Making Recess More Inclusive For Students With Autism

June 25th, 2019
By: Content Staff

Most of us remember looking forward to recess each day in grade school, but for autistic children, recess can be another challenging, frustrating experience. While most kids enjoy the shouting and laughing that accompany kickball, dodgeball, the jungle gym, and other play activities, autistic children may find recess to be chaotic, isolating and exhausting, according to Disability Scoop, a leading source of news about developmental disabilities.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people with autism often lack adequate social, emotional and communication skills, including not knowing how to play or relate to others and struggling to understand the feelings of others. The frenetic pace of recess can make it even harder for children with autism to read social cues, engage with their peers and make friends, Disability Scoop said.

“Many children with autism are going to school every day feeling left out and being scolded for not fitting in,” Joy Sebe, advocacy and civic engagement lead at Open Doors for Multicultural Families, a Kent, Wash.-based nonprofit, told Disability Scoop. “When my son missed social cues, he got reprimanded or disciplined. He’s relieved that he doesn’t have to go to recess anymore.”

By finding ways to make recess more inclusive, adults can ensure that autistic students take part in one of the most enjoyable parts of their school day.

A new study by the University of Washington’s Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences found that autistic students were spending only about a quarter of their recess time alone or with adults such as playground monitors or teachers, according to Disability Scoop. That low figure suggests that autistic children are willing to engage in play with their peers if given a more inclusive setting.

The research team, led by assistant professor Jill Locke, examined data on 55 autistic children collected during recess at elementary schools in Philadelphia, California, and New York. The data included minute-by-minute activity reports for the children, focusing on whether they started interactions with other students on their own, any positive or negative emotional reactions, and how much time they spent alone, Disability Scoop reported.

The data showed that children with autism tended to interact with other kids on the periphery, either talking with them or by playing with toys, on the jungle gym or in games like tag. Younger autistic children initiated conversations more often than older kids. And when they did strike up conversations, they often did so during a game or other joint play activity, Disability Scoop reported.

Locke said it was a “good thing” that autistic children were alone or with adults for only one-quarter of their recess time. “They had a good portion of their time with other kids, and that’s a really pleasant finding,” she told Disability Scoop.

Locke offered several tips for educators seeking to make recess more inclusive for autistic children. For example, since some kids with autism really like to sing, that could be part of a game of freeze tag, with students freezing in place when the song ends. Similarly, while playing on a jungle gym might seem like a solitary activity, educators can make it more collaborative, incorporating new elements to make it more like an obstacle course or a relay race, Locke told Disability Scoop.

Sebe told Disability Scoop that finding ways to make recess more inclusive can be challenging, but doing so does enrich the experience for autistic children.

“The supports I commonly hear about are reactive because the recess environment is not universally designed for inclusion,” Sebe said, noting that some schools assign an instructional assistant to accompany an autistic student on the playground. “But that’s really like putting a Band-Aid on a systemic problem.”

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