It would be wrong to generalise about the social and activity preferences of any neurotype, but many autistic people agree that we do often tend to gravitate towards some common themes. This section may be useful for both parents who are seeking some guidance for their children, as well as adults and young people looking for ideas.
One of the most wonderful things about autism, is our ability to deep dive into subjects that interest us and the pure enjoyment we can get from doing so. The intensity of our interest and the way we can hyper-focus on them so deeply are very special, and the list of possibilities is endless. ....
Intense interests may come and go, last months, years or a lifetime, or they may change frequently, especially if we also have ADHD, but they are often extremely valuable in our jobs or other meaningful activities in adulthood.
It is common for us to create ‘nests’ around our homes – areas full of one interest or another. I'm dreadfully guilty of this. It's a particular problem that we share with ADHD whereby, if we don’t see it, we forget it’s there! Alternatively, our autistic brains may well demand everything is neatly arranged and hidden away tidily in cupboards, while our ADHD brains may have other ideas. This can create a challenge in itself!
The autistic and ADHD parts of our brains may be fighting each other. One needs structure and routine and the other is easily bored and wants to try something shiny & new!
Something to bear in mind in our busy modern lives, is that children can be so busy, that they risk being unable to experience activities and experiences that are truly meaningful to them. They are under pressure to do everything the school asks of them as well as their household chores and responsibilities. They often have jam packed weeks spent attending their after-school clubs and social commitments (willingly, or otherwise), music classes, swimming lessons, cubs and brownies and completing homework.
Many of these activities are necessary, of course, and others are chosen by the child themselves. But still, it's easy to get drawn into so many different commitments that there is no spare time for trying something new and genuinely enjoyable, such as discovering new intense interests, or experimenting with things, or even just … being.
Many valuable skills are learnt from trying new things, even if we eventually decide they aren’t for us. The benefits are many:
Helping us to develop a positive sense of self
Boosting our confidence and self-esteem
Supporting emotional management skills
Developing opinions and an insight into those of others
Developing social skills, physical skills, better mental health and so much more
Our childhood activities could well become lifelong passions or expertise, creating opportunities for work or other meaningful activities.
“When a family focuses on ability instead of disability, all things are possible . . . Love and acceptance is key. We need to interact with those with autism by taking an interest in their interests.”
Importantly, when it comes to social activities, some of our preferences are widely misunderstood.
For example, activities needing a lot of social interaction are often not (necessarily) our preference. However, we may still 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. Remember of course, that we are all different! There are definitely social butterflies and party animals in our midst.
Some of us are happy to go shopping alone, or sit in a cafe by ourselves, perhaps just people watching or reading a book. We might go to a craft class and enjoy experiencing the shared interest and atmosphere, but not actually want to interact directly with anyone. We aren’t intending to be rude or standoffish - it’s just our way. It’s possible that we would like you to talk to us and find out more about us, but don’t assume we are ‘loners’ just because we may be acting differently to you.
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.
“Let’s give people with autism more opportunities to demonstrate what they feel, what they imagine, what comes naturally to them through humor and the language of sensory experience. As we learn more about autism, let’s not forget to learn from those with autism. There are poets walking among you and they have much to teach.”
– Chris Martin, Unrestricted Interest
Another common preference for autistic people, is doing an activity that focuses on something other than the other participants directly. In other words, less trying to read people, and more fun and enjoyment. It takes the pressure off of us.
Good ways to enjoy time together like this are playing board games, card games, computer games or chess. When social norms and expectations are relaxed and more flexibility is created, we feel more included and less judged.
We tend to like rules and for others to follow them. So structured activities can be very enjoyable. Chaotic ones, less so.
It is common for autistic children to prefer spending time in the company of adults, older children, or even animals, so don't panic if we prefer not to join in with whatever everyone else is doing.
Autistic led organisations and support groups are a reliable source of information, support, comradeship and social opportunities.
Three big annual events that are organised by and for autistic people are:
Autminds (the Netherlands)
Autreat (the US)
Events like these are so important as they help us to find like-minded and accepting people - a community where we can be our true selves, share our intense interests unashamedly, and feel genuinely understood, included and supported.
There are more online and in person groups listed in the resources and links section, here.
And finally, there is no law that says hobbies and fun activities should stop at a certain age! If there is, I break it all the time. If you want to continue to play with your dolls into your 60s, then go ahead. Why not? Or perhaps you gained enormous joy from colouring when you were a child and want to continue as an adult, then go for it. In fact, many ‘childhood’ hobbies, such as colouring are now very trendy for adults too.
I can assure you, that whatever floats your boat, there will be others who share that passion, waiting for you bring your enthusiasm along to their next meet-up.
Below are lots of ideas for specific activities, with some extra autistic-minded guidance, where relevant.
Sports and exercise
Physical activity is a great way to release stress, regulate our emotions and build our physical and mental resilience. Sometimes, there are barriers that stop autistic people enjoying things and these may need to be considered and adjusted accordingly.
For example, a person might love to go swimming, but the noise, chlorine and cold air of the dressing rooms may put them off so much, that they rarely get to experience it. There are ways to lessen or even remove barriers such as these.
And it would be great if public spaces did much more in this area!
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. There are also many sports where you are still part of a team yet working mainly on your own techniques or independently.
It is also worth bearing in mind that due to the higher chance of having co-ordination challenges or hypermobility issues, certain sports may be less appropriate, whilst others may help to improve co-ordination.
Swimming is very popular as it can be done alone or with others but without direct communication. It also tends to be repetitive and calming. Unfortunately, for some of us, chlorine, noise, smells and cold air can be barriers.
Can be enormously beneficial and therapeutic. It can be part of a routine or a way to ‘socialise’ without pressures. A way to experience and share the joy of nature. A bridge to communication in a more natural and less rigid or demanding way.
Alone or with others, but without a need for too much interaction. Like walking, another great way to experience nature.
Rhythmic, soothing, relaxing! A great physical activity for using up excess energy, or giving much-needed sensory feedback. If I could have had a trampoline of my own as a child, my parents would never have heard a peep out of me!
The simple joy of kicking a ball around the park or playing catch, basketball or other ball games - an oldie but goodie. It's a simple and stress-free way to interact with others. It can help to calm and regulate ourselves and improve co-ordination, all whilst enjoying the fresh air.
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... the list is endless.
Personally I would have loved to have tried all of the above and more !!!
Theatre, music & performance
Many autistic people find that performing is much easier than navigating everyday life. Women in particular can develop natural acting skills through everyday masking, and many find that performing to an audience can be a great way to express ourselves safely. For me personally, I can struggle to have a two way conversation with someone, yet stick me up on a stage in front of an audience who can't talk back, and I'm off!
Dance or expressive movement
Alone or in classes., there is so much choice.
Drama classes and theatre groups, improvisation and storytelling
Especially when those groups are open to all forms of diversity.
In a group or choir, or alone. All forms of singing and humming are known to be very comforting, calming, energising or up-lifting. It doesn’t matter if you have a ‘good voice’ or a ‘bad voice’ - what matters is the benefit you receive from this totally natural and free activity.
Another wish I share with a friend of mine is for clubs for people who just want to sing with others. But sing without any expectation of actually sounding harmonious - purely for the enjoyment. Alongside these clubs, there would also be dance and movement classes for those who just want to move to music, listen to music with others, hum, stim or do whatever comes naturally. And all without fear of ridicule, judgement, demand or expectation. They seem to exist for kiddies, but what about us oldies???
Listening to music, singing, playing an instrument, drumming and percussion. Again, whilst many can grow and develop their natural musical talents, don't forget about those of us who have no expectations of becoming the next pop star or Andrew-Lloyd Webber.
Film making, magic clubs, acrobatics and circus skills.
This could be literally anything! Objects, facts, numbers, trains and planes, bird spotting, films... the list is endless. Many of us really enjoy cataloguing, collecting, filing, systemising or simply organising things.
Gardening and nature
Getting out into nature has to be one of the top stress-reducing, calming and enjoyable activities, and it is free for everyone to enjoy. There has been much scientific research to back up the mental and physical health advantages of beaches, forests, lakes, rivers and nature in general.
Den building outside is a top hit for children and adults alike. Many hobbies can be combined or experienced outdoors and in all weathers. Camping (even in your own garden), fishing, boating, water sports, wild swimming - anything around water could be a hit.
Photography and nature are a match made in heaven.
Or of course, there is simply playing in the garden. There are so many sensory wonders to experience in the garden. Playing with mud, collecting leaves, discovering mini-beasts, categorising, 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 a single pot if space is limited. Never underestimate the sense of achievement and pride from growing food to eat – even a single carrot, in a single pot, on a tiny window sill.
Inside, or outside. Building blocks such as Lego, Duplo, Mechano are all great examples of rewarding toys 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 a perfect activity to do with others without the usual demands of social interaction.
Quiet activities, alone or with others
Jigsaws, chess, puzzles and crosswords - we all know the joy of losing ourselves in these things for a couple of hours.
Games & gaming
Games are another activity that involve companionship, yet without too much socialising. The emphasis and concentration is on the game itself rather than social interaction, rules and overall pressure. Board games, card games, MahJong, chess, marbles, outdoor games such as Kubb, computer gaming, online gaming, multiplayer gaming, roll playing games (RPG) such as Dungeons & Dragons... These are very popular activities in the autistic community.
Animals can be profoundly therapeutic for so many of us. Family pets, voluntary work at animal shelters or farms, working with horses, or even equine therapy. Llama or Alpaca trekking, donkey counselling... we can find joy and companionship in any kind of animal.
A private den or sensory area
Having an area of the home that it just for us, where we can retreat to is a necessity for many of us. If space allows, it could be a shed, spare room, craft room, tent - any area that is just for the person to spend much needed and super important alone time to recharge and where they can go and be left undisturbed. Even a corner of a room, curtained off and just for us, with a pair of noise cancelling headphones, can be enough.
A tent in the garden, a treehouse or an outdoor den. An indoor den can easily be whipped up, with a couple of chairs, a blanket and some imagination. Those of us who are sensory seeking can keep some of our favourite items here. Brightly coloured light toys, favourite materials, a sensory pack (see section on sensory needs) or some favourite books or music. There are blackout curtains and even blackout tents that you can buy. Some places have excellent sensory rooms for children and adults.
Magazines, comics and books may be one of the easiest ways for anyone to escape from the real world and exercise their imaginations. Libraries are wonderful resources and usually nice and quiet. Other possibilities are book clubs, collector’s clubs and of course, the World Wide Web of wonders.
These days there are many options to choose from, not just paper books to read. There are audio books, brail books, easy read fonts, abridged books, videos and YouTube channels where books are read to the audience, CDs and listening libraries.
Popular for many autistic people - computers, engineering, programming, electronics, coding, gaming…
Well, the list here could be endless, but here are a few ideas:
Knitting, crochet, quilting, sewing, weaving, embroidery, crafting, model making, card making, scrap booking, colouring, doodling, painting, flower arranging, clay modelling, Play-Doh, sculpting, working with wood, painting, decorating, baking, cooking, jigsaws and photography. Many of these are also great for tactile sensory feedback.
High adrenaline activities
The more daring and strongly sensory seeking among us may enjoy more extreme sports and activities, such as base jumping, parkours, rollercoasters and so on. Some of us just love to spin, or have a need to be constantly moving.
Watching films and series
What a wonderful way to spend time 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. Thomas the Tank Engine seems to be a big hit with many children.
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, gender issues and so on. Some of us may need to discuss these issues with a suitable person before we apply these 'scripts' to everyday life. But it can also be good opportunity for anyone, regardless of neurotype, to discuss bias and misrepresentation in the media.
Yoga, Thai Chi, various forms of meditation, breathing exercises, Pilates, mindfulness...there are many ways to help relax and recharge. More ideas can be found on the helpful strategies page, here.