Recreation Therapy as a Related Service

Gateway to Social Skills Training for Students with ASD

Recreation Therapy as a Related Service:By Reed Martin, J.D.
(Reed contributes a regular Special Education Law column for the Digest)

Over the last 35 years, we’ve worked with countless numbers of families of children with special needs to help them obtain the services appropriate for their children. Understandably, schools most frequently focus on academics in planning programs and services for a child, and so do many parents. However, for children on the autism spectrum, ‘education’ needs to go far beyond just academics. Indeed, the communication, social and sensory impairments make it difficult – and in some cases, impossible – for academic mastery to occur. Add in the challenge that spectrum kids have with forming friendships, emotional relating, and higher order thinking (perspective taking, organizational skills, etc.), it becomes obvious that services that only address academics are doomed to failure from the start!

One component of a comprehensive program for ASD kids that is often neglected is Recreation Therapy. It is an area that is grossly undervalued and misunderstood, although Federal legislation speaks to the importance of recreation therapy as part of a comprehensive service plan. It is one of the 10 Related Services that Congress specified in the IDEA that should be considered in planning an appropriate program for a special needs child. But, in my experience working with families and schools in all 50 states and reviewing over 4,500 IEPs, I cannot remember ever seeing a “Recreation Therapy” plan included on an IEP.

Recreation Therapy must sound to many school personnel (and many parents, based on those we’ve met) like an ‘extra’ service – one to consider only after academic needs have been successfully met. Parents and teachers are often so focused on grades and the ultimate goal of graduation with a regular diploma, that they are blinded to the positive benefits that recreation therapy can bring to the child – in all areas of functioning.

The most common interpretations of Recreation Therapy include play, playtime, sports or leisure activities. However, when we look at the language Congress used in defining Recreation Therapy, we find a goldmine for kids with ASD. Congress expected that “intensive recreation services” would be provided in educational settings in order to develop “the skills necessary to participate in other integrated social and community settings.” What’s at the heart of Recreation Therapy? Social skills!

There are hundreds of thousands of students with autism or Asperger’s Syndrome who have a workable level of academic skills but are having a difficult time in school because of their inability to interact socially with their peers. Some are viewed as kids with willful ‘bad behavior’ because they just don’t understand what’s socially appropriate and what’s not. As kids move from elementary grades into the highly social domains of middle and high school, these problems escalate and intensify.

Social interaction among peers, as well as with teachers and other adults, is a learned behavior. When it is not being learned appropriately, it becomes our responsibility to teach it – yet many schools today still lack understanding of the extent to which autism affects learned social behavior, or how to appropriately teach social skills. If we do not teach, and reinforce, positive appropriate behaviors, it should come as no surprise that students with ASD will exhibit inappropriate behaviors and even worse, learn new inappropriate behaviors from peers around them.

Often school personnel are unable to describe the problem; quite often their concern about a student is that he doesn’t “fit in” with his peers. Sometimes it’s an obvious inappropriate behavior that cannot be tolerated in a regular classroom setting, but more often, teachers tell us about a child who just “doesn’t get it” or who cannot form friendships or bond with people around him. Teachers question the long-term impact this inability.

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