Recess and Autism


Recess and autism don't always make a great pair because many aspects of recess can be challenging for students on the spectrum. With planning, this part of the school day can be an excellent time for learning.

Autism and Recess

Most kids just can't wait for the bell to signal that recess has begun. For many, this is one of the highlights of the school day. For children on the autism spectrum, however, it can be very difficult. Aspects of this period of the day that can wreak havoc on an autistic student are:

  • Lack of structure
  • No expectations
  • Little or no direction or guidance
  • Social interactions dominate
  • Multiple sources of sensory input

Students on the autism spectrum often do better in a structured classroom because:

  • There is a structured routine
  • Expectations are clearly communicated, often with visual aids
  • Teachers and aides offer direction and guidance
  • Academics and instructions dominate
  • There is limited sensory input

Other Considerations

Children with autism may feel overwhelmed, uncomfortable and downright frightened during breaks, lunch and playtime because there is little or no sense of order and control. Sensory overload can be difficult to tolerate and other students may not understand the reactions and behaviors of autistic students. Dealing with recess and autism may seem like a hopeless situation, but each of the problems can be addressed in ways that create loose structure during play activities. Consider the following when developing a plan:

  1. Many kids with autism have to learn how to play
  2. Many want to interact but they just don't know how
  3. Sensory input can be controlled
  4. A little guidance goes a long way
  5. Many typical students are happy to help
  6. It's okay for a student to play alone for awhile

Creating a Recess Plan for Autistic Students

The first step in creating a recess plan for a student with autism is to get his parents involved. Recess skills can be included in part of his treatment plan and this requires all members of his treatment team to be on board, including parents. Specific goals can be outlined and interventions put in place, and the school district may hire a teacher's aide. In some cases, a therapist can work as a temporary aide in the school setting.

Creating Structure

The last thing most kids want is to be given directions during recess, but students with autism often like knowing what to expect. Simply offering a choice between swinging and jump rope is a great start. This relatively simple step sets up the child's expectations. Some kids can benefit from aids like:

  • Picture schedules specifically for recess
  • Stories about recess activities
  • Favorite outdoor toys and activities
  • Social skills and play guidance

If a therapist (sometimes called a TSS) is assigned, she will work on specific objectives outlined in the child's treatment plan. The therapist typically works for an outside agency in programs like Wraparound. This employee works on developing social skills, including reciprocal play with peers. Therapy in school settings may begin with a lot of prompting and the therapist gradually decreases the prompts until the child is playing with others.

Buddy Systems

Many typical students are happy to encourage their autistic classmates to play. Teachers can reward guides with extra credit or "helper certificates". With guidance, buddies can:

  • Use picture schedules
  • Give verbal and visual cues
  • Serve as a model for appropriate behavior
  • Give reinforcements through praise
  • Offer encouragement

As regular students interact with children on the spectrum, they learn to become comfortable with and appreciate their classmates' unusual ways of doing things.

Sensory Situations

Sensory overload is uncomfortable and too much input may be overwhelming for some children. Try creating a balance by giving a student with autism a recess schedule that alternates active, loud activities with ones that offer sensory release. Keep in mind that recess is an excellent time for sensory integration. Some activity ideas are:

  • Swinging
  • Shaking rattles
  • Playing in sandboxes
  • Bouncing on an exercise ball
  • Climbing
  • Playing on slides
  • Running, jumping, spinning, stomping

Recess offers excellent opportunity to help improve muscle tone while promoting good health through exercise.

Schoolyard Bullying

Bullying is a considerable problem across the board, and kids on the spectrum may have difficult defending themselves because of a possible lack of communication and social skills. However, the focus here is on the child with autism, not typical students. In many cases, the student on the spectrum is the aggressor.

In some instances, negative behaviors may be inadvertently rewarded. For example, it is Sally's turn to be first in line to go outside. James, who has autism, gets in line in front of her and when the teacher guides him back to his place, he drops to the floor, screaming. The teacher in an effort to keep order in the class decides that it isn't a battle worth fighting and allows James to get in front of the line.

The decision to let James have his way does stop the negative behavior and the class can continue on schedule without incident. However, the decision is counterproductive because he has learned that the negative behavior works in his favor, which increases the likelihood that he will repeat it. In addition, Sally receives a subtle message that James is favored, as does the rest of the class.

Instead, make sure that:

  • The same rules apply to all kids
  • Behavioral expectations are clear
  • Consequences are meaningful, immediate and consistent
  • A crisis management plan is in place

Reccurring aggressive or bullying behaviors an also be dealt with in the child's treatment plan so it is important that any significant incidents are documented.

Learning How to Play

Perhaps recess and autism is such a challenging pair because kids on the spectrum often have to earn how to play, as other children have to learn how to do math. What better time to learn how to play than during recess?

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