Don't Forget the Leisure Skills - The Autism Helper

Don’t Forget the Leisure Skills

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Most peoples days are spent chock full of work and obligation and routine and necessary, yet exhausting expectations. Life is a full-time job. But in the pie of life, even with all these things considered, there is still one big slice missing.


Hobbies. Leisure skills. Fun activities. Whatever you want to call them, they matter when creating rich, full lives filled with happiness. I work hard, and I also relax and play hard too. You can’t have one without the other for any extended period of time if you want to live a good life. Many times I unwind from life with the Real Housewives of wherever, or endless scrolling on my phone. These things let some steam off and are welcome distractions, but they don’t truly fulfill me. They don’t make me who I am. Sometimes they even make me feel less fulfilled and more angsty.

However, there are things that DO make me-me. Writing, photography, autism advocacy, reading, and exercise. When I make time for these things, I remember who I am and what I want to be when I grow up. And I am desperate to pass along an ability to create hobbies for my boys, in order for them engage in activities they enjoy doing to refuel the shiniest parts of their soul. I have two amazing boys with autism, Greyson is 9 and Parker is 7. We are life explorers.

Leisure is defined as. 1 : freedom provided by the cessation of activities especially : time free from work or duties. Children with autism may have difficultly developing appropriate leisure skills. A national survey found that children with ASD (ages 3–17) were less likely to participate in religious services, organized activities, and community activities than children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and typically developing peers (Lee et al. 2008).

However, with help from a parent, teacher, coach or mentor, they can be taught these skills, which can help improve their overall wellbeing and their quality of life. The capability to independently create their own happy, is something I want to depart onto my boys. And although they let off steam by watching certain movies or shows or youtube videos on repeat, this doesn’t cut it. It’s the equivalent of my Real Housewives and phone scrolling. It passes time, but it’s not truly fulfilling.

In fact, too much electronic and screen time is warned against, especially for people with autism. Mary G. Burke, MD, a psychiatrist at the Sutter Pacific Medical Foundation in San Francisco has observed that reducing use of electronics improves symptoms of OCD, panic attacks, and hyperactivity. I see that the more my oldest spends on the iPad, the less he wants to engage with others, and the more he NEEDS the iPad. This is something we work on- but ultimately, it’s up to me to regulate this. But it’s worth it.

Taking part in recreational activities, particularly outdoors, can improve your physical wellness. People who frequently participate in outdoor activities have fewer doctor visits, lower body mass indexes and lower systolic blood pressures than those who don’t, according to research. Mental wellness is an important part of your overall health too and research shows that participating in leisure activities regularly reduces depression and anxiety and can help you better manage stress.

I want to share the things we do to explore leisure activities and to create meaningful hobbies for my boys. As with learning anything new, there are often challenges to overcome along the way. As do many people touched by autism, I consider autistic adult, Temple Grandin a mentor. I try to follow her words: “You need to stretch kids with autism slightly outside their comfort zones, but never have surprises.” One of autism’s strengths is an ability to hyperfocus on a topic or activity. This may also make it hard to switch gears and try something new though. My motto with my oldest is “try something at least three times before you consider it a bust.” It takes him awhile to adjust to anything new- even some of the things he does now and LOVES- he hated the first several attempts.

Swimming lessons have probably been the MOST important skill my boys have learned. Not only for safety, but for enjoyment. This is one of their favorite activities, and as a bonus, provides lots of sensory input they need. And Greyson cried for the first several lessons the entire time, but now he loves it.

Luckily for Mom, this one didn’t last long.

Since this one has been taken, we’ve graduated to no training wheels.

This was exactly as amazing as it looks here. Horses speak autism so well.

My youngest, Parker, picked up my fancy camera over the Summer and he hasn’t stopped taking pictures since. He loves it, and watching him explore the world through photography has been a true highlight of my life.

This is a Parker original, and one of my favorites.


He’s also discovered a true love for bowling. He could do this all day long. I love watching both boys find special interests.

This entire day was a magical experience with Surfer’s Healing, an amazing organization that takes kids with autism surfing.




So- where do you begin? The longer you wait to get started, the harder it is to do. That being said, it’s still never too late to start trying new activities. It’s especially helpful if you try things that a mentor/teacher/parent is passionate about. The list of possibilities is literally endless.

The idea of teaching leisure skills can seem counterintuitive at first -but is often necessary for children on the spectrum. (No crying! This is fun! You are having fun darnit!) Finding a leisure activity a child with autism enjoys involves an open mind, trial and error, pairing new activities with preferred items, and a willingness to adapt things to fit the learner. A dependable rotating schedule and an offering choices can make a big difference in implementation. Do you want to ride the scooter, or put a puzzle together? Cooking/baking and building legos are great to throw into the rotation because they already come with directions to follow. Visual Supports for the win! (it’s unusual for me to write a post without mentioning both Visual Supports as well as the Real Housewives). Clear rules, structure and statements of what to do are beneficial. Make sure there is a well-defined beginning and end of the activity through the use of any support materials necessary. (Time timer, and task analysis or visual schedule). Some activities will have to be adapted or modified based on the learner. Over time, the activity will have a predictable or repetitive quality, and that’s when I would usually have the ability to clearly see if this was something that my boys could truly enjoy doing.

Therapeutic recreation is covered in school by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), as a “related service”. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a law that makes available a free appropriate public education to eligible children with disabilities throughout the nation and ensures special education and related services to those children. According to IDEA legislation, recreation as a related service is an umbrella term for four distinct services:: 1. Assessment of leisure functioning 2. Leisure education 3. Therapeutic recreation services 4. Recreation in school & communities

Consider any physical or cognitive requirements of the learner first, and then you are only limited by your own imagination. Keep in mind one person’s leisure, might be another persons work (aka- me and cooking. No thank you.). It’s important that the activity doesn’t only feel like work for it to be a good choice for an individual.

In the constant flow of life’s obligations, it’s hard to remember that leisure activities really aren’t optional for most of us, they are what makes us happy and makes us feel like ourselves. People with autism deserve to have those same abilities.

Chrissy Kelly
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1 Comment

  1. Love love love this! Thank you for writing this and making this as important. This is another one of the many reasons why I follow you as a fellow Autism momma


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