Recess Is Not Fun

Most school kids (and teachers) really look forward to recess. But some youngsters with autism really struggle with unstructured time and unpredictable nature of recess. Recess is particularly challenging for kids who do not tend to pick up on social cues and follow along with the crowd.

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Problem #1. Typical kids usually jump right into group activities on their own during recess, but many kids with autism just stand where the line stopped. They don’t readily follow the crowd.

Problem #2. Many kids with autism simply do not pick up the unwritten rules for sharing swings, slides, and other playground equipment or toys. That can cause them to just stand back without participating or to “break in line” without even realizing their error.

Problem #3. Many individuals with autism do not readily initiate independent play such as digging in a sand pile or watching ants, so they simply do not know what to do during unstructured and loosely supervised time.

Problem #4. Some youngsters with autism do not recognize 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. I’ve had students who got in trouble because they did not follow the social cue of other kids scrambling to line up when the teacher started walking in the building.

Problem #5. Sometimes our friends with autism struggle with the transition from the lack of structure in recess to the tight structure of the classroom. For example, talking, yelling, and running around are acceptable – even encouraged – during recess, but the same behaviors are red flags in the classroom. Our kids don’t always recognize those differences.

TIP FOR THE DAY: These are just a few of the problems inherent in recess at school for youngsters with autism. In many cases, we need to actually teach these students to enjoy playing at recess.

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 a confidential email at with your thoughts or challenging situations or innovative solution. 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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