How to make lunchtimes successful for pupils with autism

How to make lunchtimes successful for pupils with autism

What's the most difficult time of day for pupils with autism?

I'm guessing you said... lunchtimes.

For students diagnosed with ASD, that long hour of unstructured time can pose real difficulties:

  • problems mis-reading social situations (leading to arguments with classmates)
  • the barrage of sensory input (the noise of the dining room, the smells of the food, getting bumped in crowded corridors)
  • frequent transition (stress caused by constantly moving from place to place, from activity to activity, from adult to adult)
  • difficulties coping when the rules of a playground game unexpectedly change

And the result?

Surging anxiety... fuelling arguments, refusal, fight-or-flight (or freeze) behaviours and meltdowns.

And then the child returns to class... emotionally wrung out and unready to learn.

So, it makes sense for everybody to get lunchtimes right for pupils with autism.

But where do you start?

These 4 articles are the perfect jumping-off point - they're all packed with ideas from around the world that have been proven to work.

(By the way - if you want clarification, check out our article on what the terms ASD, ASC, autism and Aspergers actually mean)

Support strategies by the National Autistic Society

The National Autistic Society has an entire page devoted to autism-friendly support strategies at lunchtime.

One key idea is a providing a safe and quiet place for the child to go to when they experience sensory overload.

Sensory overload happens when you're over (or under) sensitive to one of your senses. 

For example, the sound of children happily shouting and playing on the playground isn't a problem for most people.  It's easily tolerated. 

But now imagine your ears are highly sensitive to sound.  The noise of the other children playing: It feels like you're being attacked by waves of piercing screams that never end.  The volume is so loud it actually hurts your ears.

That's why a quiet room room in school can be essential.  It offers your pupil a shelter, a chance to escape the sensory load of the playground and regroup.

For more ideas just like this one, check out this page.

Social Reinforcers by the University of California

Researchers at the University of California ran a research experiment to see if "social reinforcers" can help children with autism socialise better during unstructured times.

Target children were invited to a club and encouraged to participate in games that promoted social interaction.

Here are two examples:

  • finding a friend from a description given in a clue (eg. find someone who has a birthday in May)
  • head band game (ie. asking your friends questions about what picture has been placed in a headband, out of your sight)

All these games are designed to encourage interaction with peers but in a simple and structured way.

The outcome?  This was a small scale trial, but the results were positive.  Social engagement in all participants significantly improved.

For more information, check out the full article.

Playground strategies by Amaze

This playground strategies fact sheet by Amaze contains a wealth of ideas for supporting students with autism.

Interestingly, one of the great ideas included didn't actually focus on the playground...

...but on how the child returned to class.

Remember we talked about all the stresses and anxieties that lunchtimes can cause for pupils with ASD?

How you might feel emotionally wrung out? Exhausted and stressed?

Amaze recommend that, after lunchtime, your pupils with autism are given a few minutes to prepare themselves for learning time.

This might be:

  • reading a book
  • sitting quietly
  • listening to some music

This short intervention helps reset the child's emotional state... meaning they're calm and ready to join in with the following lesson.

For more great ideas, view the factsheet.

Lunchtime clubs by Sue Larkey

Adult-led lunchtime clubs provide a number of benefits for students diagnosed with ASD.

Not only does it give them another way of escaping sensory overload on the playground, but they can also learn to participate in games and social situations in a mediated, structured way.

Sue Larkey has written a factsheet full of strategies to support children with autism at lunchtime.

If you're thinking of setting up an ASD-friendly lunchtime club, she gives you 8 simple, practical steps to ensure success.

These include:

  • using the target children's current interests to make the club attractive to them
  • thinking about HOW the students will access the club (eg. who can attend, how students are chosen, open-door vs timetabled)
  • what kind of activities will support the student (Sue lists 24 separate ideas to get you going)

Her factsheet also includes 10 tips to support children with ASD on the playground.

You can read all of her ideas here.

Key takeaways

Students diagnosed with autism can find lunchtimes exhausting and full of anxiety.  That means they can return to class with their bodies full of stress chemicals, which will drain their ability to cope with the rest of the school day.

By providing some simple, practical support mechanisms, we can help alleviate those anxieties.

The 4 key ideas were:

  • providing a quiet area to escape sensory overload
  • giving students calming time when they come in from lunch
  • encouraging students to play games with 'social reinforcers'
  • offering students access to lunchtime clubs

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