Coping with Recess and Lunch Breaks

A student with ASD was allowed to choose one friend to join him and play his Nintendo at recess. He  went from being a loner to starting a Nintendo club.

Points to note
• School grounds at recess and lunchtime are noisy busy spaces. There are unwritten rules that must be adhered to. There are many sights, sounds and smells to deal with. There is no structure or routine to recess and lunchtime. Young people with ASD can have a lot of difficulty coping with recess and lunchtime and can get into trouble.

They are likely to feel stressed or anxious during this time. Most young people use their breaks to release stress and unwind; the student with ASD may return to the classroom too stressed to concentrate or participate in class.

• The young person  may lack imaginative and creative play skills; and may prefer solitary or repetitive pursuits, such as computer games.

• Young people with ASD are vulnerable to teasing and bullying during recess and lunch. Unusual behaviour and poor social skills make the young person stand out as an easy target. They may lack assertiveness and coping mechanisms to deal with being teased, which results in angry outbursts in class sometime after the event. The young person may not be able to express feelings of distress to an adult.

• Young people with ASD may be naïve and trusting and easily led into trouble by others who seek to manipulate an easy target.

Other teens may encourage the young person  to do silly things, hurt others, damage property or steal.

• In the playground, the poor motor skills will be painfully obvious to all. While their peers play ball games, the young people with autism may avoid doing so because of  poor co-ordination and/or motor skills. Attempts to join in ball games may lead to ridicule or fights.

• Some young people with autism are ‘wanderers’ who have little sense of personal danger and no understanding of school boundaries.

• The student with ASD may lack imaginative and creative play skills and  may prefer solitary or repetitive pursuits, such as computer games or reading. This puts the person at a disadvantage socially. They  may have no interest in his peers’ conversations about clothes, the opposite sex, the latest fads etc.

What you can do

• All students in the school should be aware that bullying is unacceptable through a school policy of positive behaviour management.

• Accept that the student may need to be on his own at times, but provide support should if the young person wants to  join social activities.

• Incorporate social skill training in class. Have the students act out social situations, such as how to join in a conversation in various circumstances.

• Ensure the student clearly understands the rules regarding school boundaries and ‘out-of bounds’ areas for their own safety. Use a colour coded map of the school grounds.

• Help the student develop strategies to respond to teasing and unwanted social approaches from others.
• ASD is an invisible handicap – a student with ASD looks like any other student. This makes it difficult for the rest of the teaching community to understand the student’s problems and needs. All teaching staff should be aware of the social difficulties experienced by people with ASD to make allowances (but not excuses) for behaviour.

• Have a pre-arranged place for the young person to go to if it all gets too much. The student should also be aware of who to turn to for support when  distressed, such as a school counsellor. If necessary provide the student with photo cards/names of staff to go to.

• If possible allow the student access to a resource room, computer room or library at break times. .

• Make a picture schedule of lunchtime activities. One hour can seem like a long period of unstructured activity for a student with autism. Split the hour into segments: 20 minutes – eat lunch, 20 minutes – ball games, 20 minutes – other activities.

• Allow the student 10 minutes of time out after returning from recess or lunch. Give him a favourite activity, time at a special interest or listening to music. Some students may prefer a solo run around the oval to de-stress.

• Choose a mature student to keep an eye on the student during recess and lunch breaks. Rotate students on a roster system. Some students require close supervision by an integration aide at all times.

• A social story can help the student with ASD cope with breaks, giving ideas for activities and helping him understand school boundaries.

Improving Social Understanding

Points to note
• People with ASD can have great difficulty appreciating the thoughts and feelings of other people due to impaired ‘theory of mind’. (Definition on Introduction page.) This impacts on their ability to understand how their comments affect others.

• The student might comment on a person’s physical appearance, perhaps pointing out in a matter of fact way that they are overweight, bald or have bad skin! This is not done to hurt or embarrass the person; people with autism just tend to ‘tell it like it is’. However, This can be embarrassing, hurtful to others and disruptive in a classroom situation.

• Teaching staff may also face criticism of their teaching style and ability to keep the class under control. For example, this may occur if the student becomes stressed in a noisy environment; the student may criticise the teacher for not controlling the noise level.

• Young people with autism have no concept of how their words and actions affect the feelings of others.

• People with autism have no “filter” and don’t understand the concept of not talking about things that may be socially awkward for others. Effectively whatever is on the person’s mind will often come out of their mouth. This level of honesty is often awkward and embarrassing.

Why does this happen?

• Young people with autism do not naturally acquire social skills like other teenagers, they need to be taught what is and isn’t appropriate to say to people.

• Young people with autism do not naturally acquire social skills like other teenagers, they need to be taught what is and isn’t appropriate to say to people.

• Social skill deficits are a core characteristic of autism and should not be overlooked when assessing reasons for inappropriate behaviour.
• Social skill deficits impact on the way the person is accepted by their peers.

• People with autism will have difficulty understanding the thoughts and feelings of others. They may have difficulty understanding and monitoring their own emotions and may also have difficulty adapting to the needs and personalities of others.

• Impairments in social behaviour include limited ability to use gesture, limited or inappropriate facial expression, awkward body language and a peculiar gaze. The young person  may misinterpret what is implied by an affectionate touch, such as a touch on the arm or a pat on the back.

• The young person  may find it hard to understand the intentions and motivation of other people – that is, why people behave the way they do.
• Impairments in social interaction lead to difficulty with conversational turn-taking, maintaining a topic of conversation and maintaining eye contact.

• As a teacher, you may need to teach a young person with autism social awareness skills that you didn’t have to learn yourself – i.e. social skills that you acquired naturally, like listening without interrupting, and pausing to allow others a turn in conversation.

• Many young people  with autism lack an ability to understand the consequences of their behaviour.

What you can do 
• Remember a young person with autism needs to be specifically taught social skills; and will not acquire these naturally just by being in a social environment.

• Explain facial expressions, gesture, voice inflection and proximity in social interaction and explain the attitudes and meanings these convey. This could be done through drama and role play.

• Help the young person  become aware that other people have feelings, thoughts, attitudes and beliefs that may be different to their own.
• Be aware of times when the young person is more likely to say something inappropriate about other people and cue/ remind them  about positive behaviour.

• Social stories are crucial to help teach the young person about the feelings of others and appropriate things to say to people. You can create social stories for any situation tailored to their needs.

• It would certainly help to have a thick skin and keen sense of humour. Remember the student is not being malicious.

• Choose a quiet moment after class to talk to the student, explaining that the comments are disrupting the lesson.

Peer Relationships

Points to note
• People with autism may appear withdrawn and to prefer their own company, however they often really want to have friends. It can be very difficult for a person with autism to know how to make friends. Sometimes socialising with peers can be exhausting.

• Some young people with autism prefer adult company over their peers. They may seek friendship for what can be learnt from another person, not for social enjoyment. Also, adults are likely to be more understanding of their peculiarities.

• The young person may have a controlling, dictatorial style of interaction with peers and may be very resistant to the suggestions of others. The person may become aggressive if having to incorporate the ideas of others. Others young people may see the student as bossy and authoritative, acting more like a teacher than a friend.

• The young person may have difficulty with concepts such as sharing, waiting and taking turns. People with autism may always want to win or be first and can become over-emotional if they lose. People with ASD don’t like change and uncertainty and tend to be perfectionists.

• People with autism become quite distressed by failed attempts to make friends and the response to this failure can range from arrogance and denial, to poor self-esteem or complete withdrawal.

• The young person may lack the ability to make character judgements. People with ASD may be attracted to peers that are poor role models and will not be able to tell if someone is being nice to them or being sarcastic.

• Some young people with ASD will tolerate being teased and tormented at school just to have company. Some will believe that others are their friends even when it is obvious they are being exploited.

• The young person may ‘burn-out’ friends by being too demanding and possessive. The intensity of an exclusive friendship may become intolerable to the friendship group. The young person might not understand that his friends sometimes want to play with others.

Sometimes students with ASD react quite rudely and refuse to play with their friend ever again if they can’t have an exclusive friendship.

• For some students with ASD, the only social interaction they have with their peers is at school because they don’t seek out their friends out of school hours unless this is prompted or arranged by their parents.

• The student may have limited conversational topics. Some will want to talk exclusively about their preferred interest, not recognising the signs of boredom from their friends. While their friends may prefer to talk about make-up, the opposite sex, TV shows and social gossip, these topics hold little interest for the student with ASD.

• When teenagers reach an age where they want to wear the ‘right’ clothes, the student with ASD will struggle to fit in. Fashion is not usually a high priority for them; they tend to dress for comfort and practicality. In adolescence, there may be little motivation to maintain a socially acceptable standard of personal hygiene.

• The student may appear to lack empathy, an important factor in any relationship. Friends expect compliments, compassion and kind gestures. The student might be unintentionally rude or unkind due to the inability to understand the thoughts and feelings of others. For example, if a friend falls over and hurts himself, the student with ASD might respond by clowning around to make his friend laugh, rather than offer compassion and a helping hand. The friend may see this behaviour as uncaring.

• Adolescents with ASD can develop real social phobias. They can become acutely aware of their social errors and the fact that they are ‘different’.

• As you can see there are a number of reasons why it is difficult for people with ASD to make and keep friends. However it is not impossible. Remember that if the young person fails to make friends they then cannot practice social and communication skills.

• Inappropriate sexual behaviours. -Teenagers with ASD experience puberty just like other adolescents. The delays in development associated with ASD do not delay the onset of puberty or sexual feelings. Adolescents with ASD experience the same sexual needs and other physical sensations that accompany physical growth. However, ignorance of social cues combined with an impaired ability to communicate can cause positive sensual feelings to be expressed in unusual or inappropriate behaviours. (see sexuality health and hygiene for further information)

• People with ASD sometimes lack self control. The young person will require ongoing social skills training throughout their secondary schooling to avoid issues with lack of self control or inappropriate touching.

What you can do
• Recognise that the student is socially immature. Interpret and explain social situations and incorporate social skills training into the curriculum. Developing interpersonal skills will help all students learn the benefit of team work, the ability to manage conflict and enjoy successful relationships with peers and teaching staff.

• Some suggested topics for social skills training:
– recognising how and when to help others, and when to seek help,
– the ability to judge when criticism is appropriate or inappropriate,
– the ability to tolerate, accept and respond to criticism appropriately,
– how to join in an activity or conservation,
– knowing when and how to give compliments,
– acknowledging the suggestions of others and incorporating their ideas into play / activities and conversations,
– conversational turn-taking,
– using vocals to convey tolerance, empathy, sympathy, arrogance, nonchalance etc,
– compromise and conflict resolution,
– active listening, reading and using body language and facial expression,
– recognising when it is appropriate to make empathetic comments,
– recognising character traits of others and one’s own personality to determine the type of person likely to be a compatible friend,
– approaching a member of the opposite sex, indicating interest both verbally and non-verbally.

• Promote tolerance and understanding amongst the student’s peers by helping them to understand difficulties. Encourage others to interact with the student in group work.

• Encourage imaginative and flexible thinking in classroom activities with “Let’s pretend …” and “What if …” scenarios.

• Teach the student how to respond to unwanted approaches from other students. Practice some social scripts
• Ensure the young person has a school councillor or other appropriate professional available to speak to.

• Encourage the student to befriend other children in the school with ASD. Even if there is an age difference, these friendships can be very successful. They are likely to have similar interests and be more understanding of each other’s peculiarities.

• Social stories are a good way for the student to learn friendship skills. Older students could benefit from having a list of friendship rules.
• Depression and low self esteem can often develop in adolescence due to loneliness and feeling socially awkward. Depression and anxiety disorders should be treated as mental health issues, not just a feature of the disability.

• Students with ASD need ongoing social skills training so they have the opportunity to learn appropriate social interaction skills prior to reaching puberty. It might seem OK for a 10-year old to stand too close to peers when talking, but at age 16, this behaviour would be inappropriate and is likely to be misinterpreted.

• Always look at inappropriate behaviour as having a communicative intent. For example, a male student who follows a girl around the school all day might seem threatening or intimidating but perhaps he just doesn’t know how to go about approaching her in a socially acceptable manner.

• With a growing number of females being diagnosed with autism, schools must be aware of the need for protection of and specific training for female students who may be vulnerable to sexual advances from male students.


My son is getting bullied and teased at school what can I do?

What is bullying?
Bullying is repeated intentional intimidating behaviour that causes distress, hurt or undue pressure. The target is usually seen as weaker or more vulnerable than the perpetrator.

Bullying can be
 – threats, name calling, put downs
Physical – physical violence or threats of violence
Social – deliberately excluding the person from social situations or ignoring them.
Cyber bullying– threatening emails, harassing or threatening text’s, circulating offensive photos or materials about the person, harassment in chat rooms or on social networking sites.

Characteristics of Bullies
When boys bully they tend to use overt physical tactics. When girls bully it can be less obvious and harder to spot.

Bullies tend to have issues controlling their aggression, may have witnessed violence or aggression at home or may have been bullied themselves.

Why are children with autism bullied?
• Children and young people with autism are unfortunately often teased and bullied at school. Sometimes they can also be the bullies and pick on others.

• Children and young people with autism are often soft targets for bullies; they are ‘loners’, have unusual behaviour, poor social interaction skills and lack assertiveness.

• Children with ASD are frequently subjected to bullying when others learn that they can tell the child with ASD to do or say almost anything and they will then go off and do it. This type of bullying is particularly hard to spot.

• The student may have no desire to conform to age appropriate social norms such as popular fashions, interests and music. These differences are especially noticeable in adolescence and single the young person out from their peers.

• The young person with autism may not even recognise they are being bullied or recognise what bullying is.

• People with ASD may tolerate teasing from peers just to have company. They may have difficulty understanding whether the comments or actions of others are malicious or manipulative. The young person may break school rules, steal or engage in other inappropriate behaviour just to be accepted.

• The young person is more likely to get caught if retaliating to bullying.
• Young people with autism are easily set up by others to be bullies without realising it.

• Teasing and bullying can trigger an angry or emotional outburst without warning, some time after the event. When behaviour of concern is occurring in the classroom, always consider whether it is the result of bullying. The student might have great difficulty communicating the distress caused by these problems.

Signs of Bullying
It may be harder to detect that a child with autism is being bullied, as behavioural changes may not be as obvious as in children who do not have autism.
The child with autism may even be oblivious to being bullied and not display any obvious behaviour change or report their feelings to you.

• Unexplained bruises, scratches or cuts.
• Torn, damaged or missing clothes or belongings.
• Experiencing non specific pains such as headache or abdominal pain.
• Increased anger or aggression
• Increased anxiety
• Development of a “tic”-Uncontrolled continuous twitch/spasm/grimace/cough or sniff see “Tics and Autism” for further information.
• Irritability, tempers outbursts- more than usual.
• Being unhappy, upset tearful or distressed.

• Becoming more withdrawn, stammering,
• Refusing to go to certain places, events or see certain people
• Stopped eating
• Attempting suicide or self-harm, talking about suicide
• Increased fixation in special interest/ change of special interest to violent related TV shows, video games or weapons
• Increased self stimulatory behaviour
• Increase in self harming behaviour s such as head banging or biting
• Seeking more sensory stimulation or withdrawing from all sensory stimulation such as touch
• Unable or reluctant to say what is wrong
• Drawing or story writing with violent themes

Other behaviours-
• Bed wetting
• Nail biting
• Poorer than usual sleep
• Poor behaviour at school in an attempt to come home
• Refusing to go to school

What you can do
• Watch carefully for signs of bullying
• Be available to talk with your child about their concerns.
• Talk with the child about what they are experiencing
• Talk to the child about what is a good friend./ what is a bad friend
• Do not encourage the child to fight back – the child needs to learn how to appropriately deal with the situation –
Remind them to tell the other person to STOP and Walk away and then Tell a teacher
(it is very important the child can tell a teacher often children with ASD do not realise they need to do this.)
• Parents should not approach a child they suspect of bullying their child or approach the parents of the other child.

• Parents should speak with the principal of the child’s school regarding concerns, make the school aware that this is a very serious issue for your child and you would like it to be dealt with appropriately.

The school has a duty of care to take reasonable measures to prevent foreseeable risk of injury to their students. The child has the right to an education in a safe and supportive environment free from bullying, harassment and injury.

• Discuss the schools bullying, welfare and disciple policy, ensure you understand it and that the school is following it. All schools should have a code of conduct and a plan to combat bullying.

• Model appropriate behaviour at home – children with ASD find it difficult to distinguish playful joking and roughhousing from bullying and fighting.

Schools can

• Enforce the bullying and discipline policy.

• All students in the school should be aware that bullying is unacceptable through a school policy of positive behaviour management.

• Support the child with buddies in the playground, integration aide or yard duty support.

• Encourage friendships.

• Ensure that all staff have an understanding of the social difficulties experienced by students with ASD. Staff need to be trained to look beyond the behaviour of the child with ASD to ascertain what or who caused them to act that way with regard to the child naively following the suggestions of others.

• Teachers need to be very aware of their own behaviour- do not act in ways that belittles the child with autism in front of their peers.

• Set up a home base or resource room for the student to retreat to when feeling threatened or anxious. See creating a home base.

• Educate students about ASD/ differences and tolerance.

• Make sure the student has someone to talk to when upset.

• At lunchtimes ensure the child is engaged in activity with supportive peers.

• If the child is aimlessly wandering, alone and in areas that are unsupervised they are more likely to become a target of bullying

• Bullies target kids with autism not just because they are different but because they are often ALONE with no friends to back them up or support them and no assertive skills to ask the bully to stop.

Dealing with Cyber Bullying
Cyber bullying is very common; children and young people with ASD may be subject to cyber bulling quite often, given the amount of time that these children spend on computers.

Cyber bulling is as distressing and damaging to a person’s self esteem and reputation as being bullied in person. There are instances where young people have committed suicide due to cyber bulling. Young people with ASD may not report cyber bulling or know what to do about it.

What to do
• Tell someone- it is very important the young person tells someone that there is a problem.

• If the problem is coming from another child at school then involve the school in the issue.

• Don’t respond- the more the young person engages with the bully the more likely they are to continue

• Privacy settings- ensure that if the young person is using social media or other sites they have strong privacy settings enabled, that they do not post private pictures of themselves or their personal details (address, phone number etc.) on line.

• Mobile phones- it may be good to ensure the young person does not have a mobile phone with them after bedtime each day- then you know that the phone is not going to be distracting the person from their sleep
• Ensure the young person only gives their number to close friends.
• Keep usernames and passwords secret so others can’t hack into your accounts

• If the bullying is very serious and involves personal threats report it to the police.
• Keep records of the threats/ harassment
• Contact your phone /internet provider- you may be able to block certain phone numbers or websites
• Change numbers/emails contact details if possible 

Kids with autism need to be taught
• What is good friend behaviour?
• What is not friend behaviour?
• Who is a bully? – That a bully can be anyone- someone at school, someone on the internet, a sibling or an adult.
• What is bullying?
• What to do about it.

• That they need to report it – it is important that the child with autism knows to report bullying to a teacher, aide, principle, parents or someone they trust so it can be dealt with. The young person with autism may not be aware that someone can help them with their problem. They may retaliate or put up with bullying without realising they can be helped.

• This information can be taught through social stories, role plays, social scripts, diagrams or another way that the child will take in information and respond to it.

• ASD is life long, so the young person will need repeated participation in anti- bullying programs that fit each social and developmental stage.

References and further information

Department of Education

Article- Strategies to reduce the bullying of young children with Asperger Syndrome
Tony Attwood available from