The playground can be a difficult area for some students with autism, often causing anxiety. The constant sensory input and unpredictable nature of a playground can be very overwhelming. Additionally, students may not be sure what to do, or how to participate in games and activities.
- Provide a range of non-contact activities for students who dislike the unpredictable physical contact from others.
- Section off an area of the playground (e.g. using cones to mark out this zone) and limit the number of students allowed in this area. This will reduce the overwhelming and unpredictable sensory input from other students.
- Ensure students who are overwhelmed by the playground have access to this area.
- This quiet area could have some structured play activities to help students with autism play and manage this unstructured time.
- Provide a quiet games room indoors but limit the number of students who use this room so it does not become over stimulating.
- Provide structured activities which may be less sensory overwhelming than games such as tag, ‘chasies’ and football. Examples may include a treasure hunt, a nature trail or hopscotch.
- Limit the amount of time the student has to stay in the playground and then allow them time inside engaged in a quieter activity.
- Activities which involve proprioceptive input (see section on the proprioceptive system) will engage the student in physical activity but can be very calming. Examples may include:
- Crawling through tunnels and obstacle courses
- Wheelbarrow walks
- Throwing heavy beanbags at a target
- Throwing/catching a heavy ball e.g. basketball
- Tug of war
- If teaching a new game, do not teach it in the noisy and busy playground as the student who is sensitive to sensory input will have difficulty processing the instructions.
- Teach the new game at a time when nobody else is in the playground.
- Teach it in a one-to-one setting
- Use visual supports which are meaningful to the student e.g. written instructions
- Transfer it to the busy playground when the student is confident in the new game
Students who are underresponsive to sensory input often enjoy the sensory rich environment of the playground as it provides their brains with the additional stimulation they require to be alert and engaged. However, their need for sensory input can lead to some unintentionally boisterous and uncontrolled activity in the playground. Some of these students seek out excessive rough and tumble play because they crave this type of input, but then they risk hurting others. The following strategies may assist them in the playground:
- Redirect these students from contact games to non-contact activities.
- Direct these students towards proprioceptive activities as listed above.
- Teach them the difference between strong and gentle pressure to help them moderate the force they are using when playing with others.
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