Hobbies and Interests
Many people with autism have a very restricted range of interests. Whilst it is beneficial to have any leisure interest, it is important to ensure that the interest is not simply a repetitive habit which is familiar and comforting to the child or young person.
The individual should be allowed time to engage in interests/routines which they find comforting, but leisure interests should be purposeful and be enriching to quality of life.
Most leisure interests will give the opportunity to learn new skills, develop social contacts and friendships, improve quality of life and reduce the risk of developing mental health issues.
Some children and young people with autism may be reluctant to engage in new hobbies and interests due to a dislike of unfamiliar and novel activities. The child or young person may be driven to repeat the same activities as they often prefer sameness and routine.
Many children and young people with autism avoid popular leisure activities because so many of them carry social demands. Many hobbies and interests are carried out in group settings and involve high levels of social interaction. This can then cause the individual with autism to avoid such activities.
Individuals who have sensory sensitivities will avoid leisure activities which involve high levels of sensory stimuli e.g. team sports, crowded environments, musical events. Such activities can lead to sensory overload and anxiety.
Many leisure interests are sports-based which require a level of motor skill. Some children and young people with autism have difficulties in the development of motor skills, due to factors such as low muscle tone, poor body awareness and deficits in motor planning. This may then cause them to avoid many leisure opportunities.
Some children and young people with autism prefer solitude and do not want to engage in leisure activities which are carried out in group and community settings.
The young person with autism may be fatigued after a day at school, due to the high level of social, academic and sensory demands. They may therefore lack the energy and motivation to participate in leisure activities in the evenings.
Young people with autism may not understand the benefits of leisure activities. They may view them as non-purposeful activities and see no point in participating. Many hobbies and interests do not have a tangible outcome and so this can affect motivation to participate.
Example of a structured jigsaw activity:
Allow the child/young person to explore a range of leisure options before selecting which activities are of interest to them. They can read about different hobbies and interests online or observe different activities at leisure centres, parks, youth clubs etc. Some organisations have open days which children can attend and try different activities before committing to them.
Many voluntary organisations for autism will have activity days specifically for individuals with autism to try new hobbies and interests. This gives the young person an opportunity to explore new activities in a more structured and autism friendly environment.
Some organisations, such as play centres and activity/ leisure centres, will have specified times when individuals with autism can participate in the activities. At these times, numbers are usually limited, sensory stimulation is minimised and staff can offer more support and assistance. This makes the environment less threatening to the child or young person with autism, and so they are more able to participate in the activities. Some children and young people with autism will of course be happy to participate at public times, but the option of autism specific times is useful for some.
- Disability Sports NI
- Active Sports NI
- Every Body Active 2020
- Newpark Sports Centre, Blackrock
- Surfing in Ireland for children with special needs
- Sailability: sailing for children with special needs
- Cookstown Cinema: autism specific screenings
- East Coast Adventures
- Autism specific times at Jumpzone (Sandyford)
- Tropicana (Newcastle, Co. Down)
- Leisure services which are available (lesson plan):
Some local clubs and activities will have staff who are specifically trained to work with individuals with autism and/or special needs. They will often advertise this, or you can make enquiries before taking the child/young person to the activity.
Schools can also invite organisations to the school to allow students to try new activities. If the child/young person shows an interest in an activity, this should be shared with parents/caregivers so they can explore it as a leisure option.
Ensure the hobby/interest introduced to the child or young person is a good match for their existing strengths, skills and interests. This is more likely to increase motivation and participation. If the young person is good at Maths and enjoys computer games, they might enjoy a computer club or coding class. If the young person likes animals, there may be a club they could join at the local zoo or animal shelter. If the young person enjoys cooking, he/she could sign up to a course of cookery lessons.
When introducing a new hobby or interest, ensure it is well structured for the individual with autism.
Provide visual instructions at the level which is meaningful for child or young person as this will increase the likelihood of engagement in the activity.
If the activity is visually clear, the child/young person is more likely to participate. This may involve setting out materials in an ordered sequence, giving an example of what is expected in the activity (e.g. what the person is expected to make/create) or providing a set of written instructions.
It is easy to assume that leisure hobbies and interests should be active and involve physical exercise and sport. REMEMBER: such activities will not suit everyone, and can often be overwhelming for the individual with autism due to the sensory and social demands involved at sports clubs and team games.
What can I do if a child or young person does not/cannot not take part in a physical exercise or sport?
Ensure you introduce other options to the child/young person with autism e.g. library groups, film clubs, historical societies, knitting/craft clubs, science clubs, nature activities.
It is however beneficial, to introduce the child/young person to some physical activity due to the health benefits and for emotional wellbeing.
Team sports may be too overwhelming due to the sensory and social demands, but there are many sports which can be carried out as an individual e.g. running, swimming, orienteering, gymnastics, trampolining.
When the young person gains confidence in the sport/activity, it may be beneficial for them to join a club. This will allow them to still engage in the sport but alongside others, and so giving the opportunity for social interaction.
Some children and young people will prefer solitary activities and may find these more relaxing and enjoyable as a leisure interest e.g. gardening, growing their own herbs and vegetables, reading, craft activities, running, swimming. If it expands interests and offers a source of enjoyment and relaxation, it is still a leisure activity, even if it does not involve social contact. They could eventually share these interests with others via online forums or clubs/societies.
Night classes at a local college may present suitable options for expanding hobbies and interests. These classes tend to offer a more structured way of engaging in a new activity, and the classroom structure and teaching method may be more familiar and predictable for an individual with autism than the less structured settings of youth clubs, sports clubs etc. Art and craft classes, cookery classes, language classes, IT classes etc may be of interest to the young person.
For younger children, leisure may simply mean engaging in a broader range of play activities. Introduce new toys and play materials in a visually structured way to increase engagement and to encourage them to play with new toys and materials.
Structured play ideas: