For typically-developing children, recess can be the best part of the school day.

Lots of friends to scream and shout with while playing tag, inventive games on the jungle gym and hard-fought competitions between the athletically inclined. A child with autism, meanwhile, may encounter recess as loud and chaotic, isolating and exhausting — making it all the more difficult to read social cues or find a way to connect and make friends.

People with autism often experience challenges with social, emotional and communication skills, including not knowing how to play or relate to others and having trouble understanding other people’s feelings, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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“Many children with autism are going to school everyday, feeling left out and being scolded for not fitting in … When my son missed social cues, he got reprimanded or disciplined,” said Joy Sebe, advocacy and civic engagement lead at Open Doors for Multicultural Families, a Kent, Wash. nonprofit. Her son, who asked not to be identified, attends a Seattle middle school.

“He’s relieved that he doesn’t have to go to recess anymore,” Sebe said.

But new research from a team at the University of Washington suggests recess doesn’t have to be something that children with autism can’t enjoy alongside their peers.

The research team, led by assistant professor Jill Locke in the UW Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences, examined data collected during recess at elementary schools in Philadelphia, California and New York. Their observations of 55 children with autism recorded what they did minute to minute, including whether they started interactions with other students on their own, any positive or negative emotional reactions and how much time they spent alone.

The data showed that the students spent about a quarter of their recess alone or with adults, such as playground monitors or teachers.

“But the good thing: They weren’t just alone. They had a good portion of their time with other kids, and that’s a really pleasant finding,” Locke said.

Her team found that children with autism tended to interact with their neurotypical peers on the periphery, either talking to them or playing with toys, on the jungle gym or in games like tag. Younger children with autism initiated conversations more often than those in later grades. And, when they did strike a conversation, they often did so during a game or other joint activities.

For Locke, that interest and motivation should offer educators ideas to make recess more inclusive for students with autism.

“Think outside the box,” she said. “Some of our kids really like to sing. That seems like a solitary activity, but you could make the song a part of tag (and) when the song ends, that’s when you have to freeze.”

Playing on the jungle gym also may seem solitary, Locke added, but teachers could add new elements to make the activity more of an obstacle course or relay race for everyone.

The idea of a more structured recess didn’t strike Sebe as new. The difficulty, she said, is implementation.

“The supports I commonly hear about are reactive because the recess environment is not universally designed for inclusion,” Sebe said, noting some schools assign an instructional assistant to accompany a student on the playground. “But that’s really like putting a Band-Aid on a systemic problem.”

Rather than focusing on recess, Sebe recommended that schools train all adults who supervise students on best practices in special education.

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