’s favorite toys in the games such as putting the food in trucks or feeding the food to stuffed toys or dolls. There are limitless possibilities. Liquid foods can be a little more messy, but with a little creativity and some rags to clean up the mess, there are also tons of options!
Stay on this step as long as necessary! Feel free to also continue it throughout the rest of the steps. I would encourage you to use several different foods to help with generalization! No matter what, keep it fun! Remember, the goal is to create a positive association!
Step 2: Require Your Child to Kiss the Food
Children will be reluctant to try new foods. However, if you assure them that they will not have to actually eat the food, they will be far more willing to cooperate. In this step, you have the child kiss the food and then they are done! You can tell them ahead of time how many times they will have to kiss the food but you would never ask them to put the food in their mouth! Praise them for doing a really great job once they kiss the food and give them access to their favorite toy or activity before either having them kiss the food again or to go to the next step.
*You may be able to progress through all five steps in one day or you may stay on each step for days or even weeks. Stay on each step until it becomes effortless for your child. Then, move on!
Step 3: Require Your Child to Lick the Food
Step 3 is almost identical to step 2 with the exception that in step 3, they are licking and kissing the food. Like with step 2, you should end the demand, praise them and give them access to their favorite toy or activity every time they lick the food. Also, like with step 2, stay on the step until it becomes easy for the child. Then, they are ready to move to step 4.
Step 4: Require Your Child to Put the Food in his Mouth but Allow them to Spit it Out
In this step, for the first time, you are requiring the child to put the food in their mouths. For many kids, this will be the most difficult step. Be prepared to give them a major reward for trying the food, especially the first time they do it!
This is also the most difficult step for many parents because it may seem counterintuitive to allow your child to spit out the food. The main reason for this that knowing that they can spit it out makes children much more likely to try them. The good news is that more often than not, they wind up realizing the food actually tastes good and they don’t spit it out! You don’t want to repeat this step too many times for the same food! This step is meant to be a transition to step 5. You don’t want to spend a lot of time on it. It is just an option the first few times a child tries a new food. Keep in mind, there may be some food your child just doesn’t like!
Step 5: Require Your Child to Eat the Food
Once your child has completed the prior four steps, they are ready to eat the food! If they are still a little bit apprehensive, there are things you can do to make mealtime less stressful. My recommendation is to allow them a bit of a favorite food for every few bites when eating a challenging food. Or, if you are comfortable with it, allow them to bring a toy or watch a video during dinner as long as they are eating or you can use a token board and allow them to watch a video or play with their toys after a few bites. However, typically, the key is getting kids to try foods! Usually, once they try them, they realize they actually like them!
Congratulations! Your child is about to start school. It is exciting, but it can also be scary. Sending any child to school for the first time is hard for any parent, sending a child with special needs to school, especially one that has a difficult time communicating can be even scarier.
Fortunately, there are things that you can do to make the transition easier for you and your child. Here are my best 10 tips.
Tip 1–Prepare Your Child Ahead of Time
Many children with Autism fear change. The good news is that once school starts, the consistent structure and schedule will be wonderful for you child. However, while it is new, the change in routine can be challenging for many kids to cope with. This is compounded by the fact that children who are starting school for the first time might not fully understand what is going on and what to expect.
There are some things you can do to help ease your child’s anxiety by preparing them ahead of time.
For a few weeks before school expose them to books and videos about school. Talk to them frequently about starting school using language they can understand. Even if it seems like your child may not fully understand the books or videos, show them to them anyway. At the very least, they will create visual associations that could ease their comfort in a new environment.
Use social stories to help prepare your child to understand that he will start school. Social stories are short stories that are designed to teach a child how to act in a social situation. They were researched and developed by Dr. Carol Gray in 1993 and since then, dozens of studies have demonstrated their effectiveness. I use them all the time in my private practice working with families like yours.
Countdown the days until school with your child. Cross off the days until school on a calendar to provide a visual countdown for your child. This will help make sure they know exactly what to expect .
Tip 2–Know the Goals on Your Child’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP)
I am going to be real for a minute. You may not like what I have to say but it is true. Your child’s teacher is being handed a stack of IEPs for each and every one of their students. They are long, lengthy legal documents that generate verbose and confusing text that all sounds the same. It is not likely many teachers will read it and actually use it to develop your child’s education program. The more you as a parent know about your child’s IEP, the better they will do in school.
Know what your child’s goals are. Ask the teacher what they are working on and make sure the lessons they choose, address the goals you agreed upon at your child’s IEP meeting. If you haven’t already, make sure you participate in the creation of those goals! Know what support services your child is supposed to receive. Make sure if your child is supposed to be pulled out of the classroom for services such as speech therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy, that those sessions are actually happening as opposed to the therapists being used as an extra set of hands to pass out snack.
Most often, teachers like myself who work with kids with Autism do it because they are really passionate about helping kids but unfortunately this isn’t always true. You are your child’s best advocate and it is ultimately up to you to make sure their needs are being met. Knowing your child’s IEP will help you to have informed conversations with your child’s teachers and ensure they are aware of his goals.
Tip 3— Take a Tour of The School
Ideally, the first time a child visits their new school and classroom shouldn’t be the first day of school. While every school has different policies, most schools are very accommodating and will let you and your child visit. Sometimes they will even let your child spend part of a day in his future classroom.
Many times, children with Autism will attend contained classrooms that have children in a fairly broad age range. This means that when they enter school, they will likely see some familiar faces. It will also give your child a chance to get comfortable with their new teacher.
Some people think that children with Autism are not interested in people and as a result, they skip this step. This is simply not true. The fact that children with Autism struggle with knowing how to act in social situations does not mean they don’t desire to create bonds with others. Whether or not they are able to express it, they know the difference between friends and strangers and receive the same comfort we do by seeing a familiar face.
Tip 4— Create a Visual Schedule for Your Child
Children with Autism are visual learners. As a result, schedules are very helpful in knowing what to expect. Most children have difficulty with transitions because they do not know what will happen before or after an activity. Creating a schedule will show them what happens before and after school. This will make them far more comfortable about going to school and will ease their anxiety about coming home.
Ideally, put something your child enjoys on the schedule right after school such as eating a favorite snack, going to a fun place or time to play with their favorite toy. This will motivate them and give them something fun to think about.
Tip 5— Make Sure Your Teacher is Aware of Your Child’s Sensory Needs and Send in Sensory Toys
Sensory behaviors are part of Autism. These behaviors, technically called stereotypy, can include hand flapping, mouthing objects, spinning car wheels, lining things up, watching parts of a video repetitively, fixating on one toy, holding things in their hands, rubbing their feet on people and countless other behaviors. Make your teacher aware of what your child’s sensory behaviors are and send in any toys that will help them be more comfortable and focus in school.
For example, if your child uses a chew tube at home because they mouth objects, send it in! It is important your child has it in school. If your child will drink from one specific cup, send it in! If using sensory balls helps your child focus, pack them! Send whatever you think will help your child be more comfortable and successful. Many parents choose not to send things in because they are afraid teachers will judge them or limit access to them. But, most teachers are grateful to have something that works for your child.
Tip 6–Make Sure Teachers and Support Staff Know about Special Accommodations like an Alternative Augmentative Communication (AAC) System.
Many children with Autism will have received some type of service such as early intervention, speech or applied behavior analysis before starting school. This almost always includes the development of an AAC system. An AAC system is a way for a child to communicate while they are learning to talk. This could include a picture board, a formal program such as Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) or a voice output system such as a Dynabox or iPad app like Poloquo2go. Make sure to send this in and make sure that you child’s teacher is trained on how to use it.
Insist your child be allowed to have access to his communication system all of the time. This is your child’s way of communicating. Taking it away, even putting it out of your child’s reach for a few moments to make more room on the table for and art project or snack is equivalent to putting a hand over your child’s mouth so they cannot speak. It is never ok.
Tip 7— Get The Same Toys the School Has Ahead of Time
Do your very best to find out what toys, puzzles and books will be in your child’s classroom. Get the same ones and teach him how to play with them. Most behavior problems occur in school when children do not know how to manage or occupy their downtime.
There is something to be said about kids liking toys that are new and different. That is true, but kids with Autism usually lack some play skills which means without being taught how to play with new toys, they may not be able to. This will result in them spending more time engaging in sensory behaviors or having tantrums. It is better to make sure they at least know what to do with the toys that will be in their classroom.
Tip 8— Take Advantage of Community Programs to Practice School Skills
If your child is new to school they may be new to group activities like circle time and art projects. Do everything you can to make sure your child has lots of practice before school starts and school is not your child’s first exposure. They will likely need a lot of practice before they know how to sit and participate. Almost every public library in the nation has a circle time. Call your town’s library and the library in the towns surrounding you and bring your child to as many of them as possible. This is one of the best ways to prepare your child for school activities.
Tip 9— Send in Your Child’s Reinforcers
Most children with Autism will receive some form of applied behavior analysis (ABA) in the classroom. ABA works by giving your child reinforcers or rewards when they engage in a desired behavior. It helps to show them what a correct response is and know what is expected of them.
Many times children with Autism are picky and only like a few things. I don’t need to tell you that! How many times have you bought new foods or toys that your child has rejected? It may be really hard for your teacher to find something your child really enjoys. The more motivating a reinforcer is, the more a child will learn, this is always true. One of the best ways you can help your child learn more effectively at school is to send in what reinforcers have worked at home.
Tip 10— Ensure Your Child Has Identification
Every parent’s biggest fear is that their child does not talk and that there is a possibility that they will wander out of a classroom. I would love to tell you that could never happen but we are all too keenly aware from watching the news that it does.
If your child wanders, make sure his teachers know and fight to get him a 1:1 aid. If your child cannot communicate his name, your name and your phone number, make sure they are always wearing an identification bracelet. It should identify that they have Autism, their name, your name and your phone number.
Some parents fear this will stigmatize their child or that they will have a difficult time keeping them on. These two things may be true but it will help keep them safe and that is the most important thing.
It is my hope and prayer these ten tips ease your fears about sending your child to school. School will be a fun and safe place for your child. He will learn, grow and explore at a whole new level and you will watch him blossom before your eyes.
As a therapist, I can only imagine what it is like to send a child that can’t speak for themselves to school. But, what I can promise you, is if you follow these ten tips, you can be their voice.
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