Remaking Recess featured in "Autism Spectrum News"

Check out this article on Remaking Recess from the Autism Spectrum News. 

With the rising cost of educational services for these children and fiscal challenges that school districts face, it is imperative to identify cost-effective autism-related interventions that are easily implemented and sustained in schools. [...] Remaking Recess was developed to address the significant difficulties that children with ASD encounter on school playgrounds. 

Read the full article here

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. 

Reading at Recess

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.

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
EXCEPT

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:

http://www.judyendow.com/advocacy/assigned-friends-outcome/

Peer Engagement States

By Mark Kretzmann

How engaged with peers is the child you are observing?  Is she or he solitary, parallel, parallel aware, an onlooker, jointly engaged or playing a game with rules?  Learning to identify different states of peer engagement for the children at your recess will help you help them engage.  To maximize the social benefits of recess children should regularly engage with their peers.  Aim for games!

Remaking Recess uses a coding system based on the Playground Observation of Peer Engagement (POPE) to track a child's interaction with peers during social times at school.  The POPE form and codebook can be downloaded from the Toolbox.

Teach Your Children Popular Games

Engaging with peers at a high level during recess is a great way to build social skills. Teach your child how to play games that are popular at their school. We asked 1764 elementary school students in California, Michigan, Boston and Seattle what they liked to play with their friends at school.  See the graph for their answers.

Popular Play.jpg