The Stress of Recess for Children with Autism

playground alone autism

Parents of children with autism are painfully aware that recess time can be the worst part of their child’s school day. The piercing sound of the bell signals a time of loud, chaotic activity that is in and of itself difficult, but the inability to interact and play with their peers makes it a time of isolation and desolation for children on the spectrum. At a loss for how to help their child while away from them, parents often feel helpless upon hearing that their child cries or acts out at a time enshrined as a happy break from the rigors of the classroom.

When my twins were in elementary school, I would get reports about one of them crying the whole time at recess and the other getting in trouble with other boys, as if the onus was upon me to rectify the situation from afar. Eventually,
one of my sons started retreating to the library instead of going outside, while the other sat in a corner of the playground alone under a tree. 

Now, the Playground Partners program of Arizona founded by Touchstone Behavioral Health is bringing therapists to the playground to assist children on the autism spectrum with initiating play, teamwork and conversations during school hours at recess. Trained aides encourage these children to start their own favorite game or activity on the playground and like iron filings drawn to a magnet, their classmates start to join in, much to the joy of the child. The mentors are ever present to help them navigate and mediate their surroundings, coaching them about maintaining appropriate personal space and other issues that may arise. 

The program is an unqualified success at helping vulnerable kids form friendships and helping to inoculate them from the staggering statistic that over 40% of children with autism experience bullying at school. Teachers appreciate the reduction in playground incidents and the time needed to resolve such disputes.

So what’s the downside of this? Parents of children with autism have to pay for the service which may or may not be covered by insurance. While doing a Google search, I found very few schools that have in-house recess facilitators for children with autism. One program in Seattle has a recess club for special needs kids, but that is a separate program where neurotypical children are welcome to join as well. 

If autism inclusion programs are to be genuinely inclusive, more attention must be paid to recess, so that what is supposed to be a release from the tension and cares of the day isn’t the most dreaded part of it.