Making the holidays successful for children with Autism (and the family too!)

With the festive season and end-of-year celebrations almost behind us, the prospect of surviving the next 4 weeks of holidays with the kids can be daunting, especially for parents of children with Autism.

Days spent at home, visits with friends and family, day trips and special activities are a potential minefield for children on the spectrum, many of whom rely on the day to day routine of school or kinder to bring some order and predictability to their lives.

So how can we support our kids with Autism to get the most out of their holidays, as well as accommodating the wishes of siblings and staying sane ourselves? Here are a few tips that may help.

Keep a routine

Creating some structure in an otherwise unstructured day can go a long way to minimizing the anxiety that holidays can elicit in children with Autism. While some children manage well with the changes that holidays bring, for other children it can be extremely unsettling. If your child needs the security of routines, keeping the morning routine the same each day (e.g. get up, have breakfast, brush teeth, get dressed) can be a great way to start. This doesn’t have to happen in a rush, like it might do during the school term, but the familiarity of following a routine and knowing what needs to happen next can be a great source of comfort. Alternatively, you may want to try introducing some new holiday routines like staying in your pajamas until lunch time, and this can be a lot of fun. The key here is to let your child with Autism know what is happening and what to expect, so they are not anxious about the unexpected.

 Use visuals

Regardless of a child’s level of language, visuals can be a powerful way of supporting a child with Autism to understand what is happening in their day and what to expect. Whether it is using a picture schedule to communicate the activities of the day, creating a social story to illustrate what a visit to the zoo will look like, planning out the week on a calendar, or writing a list of important dates and events coming up, visuals are a fantastic tool that can be used to reduce a child’s anxiety about changes in routine and activities that are new or unfamiliar.

Provide activity ideas

For many children with Autism, coming up with ideas of what to do to keep themselves occupied (besides the iPad or computer) can be challenging, resulting in a chorus of “I’m bored” that can drive any parent crazy. Surprisingly, this isn’t necessarily about a child being difficult, but more often a sign that their skills in generating ideas and imagining possibilities are delayed and that they need a bit of support. Spend some time brainstorming possible activities that your child can do at home either unsupervised or with your supervision (and get them involved in the process if you can), then create a visual board or list of all the possibilities that your child can refer to when they cannot think of what to do. You can add or remove activities depending on your availability and the day’s events, and to keep things interesting. For example, you may have ‘cooking with Mum’ on the list one day, but take it off and replace it with ‘water play outside’ on a day when cooking is not convenient. Making sure the equipment or toys needed for each activity are readily available will also make it easier for your child to be independent in their choices and play.

Schedule in ‘down-time’

Even for children and adults that love to socialize, and many children with Autism definitely do, being with other people and in different environments can be emotionally and physically exhausting. It takes a lot of energy to pay attention to everything that is going on around you, process sensory information, make sure you are behaving appropriately, predict what other people might do or say and engage in the activities being offered or conversations that are occurring. When you consider all these factors, it is little wonder that children with Autism are often ‘burned out’ after social interactions or may go into meltdown afterwards as a result. To support your child to manage the demands of these events, deliberately scheduling in some down-time at home can make a big difference. For example, spending the day at home after a big outing watching DVDs, building Lego or playing with water, whatever is calming for your child, will give them the time they need to recharge ready for the next adventure, and hopefully give you some time to recharge your batteries too.

Have realistic expectations

As parents, the holidays are often the time when we want to make opportunities for special outings and creating family memories, and we can become disappointed when our child with Autism ‘ruins’ our plans. I have found that this is usually more a reflection of us having unrealistic expectations of our child’s behavior than it is about the child themselves. While an event may be special to us, that doesn’t mean that a child is suddenly going to be able to manage their anxiety, behaviour and emotions any better than they would on a typical day. Consider what you can do to support your child to manage the best they can by preparing them for where you are going and what will happen while they are there, and be open to your child experiencing the event differently to you. While you may want him or her to enjoy the atmosphere and join in, it might be enough to expect that they are there with you but sitting quietly on their iPad with their headphones in because that is all they can manage right now. That does not mean that your child will never be able to participate more in the future – it just means that your expectations need to match your child’s abilities right now.

Set them up for success

In keeping with the idea of having realistic expectations, sometimes we inadvertently set our children up to fail by not recognizing their limits and pushing them too far. I am not saying that we shouldn’t help our children step outside their comfort zones – I think that is extremely important. What I am saying is that sometimes we do it too hard or too fast, and then get upset when our children don’t manage. For example, if you know that your child can only manage 30 minutes at a shopping centre before becoming distressed, planning a 3 hour clothes shopping marathon with them is going to end in disaster. Knowing your child’s limits and planning around them means that you might only attend an event or activity for a short amount of time, but have a successful and happy experience being there, instead of trying to make them be part of something they can’t manage, and everyone ending up upset because it didn’t turn out the way you wanted. Planning in this way can be particularly difficult when you feel like siblings are missing out because you have to cater to your child with Autism’s needs, but this can often be accommodated by having a parent or carer leave with your child with ASD, while the other parent or carer stays with the sibling, or enlisting the help of friends and extended family. While this may not always be ideal, the more positive experiences your child with Autism has in different environments, the more likely it is that they will develop the skills they need to participate more and for longer in the future.

Know your child’s signs of stress

As a parent, you know your child better than anyone else, and sometimes even better than they know themselves. For many children with Autism, understanding and regulating emotions can be extremely challenging and the cause of a lot of confusion. Although a child may have difficulty identifying when they are becoming stressed or overwhelmed, they often demonstrate behaviours that tell us how they are feeling, and if we pay attention we may be able to intervene before they get to boiling point. If you notice signs that your child is getting stressed, taking action immediately will be most effective. This may mean taking the child to a quiet area away from others, going for a short walk, or having a big cuddle. It can also be useful to have a ‘bag of tricks’ with you that includes some snacks, a favourite toy, some sensory objects, and maybe a phone or iPad, anything you know will help your child calm down and regulate their emotions and behavior better. Hopefully, if you get in early, your child will be able to calm and then get on with whatever it is they were doing. In helping them reset and calm down, you are teaching them a valuable lesson in recognizing their emotions and that taking action can help them feel better.

Have a contingency plan (just in case!)

While I would love to tell you that following all these tips will mean the holidays will go without a hitch, that is not the reality. Even the best laid plans can fall apart, and when you have a child with Autism, you never really know if or when the wheels will fall off. If, after all your careful planning and preparation, you child struggles to manage their behaviour or goes into meltdown, it is important to know what you are going to do. Planning how you will respond beforehand gives you the time and energy to consider all your options, decide on the best response, and be prepared to jump into action with confidence if the need arises. The more calm and in control you are, the better your child will respond, and the sooner you can resolve the situation. Depending on where you are and what you are doing, your plan might be to take you child to a quiet room to calm, or you might have no option but to pack up and go home as quickly as you can. Whatever your plan, don’t be afraid to stick to it regardless of the opinions of others. In a calm moment later on you can reflect on what worked and what didn’t, and change your plan for next time if you need to.

Although the holidays can be a challenging time for children with Autism, they can also be a wonderful opportunity to rest and recharge, have new experiences and make new memories. Whatever your plans for the holidays are, I hope you have a safe and happy time with your families.

Is Play Therapy the missing link in supporting children with PDA?

I recently had a ‘light bulb’ moment while attending a Play Therapy Workshop at Deakin University. It was the kind of moment where something makes so much sense that you can’t understand how you didn’t see it sooner and why someone else isn’t already talking about it.

I was listening to two fantastic speakers talk about the importance of play for development and how children who may have missed going through developmental stages, perhaps due to trauma or disability, are likely to have ongoing social-emotional problems. The good news was that these children can often be taught the play skills they have missed to assist them to make progress in their social-emotional skills.

Then they introduced the idea of Non-Directive Play Therapy, a type of play therapy in which the child is given the opportunity to be fully autonomous in the session and choose whatever they want to do, while the therapist supports and engages them on the child’s terms – no questions, no demands, no direction. This type of play therapy allows the child to explore their innermost thoughts and feelings through play in a safe, secure environment with a trusted adult, and can lead to significant improvements in emotional regulation, social skills and relationships outside the therapy room.

Then the penny dropped – I know a number of children who have uneven development, have social-emotional difficulties and don’t cope with demands! They are my clients with Pathological Demand Avoidance.

Then I wondered – Could Non-Directive Play Therapy be the next step in supporting my clients with PDA?

It seems logical that a therapy that allows a child to be fully in control and free of demands would be perfect for children who are hardwired to avoid demands at all cost.

One of the most notable things I have found when working with these beautiful children is that they can become really good at understanding anxiety and emotional regulation, and knowing what they should do to appropriately manage their behavior, but they are so dysregulated and heightened that they just can’t access that information to manage their anxiety when they need to. It really makes sense to me that supporting children with PDA to process their emotions and experiences in an indirect way and in a non-threatening environment could be an effective way to assist these children to bring their social-emotional development to a level where they can consolidate it with their knowledge and make positive changes.

Obviously all children are different, and one therapy is not likely to work with all children, but learning about Non-Directive Play Therapy has given me hope that this is another tool we can used to reach a group of children that are notoriously difficult to engage.

I have decided to embark on my own adventure to further my knowledge and expertise in Play Therapy, and have enrolled in the Master of Child Play Therapy at Deakin University. My hope is to conduct my research project on “Non-Directive Play Therapy and PDA”, and to be able to share my findings with families and professionals to increase understanding and supports for the PDA community.

In the meantime, I am happy to be able to support my clients with PDA and their families, and to continue to learn from them as the real experts in the field.

If you or anyone you know has experience with Play therapy and PDA, I would love to hear from you. You can contact me at

A Note about Pathological Demand Avoidance:

For those of you that haven’t heard about PDA, it is considered to be a subtype of Autism Spectrum Disorder characterised by extreme levels of anxiety which result in resistance and avoidance of demands. You can read more about PDA here:


Removing the word ‘should’ from our vocabulary when it comes to our kids.

He should be able to pack his bag on his own.

She should know not to jump on the couch.

I shouldn’t have to tell him to get dressed in the morning.

We change over readers every day, she should just do it when she comes into class.

He should know better than to throw things when he is angry.


Do these comments sound familiar?

I think parents and teachers everywhere can relate to the frustration of having a child that just won’t do what we think they are capable of doing. But why aren’t they consistent with what they can do? And why does it bother us so much?

While it is important to have expectations of our kids, to challenge them and teach them to be responsible and independent as they get older, we seem to be in a hurry for children to grow up and do things for themselves. Then we become upset or disappointed when they don’t meet our expectations.

Don’t get me wrong. There are certainly some skills where we seem to be more open to accepting mistakes and setbacks. Toilet training is one of these skills. When a child is learning to use the toilet, we expect that there are going to be accidents while they learn to recognise the signs that they need to go, and get to the toilet on time, as well as mastering associated skills such as being able to pull their pants up and down and using the tap to wash their hands. We even expect that after they are reliably trained, there might still be the occasional accident, and that’s alright.

Why, then, do we not expect children to make mistakes and have setbacks with their other skills and behavior? And why do we often view those setbacks as deliberate actions rather than unintentional errors? Just because a child has shown us they can do something, doesn’t mean that they can do it successfully all the time.

When we get caught up in what a child should be doing, we lose sight of what they are telling us they need. Instead of becoming frustrated, we can be curious about what we can do to help a child succeed. We can still encourage a child to do things for themselves, and ask them to complete tasks independently, but not keep expecting them to do something because we think they should be able to do it, especially when they consistently struggle.

Being more flexible with our expectations of what our children can do on any given day, and focusing on how to help them rather than on what they should be doing, doesn’t just help our children, it gives us permission to do what we need to do to make things easier for everyone instead of feeling the need to teach a lesson or prove a point.  For example, if you are encouraging your child to be independent in getting dressed for school and you know they have the skills to do it, but they are always getting distracted in the mornings and making everyone late for school, you could put aside a few minutes to be with them and help them get dressed quickly instead of getting frustrated with them every day for taking too long. This will help your child succeed in completing the task and relieve your frustration in them not getting it done quickly, making for a much calmer morning for everyone.

Here are my tips for letting go of the ‘shoulds’ and helping our children do the best they can:

Meet them where they are.

We know all children are different, but it is difficult not to compare when siblings and classmates are doing things that your child is not. Unfortunately, when we compare a child with others, we may develop expectations that are out of reach for an individual child. It is important to consider what skills your child has and what they can do right now, and use that as a starting point for further development. Supporting your child’s independence within their current capabilities helps build confidence, then you can support them to develop the skills necessary to continue to achieve.

Identify barriers to learning.

There are many factors that can impact on a child’s ability to acquire skills and be more independent as they grow. For children with diagnosed disabilities such as Autism and ADHD, common areas of difficulty are widely known and understood, and are more likely to be considered when forming expectations of behavior. However, typically developing children can have similar difficulties that may not be identified or acknowledged, leading to our expectations of behavior being unreasonable. Problems with executive functioning, emotional regulation, memory and sensory processing can all affect a child’s ability to complete tasks and manage their behavior appropriately. If we are aware of these difficulties, we can support children to overcome or accommodate them effectively.

Consider what is required for success.

How much help is too much? As adults we sometimes need help with tasks that we can usually complete on our own, and children are no different. When children show us they can do something on their own, like getting dressed, we are often then reluctant to give help because they should be able to continue doing it on their own. But there are many things that may impact a child’s ability to do things on any given day including tiredness, disinterest, illness, and distraction. Being aware of what assistance your child may need and putting these things in place, whether it be visual schedules, lists, rewards charts or physical assistance, and being willing to give more help when required, will support your child to develop their skills and be successful in their efforts.

Remember that children usually want to do the right thing.

It is my experience that children overwhelmingly have good hearts, and really do want to do the right thing, but they are not always good at making the right choices or controlling their behavior when they need to. For parents, this poor decision making or lack or impulse control can be easily interpreted as a child deliberately ignoring instructions or trying to upset you. However, children are more often concerned with their own needs instead and may not be able to consider their actions until it is too late. When we take a child’s behavior personally, we are bound to be disappointed and frustrated when they do not meet our expectations, and our children in turn may feel that they can never do anything right.

Accepting that our children will have setbacks and make mistakes, being there to support them when they do, and helping them find ways to do things better, does not mean that we don’t encourage them to develop independence and responsibility. It means that we adjust our expectations and acknowledge they are human and wonderfully imperfect just like us.

Executive Functioning Difficulties in Children and How To Help


Does this sound like your child?

  • They have difficulty getting ready for school in the morning?
  • They get distracted if you give them more than one instruction at a time?
  • They constantly lose things like school hats and notices?
  • They can’t stop themselves lashing out when frustrated?
  • They try to solve problems the same way every time, even though it doesn’t work.

If any of these things sound familiar, then your child may have difficulties with executive functioning.

The term ‘executive function’ is used to describe a group of skills that help us to regulate learning, emotions and behavior. These skills are commonly said to include organisation and planning, task initiation, response inhibition, working memory, emotional self-control, flexibility and focus, and are thought to be mainly under the control of the part of our brain called the frontal lobe which is involved in higher level thinking and processing.

Many children with conditions such as Autism, ADHD and learning disorders have deficits in executive functioning, but deficits can also be present in the wider population. These difficulties can have a big impact on their ability to complete everyday tasks and manage at home, school and out in the community.

If your child has impairments in one or more of these skills below, there will be many tasks they are expected to complete throughout their day that may prove difficult, leading to frustration in both themselves and the adults in their lives. The good news is that there are many things we can do to support children to manage their executive functioning challenges and improve their skills.

To understand why executive functions are important, let us first consider how each of these functions help us in our daily lives, along with some suggestions about how you might be able to support them.

Organisation and Planning
We use these skills to think ahead to situations or events and know what items we might need to prepare or take with us, consider what we need to complete tasks effectively, and keep our belongings in an ordered way so they are easy to locate and use when needed. A child with difficulties in these areas may continually forget to put their reader in their bag for school, struggle to gather the materials needed to be ready for a spelling test, or have a bedroom that always looks like a hurricane has just been through it.

How you can help your child with Organisation and Planning:

  • Use labels or pictures of items to indicate where they belong (eg. Labels on drawers for clothes, toys or school items).
  • Colour code materials for specific subjects at school.
  • Make checklists for items to go into your child’s schoolbag each day.
  • Use a visual schedule for the steps involved in getting dressed in the morning.
  • Provide an example of what the final product or a task will look like to assist with planning and expectations (e.g. a completed poster in science, or a photo of the bedroom with everything in its proper place).

Task Initiation
We use this skill to understand how to begin or get started on a task such as writing an essay, cleaning up the toy room or getting dressed, and to physically engage in that task. A child with difficulties initiating tasks may still be standing staring at the toys on the floor 15 minutes after you asked them to pack up, or spend all of their literacy block staring at a blank page because they’re stuck on the first sentence of an essay.

How you can help your child with Task Initiation:

  • Use visual supports (e.g. pictures, timers) to indicate the start of a new task or transitions.
  • Break down tasks into manageable pieces and teach the child how to do this themselves as they grow older.
  • Provide examples of the first step in a task to assist a child to get started (e.g. ‘sentence starters’ for writing tasks, or picking up all the Lego first when tidying the play room.

Response Inhibition
We use this skill to stop ourselves engaging in behavior that may be inappropriate or unexpected, even when our first impulse might be to do it. A child with difficulties in this area may repeatedly touch his sister’s computer even after being told not to on many occasions and being aware of the consequences, or start playing with his trains when he knows he has to get ready for school.

How you can help your child with Response Inhibition:

  • Teach self-control using games that involve turn-taking and waiting, or require some thought and strategy before taking a turn (e.g. jenga, UNO, kerplunk).
  • Explicitly teach the child what you want them to do in specific situation and introduce rewards or incentives for acting appropriately.
  • Teach sequences or routines for checking their own work for mistakes if they tend to try and complete work as fast as possible without considering their responses.

Working Memory
We use this skill to take in information, hold it in our head for a short time, and manipulate it to produce a particular outcome or result. Children with difficulties in this area may get easily distracted when given multi-step instructions, completing the first or last part but forgetting the rest, or frequently lose track of what they are reading and have to read the same passage multiple times before they can move on.

How you can help your child with Working Memory:

  • Use colour and pictures to aid memory.
  • Use melody or rhythm to help remember information.
  • Provide instructions both verbally and visually.
  • Break down multi-step tasks or instructions into manageable pieces, and present each step separately.
  • Provide visual checklists, task cards or reminders to assist the child to be independent.
  • Do something interactive or reflective with new information to help lock it into long- term memory.
  • Teach and encourage techniques such as mnemonics to help remember sequences of information (e.g. Never Eat Soggy Wheatbix for North East South West).

Emotional Self-control
We use this skill to regulate our emotional responses and behavior to ensure our emotions are not displayed in inappropriate or unexpected ways, and to stay in control when experiencing different emotions to allow us to continue task. Difficulties with emotional self-control are often displayed as reactions that seem excessive or out of proportion to an event such as screaming and throwing things when told they need to wait for a turn on the computer, becoming distressed and refusing to continue a task because a mistake has been made.

How you can help your child with Emotional Self-Control:

  • Help the child understand different emotions by labelling them in themselves and others and highlighting the physical changes that occur when we experience emotions (e.g. heart beating fast when angry or anxious).
  • Teach appropriate behaviours to engage in when experiencing strong emotions to assist with developing control and calming down (e.g. using break cards, using a tent in the classroom, introducing sensory activities that are calming).
  • Support the use of cognitive strategies such as identifying size of different problems to assist with managing emotional reactions.
  • Practice calming strategies such as deep breathing and visualisation when a child is calm, so they can readily use them when needed.

We use this skill to engage in effective problem solving by considering alternative solutions and being open to change. When a child has difficulties with flexible thinking, they may, for example, continue to try and open the packaging of a new toy with brute force and become more and more upset and frustrated, instead of asking for help or considering using scissors to get it open.

How you can help your child with Flexibility:

  • Support the child to consider alternative possibilities or solutions to different situations using flow charts and visuals to illustrate actions and outcomes (e.g. what would happen if ….?)
  • Play games that require problem solving or alternative ways of using common objects to illustrate possibilities (e.g. brainstorm the different uses of a metal rubbish bin – robot costume, drum, bird bath)
  • Encourage the child to predict what might happen next in books, tv episodes, or movies to help them consider different possibilities for choices characters might make, and discuss alternate actions and outcomes (e.g. what if Buzz and Woody had just given up when they were with Sid instead of trying to make a plan to get home to Andy? (Toy Story)).

We use this skill to attend to important information in our environment and disregard distracting or irrelevant information to enable us to complete tasks or take in information effectively. A child with difficulties in this area may become quickly and easily distracted when they are supposed to engaging in a task, requiring constant adult prompting to concentrate and complete an activity, or be seemingly unable to keep themselves in their seat and concentrating on their work.

How you can help your child with Focus:

  • Use timers to encourage self-monitoring of on-task behaviour (e.g. each time the timer goes off, check whether you are working or daydreaming).
  • Provide fidget toys and other sensory aids to facilitate appropriate movement when needed.
  • Allow regular movement breaks, especially during long periods of seated work.
  • Allow the use of ear plugs or ear phones to block out distraction during ‘working’ times.
  • Use checklists to break up tasks and give guidelines of the steps that need to be completed.

With the right support and guidance, children with executive functioning difficulties can learn to manage and overcome these challenges, making a big difference to their learning and self-esteem, and helping them to be more independent and effective in their daily lives.

What can teachers do to help children with Autism be successful in the Classroom?

If your classroom is anything like the thousands of classrooms in schools across Australia, then it is likely that there will be at least one student with Autism among your students each year.

While every child with Autism is different, and has their own unique set of strengths and challenges, there are a few simple things that you can do to give any child with Autism the chance to be successful in your classroom.    

Develop a relationship with the child.

Children need to feel accepted, acknowledged and genuinely liked by the adults caring for them to be able to develop trust and feel safe in the school environment. When a child feels connected with their teachers and support staff, they are more likely to trust in their decisions and be more responsive to behaviour management strategies too.

Taking some time to learn about a child’s interests, and using that knowledge to make a positive connection, can make a big difference to how a child with Autism responds to you and the demands of the classroom. You might need to remember the names of some Pokemon characters, find out how to build a house in Minecraft or spend some time learning about horses, but finding moments to share with your student with Autism to show interest in them and their passions, is definitely an investment worth making.

Say what you mean.

As adults, we often speak in ways that are indirect and assume others can infer the message hidden underneath our words. While this is usually the case for neurotypical children, children with Autism often struggle to understand the subtleties of language, even when their own language is well developed. This can lead them to get stuck on a literal interpretation of the words being spoken instead of the message being conveyed underneath.

Children often come to me confused and distressed by events in the classroom or playground that have been caused by unclear communication, particularly when their misinterpretation of an instruction has led to them getting in trouble and they do not understand why. For example, one 9 year old boy came to me bewildered and feeling that he had been unjustly punished following an incident in his classroom. He had been told that once he finished answering questions on a worksheet he could have free time in the classroom. He answered the questions quickly with short sentences and spent the rest of the class reading. When the teacher checked his work she was not happy with his answers – she expected a paragraph in response to each question but had not clearly communicated that, assuming that the child would know what was expected – and he was made to stay in at recess and write more in answer to each question.

Taking the time to use clear unambiguous language and ensure expectations are fully understood, can make a big difference to an Autistic student’s performance in the classroom, and also help to reduce feelings of uncertainty and anxiety.

Be consistent.

For the majority of children with Autism, experiencing anxiety is a part of everyday life, and can have a profound impact on their ability to cope with the school environment. When people or situations are unpredictable a child’s anxiety levels are likely to increase, sometimes leading to challenging behaviour and meltdowns, as the child loses the ability to regulate their emotions and control their behaviour – the fight, flight or freeze response.

You can make your classroom more predictable by having regular routines, visual schedules and clear expectations. When a child understands what is happening each day and what is required of them, the classroom becomes a familiar and predictable place and their feelings of anxiety decrease.

However, predictability is not just important in the day’s activities, but also in how you and other staff respond to the child with Autism and his or her behaviour. This is particularly evident when a child’s regular teacher is away, or when attending specialist classes. If a child is allowed to lie down during mat time in your class, but gets in trouble for lying down when he has a substitute teacher, this will cause confusion and anxiety, and possibly challenging behaviour if the child feels he or she is being treated unfairly.

Ensuring there is consistency not just in classroom routines but also across staff responses when supporting a child with Autism, will result in a more settled and engaged student.

Be curious.

Curiosity is often said to be the opposite of stress and anxiety. This can be a powerful observation when you have a child with Autism in your classroom who is engaging in challenging behaviour. While it is natural to feel stress, anxiety and frustration when faced with a challenging child, being curious about what the child is communicating by behaving in this way, and what might help the child change their behaviour, can really assist in taking the emotion out of the situation and allow you to approach the problem in a more effective way.

Acknowledge their feelings and experiences.

The difference in thinking and sensory sensitivities that are commonly associated with Autism, often result in children with Autism perceiving situations differently to those around them. This can lead to confusion and conflict, as a child with Autism may insist that a situation has occurred in one way, and others involved in that same situation may have experienced it differently. It is important to remember that there are no right or wrong feelings. While as adults we might feel compelled to tell a child that they should feel a particular way in response to an event according to what makes most sense to us, it is not helpful to the child to have their feelings dismissed. Instead, we need to acknowledge the child’s feelings and their perception of a situation, and assist them to consider that there might be another point of view. Letting them know they have been heard and their feelings are acknowledged, can make a big difference in helping your student with Autism manage difficult situations and strengthen your relationship with them as well.

With the support and guidance of an understanding teacher, children with Autism can have the positive experiences they need to achieve success in the classroom.

How to Help Your Child Overcome Social Isolation

As parents, we all want our children to have friends and fit in, but that can be challenging for some children, especially when they have difficulties with social skills.

Social skills allow us to have positive interactions with others, understand the feelings and behaviour of ourselves and those around us, and change our behaviour depending on where we are and who we are with. When a child’s social skills are delayed, it can be difficult for them to interact meaningfully with peers and make friends, leading to them becoming socially isolated either through being excluded by others or by isolating themselves due to being repeatedly unsuccessful in their attempts to join in.

The most concerning impact of social isolation is the negative effect it can have on a child’s wellbeing including reduced self-confidence and self-worth, loneliness, and the development of more serious mental health concerns such as anxiety and depression.

Thankfully, there are things we can do to help children develop the skills they need to be successful in their social interactions and find a sense of belonging at school or kinder.

 Identify Gaps in Your Child’s Social Development

The term ‘Social skills’ represents a wide range of abilities from recognising feelings in others through to navigating relationships, and everything inbetween. To be able to support your child to build their social skills, you first need to know where the gaps are. Ask yourself – What aspects of social interaction does my child find difficult? Do they have trouble reading the emotions of their peers, or engaging in the back and forth of conversation? Do they struggle to understand jokes or find it hard to join in? Knowing where the gaps are will help you to know where to focus intervention to help your child continue to develop their skills.

Teach and Practice Skills Needed for Social Interaction and Friendships

Once you know what areas your child needs support in, you can focus on teaching them the skills they need to be more successful in social interactions. For many children, explicit teaching of social concepts or rules will be necessary. Teaching can be done in many ways including reading story books, watching videos, role-playing and discussion of real situations. Once they understand a concept, provide opportunities to practice skills with parents and siblings to help them increase confidence in their abilities. Then encourage them to practice their skills with their peers, and assist them to reflect on their successes and their challenges.

Facilitate Playdates

Arranging play-dates with children from school can support children to feel included not just by helping them connect outside of school times, but also by increasing the likelihood they will have someone to play with in the school playground. To facilitate a successful play-date, you may need to teach the rules associated with having a friend to play, such as letting a guest choose what to play, or not deserting a guest to go and play something else on their own. It can also be useful to plan out the activities that are available and schedule in a snack or two to reduce the demands on the child to think of ideas and also reduce anxiety about what will happen and whether it will be successful. Regular play-dates help children make stronger connections with individual peers that can assist them in at school, as well as providing them with opportunities to practice their skills in a safe and familiar environment.

Help Your Child Use Their Strengths to Make Connections

While it is important to know what areas your child needs help with, it is also important to know what your child does well. Do they have a great sense of humour? Can they talk about dinosaurs for hours? Are they good at sport or computers? Do they have an amazing memory? Your child’s strengths can be used as a way for them to connect with others, particularly those with similar skills or interests. Joining a sporting club, cubs or scouts, a dance class or a gaming club may provide an opportunity for your child to practice their skills with like-minded peers who already have a common interest, making connecting a little easier.

Get Kinder or School Involved

Given the amount of time that children spend at kinder or school, it makes sense to get them involved in supporting your child’s social development. This can be done in a number of ways. For example, lunchtime clubs around a specific activity such as Lego or gardening can be a great way of supporting children that struggle with the unstructured time out in the playground. It gives children an opportunity to interact with peers around a common activity, with an adult there for support if needed. Other initiatives schools or kinders can employ include buddy systems, peer mentoring and small group classroom activities or games. The best way to get school or kinder involved is to talk to your child’s teachers about your concerns regarding your child’s social development, and work with them to create opportunities for positive social interaction.

With support and guidance, all children can develop the skills they need to develop positive peer relationships and have social success in the classroom and playground, allowing them to find the meaningful connections and sense of belonging that every child deserves.

Celebrating A Positive Future for Autism

In September this year, I had the pleasure of attending and presenting at the Asia Pacific Autism Conference  in Sydney, Australia. The conference was an opportunity for people with Autism, their families, and professionals working with the Autistic community to come together and share their experiences, knowledge and research to better understand Autism. The theme of the conference was ‘Growing with Autism,’ an acknowledgement of the shift from viewing Autism as a disorder of childhood to a lifelong condition that requires understanding, acceptance and support from infancy to old age.

What made the conference this year so special, was the number of Autistic teens and adults that had made themselves available to talk about their experiences about life on the spectrum, the diagnostic process, and their hopes for the future. Hearing first-hand accounts of the challenges individuals with Autism have faced, what they have achieved and what they want the neurotypical world to know about them was enlightening, educational and encouraging for me both as a Psychologist and as a parent.

And what was the most important message I took away from the conference? While there were many valuable lessons that I will use both in my professional and personal life, the message that had the most impact was one given by Dr Stephen Shore, a professor, author, Autism advocate and Autistic adult who spoke about helping individuals with Autism use their strengths to achieve a fulfilling and productive life. One of the ways we can do this, he said, is to focus less on doing things to Autism and focus more on working with Autism.

The example Dr Shore gave was one of supporting a child in the classroom. It may be an effective strategy to use the child’s special interest as a reward for completing other work, allowing them to play with some toy airplanes after doing a piece of writing or a maths sheet. This is doing something to the child’s Autism. While this strategy is a perfectly acceptable way of encouraging a child to complete an activity, working with their Autism may be more effective. This could be done by incorporating the child’s love of planes into the task itself, encouraging the child to write about their favourite plane or counting or measuring parts of a plane for their maths activity.

I think this is such an important distinction, not only for how we think about supporting Autistic children and adults at school and work, but also for understanding and accepting Autism itself. While there are many skills that are important for Autistic individuals to develop to allow them to function and flourish in a neurotypical world, it is also important to support individuals to embrace their Autism rather than try and make them less Autistic so they fit in.

Dr Shore’s message is a simple one, but one that can make a positive change to the way we think about Autism, and in turn can make a difference to members of the Autism community and their hopes for the future.

Helping your child make a smooth start to the new school year

There seems to be a lot of information available for parents about the big transitions that children face at the start of the school year, such as starting Primary or Secondary school. But for many children already at school, starting the new school year in a new grade with a new teacher is an equally big event, and one that we can help to prepare them for.

With the end of the school year fast approaching, it is a good time to think about how to help your child get ready for the changes that come with moving up a grade in school.

Get familiar with the rooms and teachers.

While it is unlikely that the school will know exactly who your child will have as a teacher and what room they will be in before the very end of the school year, most schools have classrooms dedicated to specific year levels and regular teachers that teach those grades. Ask your child’s current teacher to provide opportunities for your child to visit higher grades in informal ways, such as running errands or participating in joint class activities, so they have a chance to get to know the classrooms and teachers and will hopefully feel more familiar with the staff and surroundings when it’s time to move up a grade.

Talk to your child about changes that are going to occur in their new grade and reassure them that there will be a lot of similarities to their current year level.

Talk about what to expect.

Many teachers start to talk to their classes about expectations for the year ahead to try and motivate children to work harder or behave better. However, this can result in increased anxiety and unrealistic expectations of the workload. Statements like “you will be in Grade 6 next year, so you need to start setting an example for the younger students,’ or ‘the work is going to be harder in Grade 3 so you need to pay attention,” can make going up a year level feel like a huge jump in responsibility and work that many children don’t feel ready for. Talk to your child about changes that are going to occur in their new grade and reassure them that there will be a lot of similarities to their current year level. For example, teachers are not going to give students really hard work at the beginning of a new grade, they will start where their students finished the year before and slowly build on their skills and knowledge. This will help your child have a more realistic and less scary picture of what the year ahead will look like.

Help your child learn to embrace change.

It is usual for children to be uncertain about the changes that moving up a grade will bring. Concerns about whether they will have friends in their class, or if their teacher will be nice, are common, and may lead to anxiety and a reluctance to attend school or challenging behavior at home. To help reduce their uncertainty, encourage your child to think about the good things that moving up a grade will bring, and support them to reflect on situations where they have experienced change in a positive way (e.g. new clothes, birthdays, holidays, etc.). It is also important to let your child know that it is normal to be a bit nervous or uncertain about change, but you will be there to help them work things out and they will be alright.

Preparing your child for their transition to a new grade will help to make the move a more positive one not just for your child, but for your family as a whole.