Leisure Time and Young People with Autism Spectrum Disorder



A large part of people’s lives are spent in leisure activities. When access to leisure is limited, it can lead to loneliness, social dissatisfaction, boredom, aimlessness, depression, anxiety, and suicide (Brewster & Coleyshaw 2011). Leisure activities may be especially important for young people, as it helps in the creation of adult identity (Brewster & Coleyshaw 2011). For young people with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), leisure time spent with others can help social and language skills (Orsmond and Kuo 2011). However, because of physical, institutional, and social barriers, leisure activities may be especially difficult to access for individuals with ASD. This brief focuses on four articles, published in 2011, that focus on leisure activities for young people with ASD.

Type of Leisure Activities

As part of a longer project, Orsmond and Kuo (2011) studied the leisure time activities of 103 adolescents (aged 12-21) with ASD who were living at home. On average, the participants spent 8.7 hours per day sleeping, 8.3 hours per day in free-time activities, 4.3 hours per day in scheduled activities like school, and 2.7 hours on personal care.

Young people with ASD spent a great deal of their time participating in solitary activities at home. They spent very little time, on average, engaged in social activities like visiting relatives and friends or having conversations. Table 1 shows  the percent of young people participating in each activity and the average amount of time per day that participating young people spent on each activity (Orsmond & Kuo 2011).

Table 1. Participation in Leisure Activities


Percentage of young people participating in this activity

Average hours per day spent on each activity by those who participated in it

Watch television






Physical activity



Listen to radio/music






Relaxing/Not occupied






Visit relatives/friends









(Orsmond & Kuo 2011)

The young people in this study spent most of their time either alone or with their mothers. They less frequently participated in leisure activities with peers. Table 2 shows the percentage of young people reporting leisure activities with different people, and the average number of hours per day they spent in these activities.

Table 2. Leisure Activity Partners

Who time was spent with

Percentage of young people spending time with that person

Average hours per day spent in leisure activities with that person










Paid professionals









Other relatives






(Orsmond & Kuo 2011)

Barriers to Leisure Participation

Those who also had an intellectual disability (ID) spent more free-time alone and with paid professionals and less time with peers. Even though young people with both ASD and ID likely have a higher level of functional dependence, they spent more time alone than those without ID. Those with fewer communication impairments were also more likely to spend time alone. This may mean that their ability level  enabled them to participate in more independent activities. Those with less severe challenging behaviors were more likely to spend time with peers.

Families with children who have ASD may have particular difficulties in arranging leisure activities. Completing family activities, whether these activities take place at home or in the community, is often hard (Schaff et al. 2011). The sensory needs of children with ASD often make it necessary for families to exercise a great deal of flexibility in their leisure activities. Most families find it easier to spend leisure time in familiar places, like home, than in places that are not familiar (Schaff et al. 2011). The need to be constantly vigilant during leisure activities can create stress and fatigue among caregivers. However, Schaff and others (2011) found that most families tried to increase their participation in leisure activities.

Barriers to leisure activities, especially those outside of the home may be physical, social or institutional. Thompson and Emira (2011) investigated barriers to participation in outside leisure for 81 families with a child with ASD. Many of the families reported a sense of isolation and a lack of engagement with leisure facilities. They often reported feeling vulnerable and worrying about bullying. Families also reported that staff training and attitudes were a problem. The invisibility of ASD may lead those without knowledge of the disability to assume that children with ASD are simply acting out or being naughty.  Also, staff may interact inappropriately with the young person with ASD (for example, yelling), and at times ask that the child not participate at all. These families also reported that they felt a certain level of tension between choosing between mainstream and specialized leisure activities. This kind of tension might be eased if leisure facilities would use a combination approach that allowed for specialized services that could easily merge into universal services (Thompson & Emira 2011).

In a study of 20 children with ASD, Brewster and Coleyshaw (2011) explored what young people with ASD did in their leisure time, what types of activities they would like to participate in, and what difficulties they encountered. These young people most often reported spending leisure time within the home. Younger children had lots of ideas about the types of activities they would like to do. However, older students did not show the same excitement. It may be that they have accepted the barriers facing them. For all age groups, satisfying relationships were a problem. Many participants reported problems with social interaction and bullying. Younger children wanted to have friends to play with, but older children largely accepted themselves as  being alone. Many of the older children were nervous about peer relationships and many had stopped trying. Some of the participants also reported that safety was an issue to participating on their own, and that their need for reliability and predictability made leisure activities difficult. These findings suggest that barriers to leisure activities can come from external or internal issues.


  • Brewster, Stephanie and Liz Coleyshaw. 2011. Participation or Exclusion? Perspectives of Pupils with Autistic Spectrum Disorders on their Participation in Leisure Activities. British Journal of Learning Disabilities 39: 284-291.
  • Orsmond, Gael and Hsin-Yu Kuo. 2011. The Daily Lives of Adolescents with an Autism Spectrum Disorder: Discretionary Time Use and Activity Partners. Autism 15(5): 579-599.
  • Schaaf, Roseann, Susan Toth-Cohen, Stephanie Johnson, Gina Outten, and Teal Benevides. 2011. The Everyday Routines of Families of Children with Autism: Examining the Impact of Sensory Processing Difficulties on the Family. Autism 15(3): 373-389.
  • Thompson, David and Mahmoud Emira. 2011. ‘They Say Every Child Matters, But They Don’t’: An Investigation into Parental and Carer Perceptions of Access to Leisure Facilities and Respite Care for Children and Young People with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or Attention Deficit, Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Disability & Society 26(1): 65-78.
Recommend this content Leisure Time and Young People with Autism Spectrum Disorder