A Recess of One’s Own

Shannon Des Roches Rosa
Senior Editor,
Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism

My teenage son Leo has always been a huge fan of recess. Like many kids enrolled Special Education who have full-time aides, his school time is highly structured and supervised, so he needs opportunities to blow off steam however he likes, and on his terms. But this hasn’t always been possible, because school staff didn’t always understand what downtime looks like for autistic kids like Leo, and in the past have pushed him to participate in recess on non-Leo terms, sometimes with unfortunate results.

Let me show you what happy Leo recess time looks like. In this
video, he is happily walking in a circle on a play structure. He makes room for other kids when they walk by, but doesn’t feel obligated to interact with them (note that the reverse is true as well). He’s busy, engaged, and content.  

Though this video is from a few years ago, this is what recess (or free) time looks like for Leo at his current school, where the teachers and staff understand him, and respect his needs.

It wasn’t always that way. When Leo was in kindergarten, he went to an autism-focused special day class on a regular school campus, which had an “inclusive” recess. But it wasn’t truly inclusive, in terms of staff helping kids of differing abilities learn to understand each other’s needs, and interact accordingly. Instead, the (very well-meaning but inclusion- and autism-undertrained) class aides spent recess trying to coax Leo and his classmates to play with the other classes on the non-autistic kids’ terms. Because they didn’t really understand autism, they didn’t see recess as the opportunity it was for Leo at least: the chance for a break.

Leo was able to deal with this recess social pressure for a while, because he’s a sweet-natured person. But after a few months, he’d finally had enough, and, during recess, pushed another kid. Hard. Right into that kid’s teacher.

Pushing is not OK, of course. But, anyone who
understands autism and autistic behavior would, in addition to letting Leo know that pushing is unacceptable, probably ask themselves, “Since Leo is non-speaking, what is he trying to communicate by pushing that kid?” Could it have been that, as Amanda Forest Vivian writes, “Even if social interaction is 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.”? It wasn’t that Leo was a bad kid, it was that he had been forced into a recess that didn’t work for him.

No one at the school saw it that way, though. The principal, Leo’s teacher, and the other kids’ parents not only did not understand autism and autistic behavior, but were biased against Leo because of his autism. Despite recent, documented playground scuffles between non-autistic students resulting in actual injuries without significant consequences at that same school under that same principal, everyone saw Leo’s isolated pushing incident as a Very Serious Problem. So, together — and without consulting me — they made a decision to exclude Leo from recess from the rest of the year.

When I found out, I was livid. But I didn’t fight back, because at the time I had internalized social attitudes about autistic kids being “less than,” rather than having the same rights as any other student. The only thing I did was fume, and write an essay featured in a book about
parenting kids with disabilities but without apologies. Today, figurative heads would roll if anyone tried to punish my son for trying to communicate his needs while autistic, especially if they did so without consulting me or Leo’s dad.

What can we do to help today’s autistic kids not only avoid being misunderstood, but enjoy recess according to individual needs? I’d like to see strategies that follow the models set by play spaces like
We Rock the Spectrum — in creating autistic-friendly play spaces and environments that are actually fun for everyone:

“Increasingly, playscapes are incorporating what’s known as inclusive design — not only making equipment physically accessible to families of all abilities, but also removing common social barriers. So often, disability leads to peer isolation, and these places try to remedy that problem, with structures and layouts designed to enable and encourage children to play with each other.”

Though I’d modify that last sentence to read “…play with each other if they want to.”

Leo’s recess time is still not perfect. As wonderful as his school is, it’s not an inclusive school — 
inclusion may be the ideal, but in our area is simply not available for high-support students like Leo. So he doesn’t have the opportunity to interact with students of different abilities, should he choose to. But at least he gets to have a recess of his own.