Friday 9 December 2016

Supporting Children With Autism Access Christmas Lunch At School

In addition to the hustle and bustle of daily life at school, Christmas throws up many confusing challenges for our kids including plays/ parties/ changes to routine and Christmas Dinners. All of which take its toll on sensitive nervous systems, and can lead to an increase in stress and anxiety for children with Autism and additional needs in school. This can also have a direct impact at home as lots of children reflect all their anxiety inwards until they reach home and explode.

There are several things that we can do as teachers to help our children not only access, but enjoy these activities, and today I will focus on the Christmas Lunch that happens in most primary schools up and down the country at this time of year.

Many children on the spectrum have complex issues with food and eating in front of people can be a real trigger for anxiety....but they desperately want to join in and in particular girls often won't want to appear to be different to their friends. Some kids won't be fussed at all and may not even notice the festivities going on around them and that's fine too. We shouldn't project our own views of what they should enjoy onto them, ideally we should follow their lead and accept their differences.
This leads to true inclusion.

No two children are the same and there are so many variables that can affect our children's ability to cope from any given moment throughout the day. This can cause issues; as what a child can cope with one day may be just a step too far the next day, and we cant always work out why. But by really looking at what each child's body language/ gesture/ facial expression and behaviour is telling us, we can attempt to support children to access things at school with less anxiety for them.

So here are a few simple things to look out for and consider if you have a child with Autism in your class and you have to support them access a whole school event like Christmas Lunch....

  • Talk to the parents, they know their child best and will be able to make some very valuable suggestions that could make the difference between a child joining in or not.

  • Children may want to bring their own cutlery from home.

  • Some children may be unable to use a knife and fork and be embarrassed about their friends seeing this. Maybe their food come come pre cut?

  • Consider seating, this could be a stressful unknown element for some children. So seating plans/ name cards/ own place-mats etc. are all ideas that reduce the uncertainty.

  • Noise will probably an issue. Ear defenders can help some children, and for others the discreet option of placing them at the table near the doorway can help with reducing the level of noise.

  • Let the child see the playlist of music that will be in the background.

  • Lots of children don't like food touching/certain ways things are cooked etc, again this can be discussed with the parents, and their own food brought in and eaten if that would help them access sitting with their peers.

  • Give them a 'get out'. So that with no fuss if things begin to overwhelm them, they have permission to leave without having to ask. A time out card works well for this. 

  • Preparation, preparation, preparation is the key... social stories are really useful to talk through what will happen.

  • Visual support can help children making food choices as processing language becomes harder for our kids at times of anxiety.

  • Consider having themed tables? This would work well for a child that has a special interest and could motivate them to join in if they are at their favourite characters table.

  • Making a place mat with visuals of the food they child will eat can help them prepare for the meal, and allow them to make the choices of the foods they do and don't like beforehand so there are no surprises.

  • Let them take a fiddle toy/comforter in with them if that helps and explain that to them in a social story.

  • Weighted jackets can help children regulate their nervous system and can help children feel calm. There are lost of discreet products available.

  • Ensure all the information is written down and a copy sent home, as children can often fret the night before. And if parents don't have the information to hand it can escalate to a full on meltdown that is often anxiety driven.

  • If they are going to be wearing paper hats, consider the possibility that this could be uncomfortable for some children. So not wearing one at all could be discussed and accepted if that's what works. Or they could make their own hat beforehand?

  • Crackers on the table can have loud bangers In them which could be enough to make a child not want to join in. but be unable to say.

  • And finally consider the activities that occur before the Christmas Lunch. Its quite likely the child with Autism will be very anxious about it all morning. They may not have slept well, they may have been unable to eat breakfast, and some kids show their anxiety by refusing to do things and shutting down. So consider keeping things calm leading up to the Christmas Lunch and view all behaviour as the child communicating to you how they feel.
I hope some of the ideas that I have suggested may help, and remember no two kids are ever the same so follow their lead, accept their differences and talk to the parents as they really want to help.
And have a lovely festive season!
Mrs M 

(Mrs M has 20 years working in the Childcare and Education Sector, and spent many years working as a Specialist Autism HLTA in a Resourced Provision, as well as being a mum to three kids one of whom  has a diagnosis of Autism.)

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