Amanda Forest Vivian is an Autistic musician and support worker. She also writes the blog I'm Somewhere Else: http://adeepercountry.blogspot.com/
In fourth grade, I was starting at a new school--a public school instead of the Montessori school I had attended since kindergarten. On the first day of school, my parents were anxious to hear how everything had gone.
I told them things had gone pretty well; one of the best parts was recess. Instead of the playground we had at my old school, we had recess on a blacktop that was set into the side of a hill. Kids stood around and talked or played counting and jumping games. As for me, I sat on the hill, looking up at the blue sky and the chain-link fence which thrilled me for some reason, and watched as some seagulls flew around and occasionally landed on the blacktop. I was excited by them because I could pretend they were the characters from the Animorphs books, who could turn into any animal. Sitting on the hill, I felt joyful, dreamy, and hopeful.
I realized my mistake when my mom said sternly, “Are you telling me that you spent recess imagining aboutAnimorphs?” As usual, I’d been caught enjoying the wrong leisure activity.
Starting in first grade, my favorite thing to do was read--sometimes the same books over and over (the really good books got eaten), but also all sorts of random books and articles in magazines and encyclopedias. Many attempts to take me to psychiatrists were foiled when I spent the appointment reading all the books and magazines in the doctor’s office. Next, I liked to spend my time in fevered, pseudo-religious daydreams, usually accompanied by sensory feedback like jumping, shooting around underwater in the pool at summer camp, or sitting alone on the schoolbus while I watched the trees and roads zoom by in a colorful blur. But everyone made it clear I was supposed to put these activities aside and throw myself into the dubious magic of friendship.
In fifth grade, I had a teacher named Mrs. A. about whom I thought, “She’s just like one of those inspirational teachers in books.” It wasn’t a compliment. She could be unusually fair sometimes and was dedicated to her work, but she was also tough and strict like her fictional counterparts. Mrs. A. loved to tell the story of how she had out-stubborned a little boy who threw up whenever he was upset. She made him clean up his own vomit and then, she said proudly, he never threw up again.
On the first day after winter vacation, Mrs. A. came up with a new idea to keep me in line. She decided that every morning, I had to give her the book I had brought to school and I couldn’t have it back until the end of the day. She explained to me that this was so I would have to talk to the other kids in my free time instead of reading.
This bothered me, not just because I had to give up the book, but because I did talk to other kids and enjoyed doing so. I had friends in class, some of whom I just saw in class and others who I’d see outside of school. I didn’t feel lonely, except that I sometimes wanted my friendships to be different (I wanted to talk about feelings and personal experiences more, and also about books). I felt satisfied by the amount of time I spent with other kids; it was the adults observing me who weren’t satisfied.
Lest this turn into a typical autism memoir about how quirky l am, I better admit that reading and daydreaming were tied into a lot of real problems. I would try to read in situations where you just can’t have a book in front of your face, like when I was crossing the street, getting a haircut, or at the dentist. I also didn’t see the problem in just checking out of reality when someone was trying to talk to me about something. In first grade, I literally refused to do anything but read (you can get pretty far with that at Montessori school). Worst of all, being jerked out of reading or daydreaming was so startling that I’d explode at whoever tried to transition me.
So, it wasn’t that I should have been allowed to read and daydream all the time because I also needed to get dressed, eat, and get an education. I also benefitted from getting to know other people. And it was a big problem that I couldn’t manage my reaction to being interrupted, because it meant that I was at least rude, and at most physically aggressive. All in all, I needed to be able to set boundaries around my favorite leisure activities and understand that they couldn’t be prioritized over my responsibilities as a person. This is all stuff that by fourth grade, I was starting to understand; I didn’t want to blow up at other people and even though I liked my trances, I didn’t want to spend the whole day in one.
However, the constant harping that I wasn’t doing the right things with my free time just led me to feel confused and like there was something wrong with me. I don’t feel there is a wrong thing to do with your free time, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone. I also feel like my desire to do these things, which is still present, comes from a genuine need for activities that are wholly predictable and undemanding. For some people, being in social situations doesn’t feel like “leisure” because it takes too much concentration. It is time-sensitive and involves many kinds of processing, so you have to work hard to stay on top of it. Even if it’s fun, it can be overwhelming to do it for too long, and it can make you more tired instead of less tired--which makes it a poor excuse for recess.