Often held in the spring or autumn, these day-long events require kids to compete in different sports or activities (athletics, egg and spoon or sack races) set up at stations around a playing field.
While a lot of kids enjoy the break from being in the classroom, others find it noisy, chaotic and confusing. So let's take a look at why, and some things you can do to make the day more fun for them...
so everyone can join in!
WHY THE DAY CAN BE TOUGH FOR THEM
There are kids cheering for their team, announcements over the PA, starting pistols or horns... and most of these noises aren't predictable and start or end suddenly.
There's people everywhere - some are participating, some are waiting, others are cheering or wandering about - and loads of sensory distractions like pom poms, grass and whistles.
There’s less supervision
The teacher-student ratio might just be doable in a classroom, but head outside and it becomes much more difficult to keep everyone under control.
Classes are mixed together
These events can often be run across age groups with classes joined together, or with an unfamiliar teacher assigned to supervise. This can be disorienting for kids who are just getting comfortable with their classmates.
They might be separated from friends
Some schools group kids into teams (or factions or houses) on a random or ad-hoc basis, which can be tough for those who struggle to make new friends.
They might not have their aide
These events require all hands on deck, which might mean that special needs assistants and aides are assigned elsewhere to supervise or keep score for the day.
There are a lot of sensory triggers outside the classroom - the wind, sunshine, smell of freshly mowed grass - which can quickly add up to the point of overload for hypersensitive kids.
The rules aren’t always clear
It can be tough for some kids to understand what's required of them - instructions are usually verbal with lots of steps - and easy to forget under the stress of competition ('Wait until the person in front of you passes you the ball and then roll it under your legs to the person behind'). It also might not be obvious how the winners are decided which can lead to confusion, disappointment or arguments.
Boundaries are hard to see
For kids who struggle with proprioception (knowing where their body is) it's super tricky to run in a straight line as it is, without also having to keep track of the lines marking out their lane. If the event is held on a large field or sporting oval it can be hard to distinguish the designated areas for each activity, or where their team is supposed to sit.
Excited kids yell
Emotions are extreme at sports events. Everyone cheers for their teammates, groans when their team is losing and goes nuts when someone wins. For kids who aren't noticing stuff going on around them and are learning to identify emotions, these outbursts can seem random, intense and even aggressive.
Excited kids yell at kids who do the wrong thing
Stuff that sounds helpful or encouraging to some kids - "No, no, run the other way!" - can make other kids feel like they're getting in trouble or doing things wrong. The stress and anxiety can be enough to make them quit half-way or not want to compete at all.
The daily routine is different
The school day might start and end at a different time, they're wearing different clothes and not in the regular classroom, and meal breaks are at a different time with possibly different foods. This can be really unsettling at a time when they're just getting settled into the school routine.
Things might not run to schedule
These events almost always take longer than planned, which can cause a lot of stress for kids who like things to happen when they're supposed to.
It can be hard to follow along
When you're in the middle of a crowd of people all engaging in different activities at the same time, it can be hard to understand what's going on, especially if you tend to pay attention to details (e.g. why is everyone cheering?)
There's a lack of structure
On the surface it might seem like the day is very organised with an ordered list of events, but in reality there's a lot of unstructured waiting around time where nothing much happens - in between activities, waiting for a race to start, tallying up the scores. This can be really difficult for some kids to manage, making them feel anxious about where they're supposed to be or what's meant to be happening.
People might look different
Some schools let kids dress up in team colours or paint their hair and faces. This can be frightening for some kids, and confusing for those who struggle with face blindness (without the cues for recognising friends and with everyone suddenly looking the same).
It’s easy to run away
A lot of autistic kids wander or escape, especially when overwhelmed or stressed. The wide open landscape of a playing field under reduced supervision, with undefined boundaries and all the extra sensory input and confusion, makes for ideal eloping conditions.
HOW TO MAKE THE DAY MORE FUN!
- Let them go for just the first half of the day
- Don’t make them run if they find it difficult
- Let them sit with parents or teachers
- Make sure they have 1:1 assistance for the whole day
- Sit away from loudspeakers or people using horns and whistles
- Mark out a spot for them to sit with a picnic blanket, mat or spray-paint on the grass
- Put them in the same team as a friend or classmate they know well
- Practise activities before the big day, using clear visual instructions
- Give them a job to do - scoring, handing out ribbons, passing notes to teachers
- Let them wear ear plugs or use an iPod to block out noise
- Talk about excited yelling - what it sounds like and why people do it
- Make a visual schedule of the day’s events
- Use a social story to explain the day's events and prepare for the change in routine
- Give them a listing of events without times on it - it's the order that matters
And if after trying all that it's still uncomfortable for them...
- Let them stay home - because inclusion doesn't mean you have to give up the right to opt out of activities which are harmful or not able to be adapted
Graphic from Scrappin' Doodles
Autism Preparation Kit For Teachers
What Parents of Autistic Kids Would Like Teachers To Know
Other posts you might like...