Recess Stinks

An articulate friend with autism is not very happy. She doesn’t like recess. Most fifth graders love recess and lunch, but this youngster does not. Interestingly, the reasons for her aversion to free time are different from what I expected.

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Most fifth grade students like recess because it is unstructured free time. But my friend with autism tells me that she feels lost and at loose ends. “I like a schedule,” she said. “All the other kids like to sit around and talk or play some soccer or something random, but I like to have a plan.” Free time is refreshing for many people, but stress increases for this youngster with autism since she feels at loose ends.

Many fifth grade girls are sensitive to other girls in the group – their opinions, their conversations, and their selection of friends. My friend is rather oblivious to all the social issues that are so important to other youngsters her age. Her preference to sit alone under a tree or walk around the playground alone is often interrupted by well-meaning teachers and other adults who spend a great deal of time encouraging her to interact with her classmates during recess. Although the adults are concerned about her being alone, they may not realize that is actually her preference.

This conversation with my fifth grade friend with autism sheds light on some of her opinions about free time events like recess. Future podcasts will provide some strategies for helping youngsters learn to tolerate recess and other free time activities, but the purpose of this podcast is to raise awareness of the unique perspectives often encountered by individuals with autism – perspectives that can be contrary to what we consider common sense.

It is easy to draw false conclusions when we see a child sitting alone or refusing to participate in less-structured activities during recess with their peers. We might assume they are pouting or feeling left out or being uncooperative and anti-social. But in reality, they may literally prefer to spend time alone.

TIP FOR THE DAY: Individuals with autism often have different opinions, choices, and preferences from their peers. Rather than imposing our preferences or assuming the worst, we might want to take time to know the person so we can avoid jumping to conclusions.

It is also wise to take time to explore new approaches for addressing challenging issues that can arise in the lives of our friends with autism. Click on the Toolkit tab on our website for great resources;

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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