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.

6 Responses to The Stress of Recess for Children with Autism

  1. Jeff says:

    This program could also work for some children with Auditory Processing Disorder and other learning disabilities expressing problems with socialization. By grouping more kids together with similar traits with a trained supervisor it could instill more friendships and socialization. A larger group could cut the cost to parents. Recess is more important than many people think for brain development and success on the playground can translate to success in the classroom.

  2. Susan says:

    The program isn’t limited to children with autism. I would love to see it spread across the country. Recess is really important!


  3. Jeff says:

    That’s great! I was under the impression it was specific to autism. You’re so right – recess is really important but unfortunately it can also be really traumatic. With cost cutting at schools around the country, everybody looks at PE as a place to cut which makes recess even more important.

  4. Susan says:

    Their fact sheet states: “… Touchstone Behavioral Health has partnered with school districts in the metropolitan Phoenix area on a special social program to benefit students on the autism spectrum, or those who may just need additional assistance gaining necessary social skills.”

    I so remember when my son would be asked his least favorite subject he’d say “recess”. The teachers took it as their break time and my concerns fell on deaf ears.

    Cutting recess should be out of the question. I remember some places tried it, but ended up reversing their decision.


  5. Jennifer Milia says:

    I’m a school psychologist, and am starting a similar program in my school. It will be for any child who, due to their disability, are at risk of being bullied, teased, or harassed. This includes children with ASD, APD, NVLD, or any other developmental or physical impairment that limits or impedes social interactions.

    In many cases, a school psychologist, adjustment counselor, or behavioral specialist working in the district can implement the program. Para-educators or recess monitors can be trained to help implement the program. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a consultant from outside of the district.

  6. Susan says:

    I love hearing things like this!! Kudos to you. I hope your message spreads and more at risk kids are guided through the harrowing time called recess. While the program I reported on is cool, I hate that parents have to pay for their children to be brought into the fold of their peers at play.


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Did You Know?

  • * In 1970, Autism affected 1 out of 10,000 children
  • * Autism now affects 1 out of 88 children
  • * Autism affects 1 in 54 boys
  • * 1.7 million Americans have some form of autism
  • * 4 out of 5 autistic children are boys

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