Using unstructured time

Break time and lunch time are usually considered to be an enjoyable time of the day for students, but due to the lack of structure, the unpredictable nature of break and lunch times and the increased social demands at these times of day, they can be challenging times for students with autism. They may be unsure of what to do and can feel overwhelmed in the social and sensory rich environment of the playground and this can then lead to emotional outbursts.

Reasons why unstructured times may be difficult for students with autism

  • Unsure what is expected. Visual schedules, visual supports and structured activities are often not used during ‘free times’, and some may consider it beneficial to give a student with autism a break from structure at these times. However, rather than this being relaxing for students with autism, it can cause confusion, increase anxiety and stress as it means they are unsure of what to do, what is expected and what activities are available to them.
  • Unable to organise time independently. Some students with autism may not know how to independently self-direct during free times of the day. They may subsequently engage in increased repetitive behaviours (e.g. pacing, echolalia) or they may become so absorbed in a favourite activity that they return late to class.
  • Sensory overload. Most free time takes place in a busy playground or a noisy classroom, which can be overwhelming for some students with autism. This can then result in emotional outbursts as the student tries to stop unwanted sensory input or tries to escape from the environment. Some students find a quiet place to stand during Break and Lunch times, but this can then make appear isolated and vulnerable.
  • Social demands. During free times, there is often an expectation to interact with others, such as sitting with others in the dining hall and participating in group activities in the playground. This can increase anxiety for some students with autism and lead to defensive or avoidant behaviours.

Teaching a student to participate in activities during unstructured times.

  • Provide structured activities during unstructured times. Most students with autism do not need a ‘break from structure’, and it is often detrimental to remove structure. Provide a visual schedule to show the student the activities he/she will participate in during free times, and ensure the activities are visually structured to allow participation. Link to example of schedule and structured leisure activities.
  • Choice board: Instead of a visual schedule, a choice board can be used. This visually shows the students which activities are available during free time but still provides the opportunity to make an independent choice. Some students may not be developmentally ready to make choices, and so a visual schedule will be a preferred option in these instances. Link to example of a choice board for play/leisure activities.
  • Visual timer: Use some form of visual timer (e.g. alarm, digital watch) to ensure the student knows when free time is over. Ensure also that the student knows what activity to transition to next.
  • Quiet area: Provide an alternative quiet area at free times to reduce feelings of sensory/social overload e.g. library, a games room (instead of playground), computer room. Another option is to section off an area of the playground and limit the number of students allowed in this area, but ensure the students who need a quieter area have access to it.
  • Allow solitude: If the student needs a break from social interaction, allow him/her to have time to self regulate and remove social demands. Opportunities to develop social skills can be provided at more structured times e.g. group work projects in the classroom when the student is emotionally regulated.
  • Provide access to favourite activities: Preferred activities can be allowed during free times as these are often the activities which the student with autism finds relaxing and enjoyable.