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Featuring articles from our principal Occupational Therapist, Dr Nicole Grant, members of the therapy team, and guest posts from members of our community.  

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6 Tips for Making a Comfortable Bedroom for Children with Autism

A Guest Post by:

Lillian Brooks

lillian@learningdisabilities.info

LearningDisabilities.info was created to offer information and understanding to parents of children with learning disabilities, as well as adults who are in need of continued support to succeed.

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 Light, noise, and other kinds of sensory activity are often more intense for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Sensory sensitivity, which many children with ASD experience, means that various stimuli in their environments can cause discomfort, pain, and irritation. As a parent, you want to do what you can to mitigate these effects, and your child’s bedroom should be the first place in your home that receives attention. With that in mind, here are six tips for making a comfortable and safe bedroom for children with ASD.

 Declutter

 The first part of designing your child’s bedroom will be to declutter it. If you’re like most parents, you’re no stranger to toys and games being scattered around your home, and your child’s bedroom is probably no exception. It’s important to bring some order to the room in which your child will begin and end each day. If you seem to have too many items and too little space, look into attractive storage solutions (e.g., bins, stackable drawers, baskets) and label them.

 

Rearrange

 After decluttering, consider the arrangement of the room. It’s important that it accommodates sleeping, playing, and learning. One of the best layouts for these purposes is to place all the furniture along the walls so that there is space in the middle of the room for your child to play or do homework. If the room is large enough, you can even create zones for different activities.

 

Move It Outside

 While you’re making changes in your child’s bedroom, remember that you don’t have to fit all of their activities inside. It’s good for children to play outside, and for a child with ASD, the backyard is a great place for them to have fun. No one wants to be cooped up all the time, and the extra space of a backyard benefits their development allows them to explore. There are many sensory play activities for the outdoors, such as swinging, toy car washing, nature observation, and drawing with washable paint or chalk.

 

Change the Lights

 Light is one of the elements that can most affect children with ASD. For many children with ASD, fluorescent lighting is bothersome and triggering. This is because they can sense the minute flickering and low-buzz of fluorescent light bulbs, which doesn’t affect people without autism. For your child’s bedroom, consider putting in more consistent lighting, such as full spectrum and/or incandescent light bulbs. Furthermore, adding blackout shades can soften the outdoor light that shines through the bedroom.

 

Choose Soothing Colours

 The colours of the bedroom walls also play a role in creating a productive and restful atmosphere. Neutral tones like beige and grey are hard to beat because they are the least distracting and can accommodate other design elements. If you want something that inspires productivity but is still calming and relaxing, consider pale shades of blue, green, pink, or purple.

 

Block the Noise

 Along with lighting and colours, it’s important to take steps to minimize outdoor noise in your child’s bedroom. A passing train, barking dogs in the neighbourhood, or foot traffic in a nearby hallway can hinder their focus, disrupt their sleep, or severely agitate them. Here are a few additions that can mute extraneous noise in your child’s bedroom.

 

●      High-piled carpet

●      Rugs

●      Acoustic wall paneling

●      Thick curtains

 

If your child has ASD, it’s important to make sure their bedroom is a productive and restful environment. Start by decluttering and organising, consider changing the layout of the room, and remember that you can designate many activities for the backyard. Also, address any lighting, colour, and noise issues to accommodate your child’s sensory sensitivity. A comfortable and safe bedroom is critical for children with ASD, and taking steps can help you get there.

 

Photo Credit: Pexels

 

Task cards for assignment completion

A common challenge for older primary and high school age children is getting assignments submitted on time. Assignments can seem daunting for kids who struggle with time management and organisation skills. Often getting started is the hardest part. These Foldable Task Cards are a great strategy to help with planning assignments, and to help kids keep on track. Here’s how!

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SET UP

Step 1.

Fold a coloured piece of A4 card in half lengthways, and cut along the line.

Step 2.

Fold the long strip in half, and then each half into thirds. You should end up with 6 sections in total.

Step 3.

In the 1st section, write the heading - ‘Warm Up’. In the last section, write the heading ‘Reward’.

Step 4.

Draw a line across the entire bottom of the strip using a ruler.

Now it’s time to enter the details!

TASK PLANNING

The Warm Up

In the first section, we write a quick activity that is fun, but helps the child to get ready for desk work. Ideal warm up tasks will get hands ready for writing/ typing and brains ready for thinking. Students should have a say in their preference for warm up activities as this task needs to be very motivating. Ideas include:

  • Colouring mandalas

  • Crossword or word search

  • Advanced dot to dots

  • Type an email to a friend

  • Read a few pages of a book

The warm up task needs to be done at the desk or workspace and be quick to prepare and pack up.

The Reward

Everyone is motivated by something. The idea of the reward is to provide motivation for task completion and is an incentive to get the assignment started. Rewards can be longer, and can be completely unrelated to the project being completed. The Reward can be desk based, or outside, or can be a treat, food item, or game. Whatever is highly motivating for your child.

Timing

The bottom of the strip is used to set time limits for each stage of the task. It’s important that the student is realistic about how much time is required for each step. The time serves as as reminder to keep students on task and moving along. This is particularly helpful for kids who get stuck on one task.

TIP: If the assignment is a big one, tape two strips side by side so that there is 12 sections in total. This will give you 10 spaces for steps. Longer strips can still be folded.

Breaking Down and Writing the Steps

It is important that your child is involved in the process at all stages of making these task cards, however at this stage it is particularly crucial. This is where you read the project, homework or assignment requirements and decide a) what each step is, and b) how long each step will realistically take.

This process is also a learning opportunity as the student is required to work out the key pieces of information and what is actually required from them to be successful. Each section can have a few smaller steps, but the order of steps should make sense. Once again, it is important to be realistic about what can be achieved in the time you are allocating. Editing and checking work can be time consuming, but it is important to allow time for this.

Why this works

  • Coloured card is more eye catching, and creating a different shape to the usual A4 sized work sheets is visually different, and therefore a bit more interesting for the student.

  • Creating the task cards is a kinaesthetic activity, activating lots of different parts of the brain

  • The shape of the strip provides a prompt for the student to work systematically through each step towards the end point - the Reward

  • The strip is 3 dimensional when folded and provides a nice tactile experience for the student.

  • It can be folded in a number of different ways so that only 1 task is present at a time, which is important for those kids who get overwhelmed by too much information.

  • The cards are highly portable, and can be inserted into pockets on a wall calendar, or used as a bookmark.

Why don’t you try this for next term’s assignment tasks? If your child is struggling with getting work started or completed on time, an Occupational Therapist can assist.

Using visual aids to improve behaviour

Just like learning to eat solid foods, crawl, and hold a spoon, language and communication skills also take time to develop. For children with developmental delays and neurodevelopmental conditions such as autism, it can take even longer. A child’s poor ability to communicate and express wants and needs often goes hand in hand with tantrums and other challenging behaviours. It takes time to develop the full range of communication skills, and there are many!

Communication is a two-way exchange of information between two or more people. Good communication relies on all people involved having the ability to get a point across, receive and understand the message, interpret body language, and respond in a timely manner. Communication breaks down when there is an inability for either the communicator or the receiver to understand and/ or respond to what is being communicated.

For children with poor verbal communication skills, life can be frustrating. They can have lots of difficulty having their wants and needs met because they cannot find the words they need, or may have the words, but not the ability to produce the speech sounds. They might have an auditory delay which means they miss important information, or find it hard to keep up with conversation. They may lack the vocabulary to talk about the things they are interested in. They may not have the ability to understand directions, or interpret tone, or even pin point where auditory information is coming from. Body language and facial expressions can be confusing. Add to the mix a bit of distraction, classroom noise, and high anxiety, and communication becomes even more challenging.

It is very common to see challenging behaviours from kids who have poor communication skills. We can help to minimise the severity and frequency of these behaviours by making communication easier. By addressing the underlying cause of the behaviour, we are more likely to see the behaviour disappear.

Visual aids are one way we can help to improve behaviour by addressing the underlying issue, which is frustration caused by communication difficulties. Visual aids introduce an alternative, and sometimes easier, form of communication. Some kids with auditory delays find it easier to communicate using visual input, and are more motivated by images, pictures, and other graphics.

Visual aids can be things like schedules, checklists, images, pictures, PECS, and charts, as well as stories, cartoons and other graphics that show the child what is expected and/ or gives the child a choice of things from which to choose. Visual aids can show the order of events to eliminate anxiety caused by uncertainty. Visual aids can give kids the words they need to show you what they are thinking. Charts and graphs can provide a visual reminder of progress, which can be very motivating for some kids, especially those with autism.

The keys points on this topic are:

  • if you are having difficulty with a challenging behaviour, anger, aggression, or other concern, think about whether your child is having difficulty communicating something to you

  • Help your child to communicate by introducing visual aids

  • Talk to your speech therapist or occupational therapist to find out the best way to introduce visual aids

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Homework Organisation - Tips from an OT

At the beginning of a brand new school year, it’s a good idea to set aside some time to think about how homework will be tackled. Homework can be a source of anxiety for many of our kids. it can be perceived as boring and pointless. It can also cut into valuable free time after school, so no wonder the mere mention of homework can be a source of angst for both child and parent alike. Homework can be a POSITIVE EXPERIENCE however, with a bit of advance prep.

Here’s a few small ways you can prepare for a year of fuss free (or at least tolerable!) homework:

1. Set a realistic and age appropriate homework schedule. For young kids, aim for 10 minutes per day of good quality work rather than pushing for 30 minutes of laboured work. Kids have short attention spans in the early years. 

Also, pick your timing. Just before bed is unlikely to be the time your child will be at their best. 

2. Have the right tools for the job. Have a dedicated pencil case with everything you need so you are ready to go. This pencil case is for homework only and can be filled with the fun, sparkly stationery that is used only for special occasions, like homework.

3. Have a clear, dedicated workspace. This can be the table, a desk or kitchen bench. A space should be clear at all times, so that when it’s homework time there are no excuses for delaying getting started. 

4. Make sure your child can sit comfortably. Check your child can reach the floor or a footrest. Swinging feet are distracting and make for an ineffective seated posture. Your child’s ability to concentrate will increase if they are seated comfortably.

5. Be prepared to offer gentle praise and encouragement, not pressure. Any effort should be acknowledged. Bribing, threatening and demanding work be done will only fuel resentment. 

7. Delegate subject areas to parents depending on strengths. Maths not your strong point? Handover aspects of homework supervision to your other half if they have an aptitude for a subject area you're not great at. Forget about pride. Work out how each parent can best support their child's learning. It is both parents’ job to support their child’s educational development.

8. Have a dedicated in-tray for new work. Keep homework in a prominent place so that you are reminded to do a bit each day. Include homework in YOUR schedule and add it to your diary to give it significance. 

9. Be prepared to talk to the teacher. If you are concerned about the type or amount of homework your child is receiving, talk to their teacher. They might have some tips or make changes based on the collective feedback of the group. Also be prepared to say no to homework if your child’s homework load is simply too much for them.

If your child is resistant to homework ongoing, consider consulting with an occupational therapist. We can assist with determining the reason for homework refusal, such as biomechanical challenges (poor pencil grasp, poor posture), poor understanding of concepts, reduced attention/ concentration, fatigue, anxiety and more. Call us today on 3398 9367 to discuss further.


Meltdown vs Tantrum: How can you tell the difference?

What is the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown?

 Do you know the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown? You might be thinking – Of course I do! Only kids with autism have meltdowns. Every other child screaming in the shopping centre is just throwing a tantrum, right?

Wrong.

 Children with autism are certainly more prone to meltdowns, however every child (and adult for that matter) can experience a meltdown if the conditions are right (or wrong!).

 Whether your child has an autism diagnosis or not, it’s still important to know the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown, so you know how to respond accordingly.

 A meltdown is usually caused by a build up of sensory stimulus that becomes so overwhelming, it is hard to stay calm and in control. Children with autism and sensory processing disorders often become overwhelmed by sensory input (e.g. bright lights, loud noises, crowds etc.) and will experience a meltdown when they are no longer able to tolerate the amount or type of input they are receiving. A meltdown can also occur when emotions and feelings become overwhelming. This can happen to anyone, although it is more likely to occur if you have autism or other neurodevelopmental disorder. If your child experiences frequent meltdowns, without any apparent cause, it’s best to consult with your child’s general practitioner or paediatrician.

 A tantrum is usually caused by a child not getting what they want, being asked to do something they don’t want to do, or having something done to them that they are not happy about. Younger kids that struggle to find the words to express how they feel are more likely to have a tantrum. It’s a very effective (although undesirable) way to let others know something is not right in your world!

 An essential difference between a meltdown and a tantrum is that a meltdown is quite uncontrollable. There is little a person can do when in full meltdown mode, so the strategies to be used are generally around preventing them where possible, and providing a safe place to desensitise when the need arises.

 A tantrum however, is deliberate and somewhat controlled. A child will very rarely throw a tantrum if an audience is not present, whereas a meltdown will occur regardless of whether or not there are others around.

 How can a tantrum be stopped?

 A tantrum can be managed in a few different ways:

a)    By ignoring your child until they realise that you are not giving in,

b)    Giving them what they want (although not recommended!), or

c)    Redirecting/ distracting them.

 a) and c) are the better choices. It’s always important to let a child know that you have heard and understood them, but that a tantrum is not the way to express their wants and needs. As children learn to find the words they need, and self-manage their anger, frustration, and other challenging emotions, they should tantrum less. Parenting young children requires lots of patience!

 Detecting a meltdown

 It’s not always easy to anticipate a meltdown, but your child will have specific triggers and usually show signs when they are reaching their point of tolerance. Some children with autism will exhibit stimming (stimulatory) behaviours to try to over-ride or screen out the offending stimulus. This may look like rocking, flapping hands, humming or singing, covering ears, pinching or other self-harm, and other repetitive behaviours. These are not usually signs of an impending tantrum. Stimming does not always mean a meltdown is looming, so you will need to learn to read your child.

 How can I manage a meltdown?

 A child experiencing a meltdown will generally not benefit from the same behaviour management strategies that you use with tantrums. They instead need to be given time to recover from whatever sensory stimulus has affected them.

 If you have a child that is prone to meltdowns, try and work out their triggers. Over time you may learn to anticipate a meltdown and avoid it before it happens. Here are some things that may help your child to avoid a meltdown:

Bright lights and screen glare?

Try Sunglasses, Cap, Screen filters, Dim brightness on screens, monitors and devices, Retreat to a darkened room

 Too much noise?

Try listening to music through ear phones, ear plugs, pull down beanie over ears, wear a head band that covers the ears, retreat to a quiet place

 Too many people and lack of personal space?

Try having a tent or tepee nearby to hide in, spend time in a darkened room, wear Emotichew to let people know you’re not ready to talk, wear a hoodie to create a physical barrier

 Too much energy and excitement/ over stimulated?

Try jumping on a trampoline, heavy work activities like hanging off monkey bars or wall push-ups, chewy jewellery to chew on.

 If you have any concerns about your child’s behaviour, an Occupational Therapist can help. Call us today on 3398 9367 to discuss how the Gateway Therapies team can help.

(Article originally published in Families Mag)