Autism and recreation
It would be wrong to generalise about the social and recreational preferences of any neurotype, but many autistic people agree that we do often tend to gravitate towards some common themes. But importantly, whatever it is that piques our interest or becomes an all-consuming passion, must be beneficial to our self-esteem and mental wellbeing rather than just another social event or pressure that has been imposed upon us and which we are expected to conform to and put up with.
There will be aspects around recreation that need careful consideration for autistic people, because of our sensory, communication and social differences but many activities can easily be adapted with these considerations in mind. It is also worth bearing in mind that due to the higher chance of having co-ordination challenges or hypermobility certain sports may be less appropriate, whilst others may help to improve co-ordination.
One of the most wonderful things about autism, is our ability to deep dive into subjects that interest us and the pure and intense enjoyment we can get from doing so. In these times we can use our super hyper-focus skills to go into another world, destress and calm our minds and bodies.
When it comes to social activities, we are frequently misunderstood. For example, activities needing a lot of social interaction are often not our preference. But on the other hand, we may enjoy being in the company of others and doing the same things – but more on the edges of the group than in the midst of all the action. So perhaps we would enjoy a night out at a social club but would rather sit with only one or two close friends with similar interests, or even on our own, doing our own thing. That’s not to say we all prefer the same things. There are definitely social butterflies and party animals in our midst as well.
A child sitting with its back to a group of children may be very happy in their own way and enjoying just being with those children, even if they are doing something completely different and not interacting in the way adults might expect.
A common shared preference amongst autistic people, is for activities that focus on something other than ourselves or on social interaction. In other words – less effort needed to read people and more fun and enjoyment. It takes the pressure off us. And when social norms and expectations are relaxed, more flexibility is created allowing us to feel more included and less judged.
We tend to like rules and for others to follow them as well. So structured activities can be very enjoyable. Chaotic ones, less so. It is very common for autistic children to prefer spending time in the company of adults or older children, or even animals.
Autistic led organisations and support groups are a reliable source of information, support, comradeship and social opportunities. Some events organised by and for autistic people include:
- Autscape (UK) – http://www.autscape.org
- Autminds (the Netherlands) – https://www.autminds.nl
- Autreat (the US) – https://www.autreat.com
Events like these are so important as they help us to find like-minded and accepting people – a place where we can be our true selves, share our intense interests and feel genuinely understood, included and supported.
Another big factor to take into account is an individual’s sensory preferences. These may be a barrier to certain activities but often they need not be – with a little adjustment and consideration.
For example, a person might love to go swimming. It is something that can be done without direct communication (if that is preferred) and is also repetitive and calming which many of us appreciate. However, many autistic people will avoid public swimming pools due to the fact that they are a sensory nightmare.
The chlorine, the smells, the cold air, the echo noise, the lighting, the cold water and too many people.
Simple adjustments here could include: much less chlorine, a warmer environment or warmed towel rails by the side of the pool. Specific quiet times, maybe with dimmed lights, higher temperatures and less people. A quiet room where we can go to recover when it all gets too much. And a real treat would be sensory lighting to go with the relaxing music!
Cinemas and theatres can offer special relaxed sessions, where lights are dimmed and rules and expectations are lowered so that people can relax properly, move around if they need to, stim and just be free to enjoy the film or show without being told off or thrown out! These have proved very popular in several countries.
Physical activity is a great way to release stress, regulate our emotions and build our physical and mental resilience.
Autistic people may or may not enjoy team games. Some of us do, but many of us find the whole social aspect of team games too difficult or draining. Especially children, where teams are picked by a team leader and the less popular kids always get picked last. But if the team is very inclusive this solves a lot of anxiety-inducing issues and we can quickly become top of our game if it also happens to be an intense interest. It will also provide a much-needed boost to self-esteem and confidence – things that are too often chipped away from autistic people on a daily basis. There are also many sports where you can still be part of a team yet working on your own techniques or independently.
Certain activities such as walking, cycling and jogging for example, are easy to enjoy as part of an everyday routine. They are rhythmic, and again, can be done alone or alongside people, with minimal direct interaction. Plus, outdoor activities can often be combined with the healing joy of nature.
There are sports for all sorts. Some relaxing and others for the adrenaline junkie. They provide an outlet for stress, helping to relieve anxiety and depression. They are often a much-needed boost to self-esteem, creating a sense of belonging and a way to interact with others without pressure. They can aso help us to calm and regulate ourselves whilst improving co-ordination and enjoying the fresh air.
Many are rhythmic and soothing – trampolining for example. Active sports are also a way to use up excess energy (especially for those of us who also have ADHD!) and provide important sensory feedback. Not to forget the simple joy of just kicking a ball around the park or playing catch, basketball or other ball games.
Here are some more sporty possibilities: Golf, snooker, pool, bowling, skiing, hiking, surfing, diving, snorkelling, tennis, badminton, table tennis (ping pong), fencing, martial arts, archery, aquarobics, gyms and fitness classes, gymnastics, running, athletics, skipping, French skipping, playground games and parachute games, yoga, Thai Chi…
Nature has been proven time and again to benefit everyone’s psychological wellbeing. Trees, for example, release endorphins or happy hormones and autistic people seem to have a natural affinity for nature as a whole. We can combine these benefits with other favourite activities such as den building, photography, collecting and categorising things.
There are so many sensory wonders to experience in the garden. Playing with mud, collecting leaves, discovering mini-beasts, spotting, observing, digging, planting, drawing, smelling or just being at one with nature. Growing new life from seed can be immensely pleasurable and rewarding as well as giving a huge sense of purpose and can be done in just a single pot where space is limited.
Performing arts are something else we commonly gravitate towards. Many autistic people find that performing from a script is much easier than navigating everyday life. Autistic women in particular naturally develop acting skills through everyday masking, and many of us find that performing to an audience can be a great way to express ourselves safely.
Drama classes and theatre groups, improvisation and storytelling are incredibly liberating and many autistic people find they have a natural talent in this area. Especially when those groups are open to all forms of diversity.
Dance or expressive movement can be done alone or in classes. The same goes for singing. The point is to enjoy it and let ourselves go – not to be inhibited by other people’s opinions as to whether or not we ‘can’ sing.
Music is another magical source of relaxation, revitalisation and escape. There are endless different types of music to experience. Learning to play an instrument has many benefits to everyone and activities such as drumming and percussion fulfil that need for repetitive rhythm or energy release.
Collecting thing is a part of many autistic people’s lives. We have an amazing capacity to often become experts in such a wide array of subjects and these skills are often valued later on in our work or personal lives.
Quiet activities such as reading, jigsaws, puzzles and crosswords, are of course, equally important and are not subject to the pressures of direct social interaction. Another very important thing for many autistic people is a quiet area at home (as well as school or work), just for us, where we can escape to recharge our batteries and soothe ourselves.
Building things with Lego has to be a common top favourite activity amongst the autistic community. Meccano also involves building things (is that still around, or am I showing my age?) and model kits are another idea. These are all rewarding activities that are repetitive, systematic, stimulating, engaging or relaxing, and give us a sense of achievement in a world that too often focuses on our difficulties. It is also another perfect activity to do with others without the usual demands of social interaction.
Creative crafts, being so popular these days, are abundant in choice, with seemingly endless choice. Our tactile sensory feedback needs can be met with crafts such as knitting, crochet, quilting, sewing, weaving, embroidery, crafting, model making, card making, scrapbooking, colouring, doodling, painting, flower arranging, clay modelling, Play-Doh, sculpting, working with wood, painting, decorating, baking, cooking, jigsaws.
Creating art, photography or writing are both valuable ways to express ourselves or communicate in ways that may be otherwise extremely challenging. For me personally, since being diagnosed later in life, I have discovered how invaluable writing is for me after a lifetime of struggling to make myself understood and communicate verbally. There are so many mediums and spaces now to share our creations with other like-minded people, whether we prefer to take photos, write articles, books or poetry, design, produce art, music, videos, blogs, vlogs, podcasts or all of the above!
Those of us who are sensory seeking would love our own sensory den. Me included! This could be made from material that blocks out the light and filled with light toys and sparkly wonders. But plain old dens made from a couple of chairs and a sheet can be just as much fun. Autistic people need a great deal of downtime to recharge, so something like this for children or a shed in the garden for adults can be invaluable. Or if space is limited, just a screened of corner in a quiet part of the home may well be enough.
Gaming is really, really popular in the autistic community. Console gaming, online gaming as well as board games and role-playing games. These can easily be done with like-minded people and really relax the communication channels.
And finally, TV and film is another hugely popular way to share and spend enjoyable time either alone or with family and friends and a great way to learn social stories, skills, communication and so much more. Some autistic people like to watch the same film over and over and sometimes we use the scripts and quotes from films and TV to help us express ourselves.
It’s worth remembering though, that much on TV and in films is still stereotyped or biased towards a majority community, so therefore not necessarily representative of real-life relationships, neurotypes, gender issues and so on. This is a good opportunity, to open up the channels of communication and discuss these issues with someone before we apply these ‘scripts’ to everyday life.