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. 

Understanding Classroom Social Networks

By Jill Locke

Do you know who your child's friends are in his or her classroom?


By asking children to privately write down who likes to hang out together we can reveal a social network of their classroom’s peer groupings that indicates: 1) who's connected to whom, and 2) the strength of that relationship. Four different classifications are possible that will help you understand a child’s social salience in the classroom. Children can be considered “isolates”, which means they do not belong to any peer group in the classroom or peripheral, which means they are in the bottom 30% of their classroom’s social structure. Children also can be secondary, which means they are very well connected in their classroom (the middle 40%) or nuclear, which means they are highly salient and within the top 30% of their classroom’s social structure. It is important for all children to be connected to at least one other child in their classroom to promote healthy social development.

Pictured above is a map of a real classroom's social network. All of the names have been changed. Each line represents a connection between children. The number in parentheses represents the number of times that child was nominated to any peer group, or his/her individual salience. The number among the lines is the child’s group salience, which determines how well connected the peer group is overall. Joe is a student with autism. Both he and Bailey are considered isolates. Felipe and Brian are considered peripheral as they were infrequently nominated (1) time each and have a group salience of (1) as well. Valery and Zara are considered secondary, whereas Jessica and Lily are considered nuclear given their high individual salience (10) and (12), respectively, and high group salience (11). Understanding social networks and the power dynamics within a classroom is an important way to learn more about your child’s social development. And remember, there are ways to improve social network inclusion – is your child, isolated, peripheral, secondary, or nuclear?

Counting "Everyone" in the Everyone Category

An 11-year-old student named Harriet wrote an insightful essay with the above title on her observations about an apparently neurodiverse classmate, Eleanor, at her new school. She powerfully describes that Eleanor’s exclusion from activities and the unfair treatment toward her means “Eleanor isn’t even counted enough as a person/student in my class to be included in the ‘everyone’ category.” Furthermore, Harriet brightly suggests practices, such as in use of paraprofessionals, generally aligned with Remaking Recess: “If there has to be an aide to help a student, he wouldn’t be there for any one person; the aide would help everyone. If any kid was having a hard time, the aide would check-in.” Indeed, she helped to inspire the “Flying Solo, or Birds of a Feather Stick Together” post on this blog through this pearl of wisdom: “Wherever you are in the world, everyone should feel comfort and belonging knowing that you always have people to hold on to you as you fly your way and they fly theirs. Eleanor isn’t given the opportunity to know that she belongs and to feel the freedom to fly.”

Not only as we enter this season of giving, but generally, we have a role to play in helping more students and other people support the need for inclusion. As Harriet’s mother Susan on October 15 explained in reply to comments, Harriet conceived the story and insights, but key adults in her life have helped shape her values: “All parents and teachers offer children a lens through which to make meaning of the world. Children take it and go. Where they go is how the world changes. Thank goodness.”

Read Harriet’s post here.

Remaking Recess: Matching Kids to Well-Meaning Peers Doesn't Always Work

Assigned Friends Outcome

By Judy Endow, MSW

Many programs or teachers place children with developmental disabilities like autism in a pair or group with presumably typically developing children who volunteer to help them – but what do the children intended to benefit want? Who is really benefitting, if anyone? Often these arrangements refer to the children as “friends” or “buddies”, whereas they would not automatically assign that status to fellow neurotypical classmates. This inequality and control puts the targeted children at risk for a life of submissiveness and pity, rather than self-efficacy and respect.

Judy Endow, an autistic author and speaker on a variety of autism-related topics, elaborates:

I was taught to say, “Thank you for being my friend.”
So I say it.
I was told to smile like I mean it.
So I smile.

I know I am supposed to feel grateful
That you are my friend
That you took the class
On how to be a peer mentor to me –

The good friends way –
A pal for six weeks
You have been defined

You are a good person
For giving up your spot
At the popular kids’ lunch table

To earn the community service hours
You need for graduation
By eating lunch with me,
By being my assigned friend.

I ask, “Do you know Jerry Lewis?”
Because I think you would like him
I think you are a modern day Jerry Lewis –
A Good Samaritan who calls himself friend.

You don’t have a telethon on TV,
But you have the Jerry Lewis Telethon
In you heart
Imparted by Mrs. Jones in her Good Friends Program.

You are a good person.
You are a trained Good Samaritan now called “friend.”

Definition of Good Samaritan

“A person who gratuitously gives help or sympathy
to those in distress.”

            Says dictionary.com

 Next month you will get your community service credit.
Your lifelong attitude about people like me
Will have been shaped

Because the peer mentoring training
Has passed on to you
Society’s adoption of Jerry Lewis’ ideas about me –
A person in need of sympathy
And a person in distress
Only because I am me – an autistic

We have become fake friends
For six weeks –
A Mrs.-Jones-Good-Friends-Program-success!

Your benevolence;
My neediness
Having been defined

With a line drawn between us
Our two groups separated
Defined, distinct, different from each other –
Society’s wisdom at categorization…

When it is over
We say our goodbyes

And like I was taught I say,
“Thank you for being my friend.”
And I remember I am meant
To smile like I mean it.
So I smile.

Goodbye peer mentor –
My assigned pal
From Mrs. Jones Good Friends Program.

You go on to your next project
I wait for my next assigned friend to eat lunch with
Both of us having been marked by the experience

Unbeknownst to Mrs. Jones and to us –
The indelible ink of societal attitudes
Wrote messages on both our hearts
Confirming my place in your world…

That it is indeed YOUR world
And thus, your right
To continually put me in my place

For which I am meant to say,
“Thank you for being my friend.”
And to smile like I mean it.

And this status quo could march on and on

Yesterday I stopped smiling
And for all the rest of my todays

I will no longer say
“Thank you for being my friend.”
Even though I know I am meant to.

Reposted with permission from Judy’s blog Aspects of Autism Translated:


Remaking Recess: Tearing Down Fences

Diana Pastora Carson, M.Ed.

“Once upon a time in a land not so far away, there lived a brother and a sister who loved each other very much. Each day, the sister went to school and learned many new things. But her brother was not allowed to go to school because he had a disability.  This saddened the girl very much. Until one day, a new law was passed that said that all little boys and girls could go to school, even if they had a disability. This made the girl very happy. 

A little yellow bus picked up her brother for his first day of school. At school, the little girl could hardly sit still until it was time for recess. She ran to her brother’s playground, eager to play with him. But when she got there, she was stopped by a big metal fence. The teacher stood on the other side of the fence with the girl’s brother and told her that she had to go to her own playground. The girl asked if her brother could come with her to her playground.  But that wasn’t allowed either.”  

This story is real.  It is part of my history. My brother’s history. Our nation’s history.  And although it seems so archaic, heartless, and unnecessary, it was the norm.  Way back then, even with the new law advocating for the “least restrictive environment” for all children, nobody thought twice about the appropriateness of segregation.  Even the best-trained professionals of the time were unaware of the long-lasting negative effects of segregating children and the long-lasting benefits of inclusion.

Nowadays, while many professionals and families have grown accustomed to inclusion in schools, and hence, on playgrounds, they still have little to no awareness about the importance of quality play and interactions, and how to foster them. Even with the best of intentions, good people can limit children with disabilities’ access to games and relationships. Here is an example. 

A few years ago, our school had a Jump-Rope-A-Thon to raise money for charity. Many classes were on the playground jumping rope, including my class.  I noticed a student in another class who was simply watching all the fun and action from the sidelines.  When I looked closer, I noticed that she had a disability. 

This girl’s teacher was an amazing educator.  A mentor of mine. Very professional. Very kind and thoughtful.  I was surprised to see her student left out of the games.  I walked over and, in front of my esteemed colleague, asked the child if she wanted to play too.  She did.  Although her cerebral palsy prevented her from jumping rope on her own, there were some things she could do with support and other things she could do on her own. 

The first thing I did was ask the student what she would like to do and how she wanted to do it.  She had some ideas: “I want to wiggle the rope on the ground while people are jumping over it.” And later, “I want to hop over the rope too, but I need help.”  She felt comfortable enough with me to ask for help. I helped her to get situated with her peers in order to wiggle the rope for others, and later I even helped her to jump tandem with me. Then her friends came up with some other accommodations to include her. It was a dream come true for any advocate for inclusion.

Inclusion in any environment is not just about parallel play or exposure or incidental learning.  It’s about a future. A future with purpose, with friends, with life quality. 

Children with disabilities on an “inclusive” playground will not necessarily be able to “play” with “friends” without support. Some children need help making friends and learning how to play. And some need that support over many years, especially those with communication and/or behavioral challenges.  Others simply need access to the games, activities, and environments to which all other students have access.

When we simply drop off students at the playground and hope for the best, we are ignoring possibly the most important part of a child’s educational experience.  And yet, the teachers who educate students in the classroom are in need of a break and cannot be outside during recess to support social successes there. Even though we do have supervision at recess times, often we become comfortable, and we forget to ensure that everyone belongs and everyone has access.  We do not train our staff to facilitate an inclusive recess community.  We train them to keep students safe. In that context, we do not ask children what it is that they want and need to truly be included. When we give no support, or we give inadequately aware, committed, and creative support, we drop the ball and miss a prime opportunity.  

If we are to see successful inclusion on playgrounds, then schools and districts must see the value of planning ahead and structuring activities and environments toward successful play experiences.  By investing in our students’ successful inclusion today, we tear down today’s “fences” and we create brighter futures for all children.

When we don’t have inclusion on the playground we put people with disabilities at risk for a segregated future. Joaquin went from being fenced in at school to being fenced in at an institution as an adult.

When we don’t have inclusion on the playground we put people with disabilities at risk for a segregated future. Joaquin went from being fenced in at school to being fenced in at an institution as an adult.

After years of fighting the system, Joaquin was finally allowed to return home to the community, to a home of his own, a home of his choosing, near family and friends, on November 4, 2011.  He celebrated 3 years of freedom this month.

After years of fighting the system, Joaquin was finally allowed to return home to the community, to a home of his own, a home of his choosing, near family and friends, on November 4, 2011.  He celebrated 3 years of freedom this month.

Diana and Joaquin.  Love is the best medicine.

Diana and Joaquin.  Love is the best medicine.

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     Joaquin now enjoys freedom and a sense of   belonging in his own community.

Joaquin now enjoys freedom and a sense of
belonging in his own community.

Joaquin is   no longer threatened by "fences."

Joaquin is no longer threatened by "fences."



Universally Accessible Playgrounds

By Steven Kapp

Children should have equal opportunities to play. Playgrounds potentially offer children a place to enjoy exploring, and in doing so giving them exercise and further developing their physical, sensory, cognitive, and social skills. Yet playgrounds not designed to include children with disabilities in any of these developmental areas deny them access to, if not physically be in the space, fully participate in it.

Unfortunately, the legal accessibility mandate for playgrounds, the Americans with Disabilities Act, only applies to wheelchair uses, with basic guidelines that may still not enable an equitable experience for children with mobility disabilities. Children with these and various other disabilities need playgrounds that go beyond mere compliance with the law, that proactively provide a fun environment for everyone.

Many are trying to meet this challenge. A growing number of public parks have, and organizations build, what they call Universally Accessible Playgrounds. According to the principles of Universal Design, for something – as concrete as the built environment or as abstract as ideas – to work for everyone, it must be flexible enough to be adapted for individual needs. For example, children’s sensory sensitivities may clash, as one may enjoy and need a lot of stimulation while another finds much input overwhelming, and this can vary across all senses or even for the same child depending on context. Therefore, a truly inclusive playground allows each child to choose how to engage in it.

Some children may wish to engage with peers but not know how or are unsuccessful when they try. For these children, an accessible playground experience extends beyond the physical structure, and the design may include knowledgeable adults who help to facilitate positive peer interaction. The strategies and resources offered by Remaking Recess may help to make this possible.

For further information on Universally Accessible Playgrounds, Landscape Structures is a good place to start: http://www.playlsi.com/ Among its resources is a site that provides a directory of Accessible Playgrounds in the U.S. and Canada: http://www.accessibleplayground.net/