Surviving School Recess

“Our daughter is starting kindergarten this year,” wrote the parents of a 5-year-old who has just been diagnosed with autism. “At this point, it seems as if she has normal academic skills and she communicates fairly well with others, but she doesn’t always notice what is happening around her. We need some help knowing what skills she will need to get a good start in school.”

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SOME CONSIDERATIONS. It may be that your daughter’s inattention to people around her keeps her from noticing the unwritten “social cues” that help kids know how to participate successfully in routines at school. So, for example, although most 5-year-old children notice that everyone is running toward the teacher from the playground at the end of recess, your daughter may not notice that everyone is racing to “line-up.” Her failure to follow that social cue may lead teachers to assume your daughter is uncooperative. But actually, she simply did not pick up on the social cue, so she continued to play on the slide when she should have been lining up with the other kids.

Your daughter and other youngsters diagnosed with autism may need to be taught some of the other routines at recess – routines that most students would learn by just watching the kids around them and following the crowd. Here are some examples:
(1) Finding something to do during the unstructured time of recess. Typical kids usually run free and find things to do, but many kids with autism just stand where the line stopped, not knowing how to fill that free time or how to get started on an activity.
(2) Knowing the unwritten protocol for sharing swings, slides, and other playground equipment or toys. These unwritten rules are usually established by the leaders in the group of kids – where the line forms, how long a person can use the swing or the tricycle, and other “rules.” Often, our youngsters with autism don’t pick up on the protocol, so they either stand back without participating or they just walk up to the front of the line without realizing they are “cutting” in line.
(3) Interacting appropriately with other kids in an unstructured and loosely supervised situation. Teachers are always, of course, monitoring for safety, but they usually let the kids play on their own unless a problem arises.
(4) Recognizing the signal for lining up at the end of recess. Some teachers give an obvious cue like ringing a bell or blowing a whistle, but others just start walking toward the playground entrance and the kids follow.
(5) Knowing the unwritten rules for walking in line. Some teachers like straight lines with absolutely no talking, but others are less formal and allow walking in pairs and quiet talking. Our kids don’t always pick up on the cues to know the difference.
(6) Dealing with the transition from the lack of structure in recess to the tight structure of the classroom. Talking, yelling, and running around are acceptable – even encouraged – during recess, but the same behaviors are discouraged in the classroom. Our kids don’t always recognize those differences.

So, since your daughter doesn’t usually notice what is going on around her, you can help her know to “watch the other kids” so she can follow their social cues and fit into the regular routines of kindergarten students and teachers.
NOTE TO LISTENERS AND READERS: I am Cathy Knoll, a board certified music therapist and long-time friend of many folks with autism. At we are committed to providing free, practical, everyday tips for making life better for people with autism. You can click on a button to send me an email with your thoughts or challenging situations or innovative solutions. Check out our website for a wealth of ideas and a glimpse into the world of autism.

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