Recess Rules

Sometimes individuals with autism are inattentive to people around them. For a school-aged child, the inattention translates to a failure to notice the unwritten “social cues” that help kids know how to participate successfully in routines at school. So, for example, most 5-year-old children notice when everyone runs toward the teacher from the playground at the end of recess. But a young student with autism may not realize that everyone is racing to “line-up.” Her failure to follow that social cue may lead teachers to assume the young lady is uncooperative. But actually, she simply does not pick up on the social cue, so she continues to swing rather than lining up with the other kids.

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Many youngsters diagnosed with autism need to be taught recess rules – routines that many students learn by just watching the kids around them and following the crowd. The following are some of the issues students encounter.

(1) Finding something to do during the unstructured time of recess. Typical kids usually run free and find things to do during recess. 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 recess. Groups of kids naturally follow informal, unwritten social rules, e.g. how long a person can use the swing or the tricycle or where to wait in line for the slide and other playground equipment. 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.”

(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.

We welcome your input and experiences with recess and other free play situations. Just click on the comments button or send an e-mail to

NOTE TO READERS AND LISTENERS: 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. Feel free to send me an email with your thoughts or challenging situations or innovative solution. Send email to And don’t forget to check out our website for a wealth of ideas and a glimpse into the world of autism.

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