Recess: Rest and Relax, Asperger Style

06 Feb

What’s your favorite part of your school day?

A NT girl typically says, “Lunch,” a time for chatting and gossiping with a side of eating. A NT boy usually says, “Recess,” when tag, football, four-square, and kickball abound. Ask one of my clients, let’s say a boy with Asperger’s, and that is not typically an automatic answer. Does that surprise you? Does that sound like you?

The traditional idea of recess as “freedom” from the watchful eyes of teachers, “freedom” to conspire, compete, and converse with friends, and “freedom” to do an activity of your choosing is constructed upon the foundation of socialization as inherently comforting, calming, facile, and rejuvenating. In this construct, recess is a break from a boring, sedentary day to do what you want to do when you want to do it. You just happen to be perfectly happy with your choices because they fit your “needs”: running, jumping, climbing, and talking.

What happens if you need something else from recess? You need solace, silence, and solitary moments. Recess is a break from a stressful day, with directions, rules, and interactions that always feel elusive and never static. Homework has begun to pile up, and there is only more coming. Noises, taps and touches, and distractions have overwhelmed. If you can just get to that tree, that track, that walkway, the slide, then you can refuel. You can cope by pacing, by processing the morning, or by planning for your after-school activities. You begin to think about that Lego set you are building and how you are only a few hundred pieces from being able to fly Darth Vader’s ship along side — “Tommy! Why don’t you play with Lucas and Evan?” 

Lucas and Evan bully me. Lucas and Evan don’t play the way I want to. Lucas and Evan won’t let me be Darth Vader. Lucas and Evan make fun of me because I can’t catch the ball. Lucas and Evan get too close to me. Lucas and Evan shout in my ear. Lucas and Evan smell like Lunchables’ plastic. Lucas and Evan talk really fast. Lucas and Evan have never watched Star Wars. Lucas and Evan think Star Wars is stupid. Lucas and Evan call me retarded.

“I don’t want to.”

“But, Tommy, you are always alone at recess, talking to yourself and pacing. Don’t you want to have fun? It makes me feel bad to see you all alone.” So, our well-intented teacher attempts to convince our Aspie to flex his social muscles. After all, this is what kids do at recess, and we want our Aspie to fit that mold. Otherwise they aren’t learning, they aren’t working on their IEP goals (pragmatic language), and they look even more different.

These muscles, if flexed (involuntarily or otherwise), limp back into the classroom for the remainder of a long day. You ran a half marathon in the morning and had the other half in the afternoon but, somehow without you knowing, the course was lengthed just for you. So, you start your second 13.1 with 26.2 logged already.

Imagine giving a spelling test on the playground. A pop quiz during lunch. Teaching social studies from the slide or the basketball court. I don’t imagine it would go over well. It would cause dread and anxiety before AND after recess. Failing to consider the emotional needs of our Aspies results in the same.

This picture need not always evoke sadness.


Posted by on February 6, 2011 in ASD in the Schools


Tags: , , , ,

17 responses to “Recess: Rest and Relax, Asperger Style

  1. C. S. Wyatt

    February 7, 2011 at 8:02 PM

    Just a lot of unpleasant memories. Parents and teachers “helping” by insisting I engage other children didn’t help. I can’t even respond coherently to the post, and I suppose that is a response… it’s that unpleasant.

    • jholverstott

      February 8, 2011 at 1:08 AM

      I agree with your inability to articulate. You can pull thoughts together coherently because it is that upsetting. No worries, but I appreciate that you read the post.

  2. Heather

    February 8, 2011 at 2:24 AM

    I’ve taught day care, and been a teacher’s aide in public school, so I’ve done recess duty. I’ve NEVER figured out why some teachers feel the need to bother kids that are using recess time to do their own thing. Even non-Asperger’s kids need some alone time every now and again!

  3. Newly Diagnosed Adult

    February 8, 2011 at 2:57 AM

    Yep. I would often hide at recess to avoid confusing and frightening encounters with other kids. There were places in the schoolyard where nobody else went… behind buildings or in the space between the bushes and the fence. Otherwise, I took refuge in the library where quiet was enforced and I had the protection of the librarian. There were no IEPs in those days, so no adults were trying to get me to interact. Maybe that was for the best.

  4. Stephanie Silberstein

    February 8, 2011 at 12:19 PM

    I’m very sensitive to gender issues, so the first paragraph about “typical” NT boy and girl activities got to me. Of course I was never NT to begin with, but for me girls gossiping is boring, I’d much rather have been chasing after a ball when I was a kid.

    Teachers never worked with me on social skills. Ever. I was the kid who made all A’s and didn’t have any friends. And as far as every teacher I ever had was concerned, that was fine, because I made all A’s so it didn’t matter that I wanted to hide at the back table rather than sit next to someone I didn’t know or that the other kids thought I was weird.

    I agree that teachers should’t force Aspies into playing with other kids, but nor should they presume that social skills are totally unimportant and not teach them to those who don’t naturally get them.

    The vital thing that is missing IMO is any understanding of where the child is coming from — and supposedly we Aspies are the ones who have difficulty taking others’ perspectives! When I was teaching I had a child who cried every day and asked to go home. The senior teachers told me “just ignore him.” He cried that kids on the bus picked on him. The principal told me, “No they don’t.”

    This child also had in his IEP that he was “too much of a loner” and I was told to encourage him to play with other kids. When I asked him why he was playing by himself he said, “The other kids pick on me.”

    Obviously there was a bullying problem going on in addition to some other problems.

    But the adults wanted to dismiss it all as a lie because a child said it, and a child can’t possibly know his own experience.

    I don’t know what I could have done for that child. I don’t know what could have been done for me. But telling a child that he has to play with the other kids and encouraging him to conform to NT stereotypes just is not the answer.

  5. Eve

    February 8, 2011 at 12:46 PM

    When I was in school, recess, PE, and lunch were horrifying: Noisy, uncontrolled, unpredictable. I still have nightmares (I am not kidding) about being forced to play dodge ball. (Don’t even get me started on the horrors of tag or touch football). And, to this day, any sport with a ball fills me with dread, even adult pick-up games of beach volleyball (who on Earth would want to do that for FUN??!!) I think the key here is understanding the child’s needs. In some situations, adult intervention IS the right thing, but in some cases the child just needs some down time to regroup.

  6. Jon

    February 8, 2011 at 1:46 PM

    The first elementary school I went to was built next to a patch of forest. There were places I could go out there and be left completely alone. The only downside was that I had to stay close enough to hear the bell at the end of recess.

    Then the district decided that everyone in my neighborhood needed to go to another school. Fortunately, somebody at that school had had the bright idea to put some concrete pipes on their sides in the playground, apparently thinking kids would crawl through them as part of their play. Nobody did, so they made a great place for me to curl up with a good book (“Starship Troopers”, say, or “Ringworld” – nobody ever told me sixth-graders weren’t supposed to be reading such “advanced” material) and be *left alone*…

    • jholverstott

      February 8, 2011 at 11:05 PM

      Reminds me of one of my favorite clients who likes to curl up in the mulch underneath the playground equipment!

  7. codeman38

    February 8, 2011 at 3:34 PM

    Argh, yes.

    I would’ve much rather stayed alone and been able to play computer games than go outside for the uncontrolled mess that was recess. But that’s not what the teachers wanted… even when I asked nicely.

    I wouldn’t have minded socializing if I’d just been given some cues, even. But nobody ever did that. It was like being a prey animal left alone in the wilderness with predators all around and without even the slightest clue where to scavenge.

    And don’t even get me started on PE class…

  8. outoutout

    February 8, 2011 at 6:25 PM

    Yeah, this post brings back some really bad memories for me. Recess was spent trying to hide in the bathroom from the bullies. Lunch was the same. P.E. was an exercise in humiliation. I tried… Lord knows I tried to play volleyball, basketball, and whatever else. I was terrible.
    Gonna stop now ’cause this is a place I’d rather not go.

  9. lynnesoraya

    February 9, 2011 at 10:42 PM

    This is so on target for me, too. I had one teacher, in fifth grade, that was terrible this way. She was hyper-social, and thought that everyone else should be, too. Since I was coming off a terrible experience with bullying, my reaction to other kids was intense fear. I ran away to avoid the risk of being hurt — I had no confidence in my ability to distinguish between sincere interest and malice. It got to the point that I would hide behind the far end of the school building, so that my teacher would not see me and force other kids to play with me. I had no interest in being a “pity friend” — and I was very sensitive to how that kind of thing would set up a kid to bully me. I never wanted to hear, “I never wanted to play with you anyway, but the teacher made me.”

    This teacher would call all kinds of conferences with my father, trying to get him to follow suit, and force me to play with other kids. My father would try to explain to her the huge amount of stress she was putting me through, but she didn’t want to hear it. He used to call her the “cheerleader teacher.” What these teachers don’t get is that their attempts to “help” or “fix” kids, without understanding the very real fear that underlies social interaction is not kind or loving, or HELPFUL. All it draws is further withdrawal.

    From our standpoint, it feels like harrassment. I HATED that year at school — and I know that the stress affected me academically. I’d almost call it “benign” bullying — the message it sends is, “It’s not OK to be different. It doesn’t matter that you’re stressed. Your wants don’t matter. You must conform and be like us.”

    There is a middle ground. The program I was in from Kindergarten through Third Grade put a heavy value on social interaction, and “recess-like” activity. There I was not allowed to go off by myself — every activity had a required social component.

    However, it was far less stressful for me. In fact, it was often quite enjoyable. I attribute this to several key differences in their approach:

    1. The activities were highly structured, and rules were clearly communicated and enforced.
    2. Kids were held to a strict code of conduct. We were taught to treat others with respect, and that there was no excuse for teasing or bullying anyone, regardless of their behavior or differences.
    3. That respect was modeled by the adults — they were very aware of each child’s individual challenges and issues, and the worked with them.
    4. There was heavy adult involvement. Each play group was supervised, with the adult at the very least supervising the activity, in many cases participating. So, they would either coach or intervene, if any situation became clearly stressful for a child.

    I still speak very highly of that program — and have spent a lot of time trying to distill lessons of what they did that made the difference for me. Because it really did.

    • jholverstott

      February 9, 2011 at 11:52 PM

      I do think that recess can be successful with some pre-planning, in vivo support, and processing afterwards. Selecting activities that are actually enjoyable and providing supervision is critical.

  10. Katzedecimal

    February 9, 2011 at 11:21 PM

    This. This, this, this! I used to go and hide during recess and lunch, when I was in school. As an adult, I still had to sneak out to my car, in order to get some quiet retreat time during coffee breaks. I’m now in a work environment surrounded by a lot of introverts, who have similar needs for quiet time – a much nicer situation that I’m grateful for!

  11. Jen Minnelli

    February 10, 2011 at 12:19 PM

    Good insight into real issues with kids on the high-functioning end of the spectrum! There can be a range of choices for kids on the playground, and visuals to help access those choices.

  12. Sharlene Mackay

    April 17, 2011 at 10:44 AM

    Things got so bad at recess for my son, that I would go over and spend recess just walking with him around the grounds so that the other kids would leave him alone and he could decompress however he wanted to. I always brought my Aspie home for lunch unless it was pizza lunch at school. Then I would volunteer so the others wouldn’t bully him. He needed that break!

    Sadly, now that he is in middle school, I cannot do these things for him 😦


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