11. Sport, Leisure and Culture
Approximately 15 per cent of participants discussed the importance of access to sport, leisure and cultural activities for autistic people. As in other themes, participants discussed sport, leisure and culture under each of strategy's outcomes. As elsewhere in this document, participants emphasised the need for more understanding of autism and for more opportunities for autistic people and their families to access meaningful activity.
Opportunities and access
Participants were clear in their view about the potential benefits access to sport, leisure and culture activities has for autistic people and their families. As one said, families know well the benefits of leading a healthier life, whether that involves walking or taking part in sports. Another said 'walking is taking off', the 'social side to it is huge'. Local clubs and sport activity are a 'good way' for autistic people to 'get out' and can help 'improve social skills and confidence'. Going outside into 'fresh air' and exercising are a 'huge part of stress management'. Accessing opportunities of this type can also be a mean through by to promote healthy eating, general fitness and health, and the 'fight against obesity'.
A larger number of participants spoke in general terms about the need to increase for autistic people opportunities and access to sport, leisure and cultural activity:
- 'Improving sporting opportunities and activities for children and adults'.
- 'By offering greater opportunities for autistic people and their families to indulge in healthy activities, sports and outdoor pastimes etc.'.
- 'Access to accessible recreational sport and exercise facilities which is affordable'.
- 'Access to more sports for people with special needs'.
- 'By ensuring they have the same opportunities as everyone else to attend sports centres and gyms'.
- 'We need to be able to access sport and recreational facilities'.
- 'More inclusive leisure/recreational/learning/work opportunities'.
For many participants the best approach to increasing access is by making the particular facility or activity autism friendly. Again, some participants spoke generally about increasing autism-friendly opportunities, while others offered particular suggestions. One said, for example, that people should contact local gyms or sport centres about having an 'autism-friendly staff team' to support autistic individuals. Another said autistic people could complete a questionnaire so that leisure and sport facilities have the information they need to help provide 'structured activities'. Some suggested that there should be autism-specific activity, only open to autistic people, as well as 'quiet times', 'relaxed' sessions and 'autism-friendly sessions'. As one participant said, autistic people often endure 'large amounts of stress' because leisure and other activity is 'set up in way that caters well for neurotypical individuals but is often too busy, noisy and chaotic for those on the autistic spectrum to comfortably attend'. Providing more opportunities but in 'noisy echoey halls' renders the choice 'irrelevant'. Families should have the opportunity to attend 'taster sessions' to assess the suitability of the activity on offer, while leisure and sports centres should consider installing sensory rooms or setting aside space as 'designated quiet areas'. Training and awareness are important too:
- 'We need to work on guiding staff at leisure centres on limitations with autistic kids so that they learn at their pace in swimming lessons rather [than] being left out'.
- 'Make…librarians aware of the autism spectrum'.
- 'Encourage leisure centres to have ASD training…'.
- 'Give autism awareness training to all services and places such as leisure centres'.
- 'Sports and related facilities need to have autism friendly sessions that are led by people that have an understanding and knowledge of autism'.
- 'Activities where instructors have an understanding of autism. Most ASN sports/clubs activities are not geared up to individuals with low functioning autism…'.
- 'By educating and training those who work in the community (sports, leisure centres, libraries, galleries, cafes etc.) to better understand autism and the difficulties individuals face in accessing these services without discrimination'.
For many participants accessing sport, leisure and cultural activities is tied to having access to things like finance and appropriate transport. As one participant said, transport should be available to help autistic people access opportunities like clubs and football matches. Another noted the particular challenges of accessing opportunities in rural areas, so that 'suitable transport' should be available. Others suggested that memberships to leisure or sports facilities should be free for autistic people, or that they should have an automatic entitlement if they are in receipt of certain social security benefits. As one participant explained: 'money – as an adult with ASD and unable to work, therefore reliant, for the long term, on benefits, financial access to activities, exercise, socialising and a healthy diet is limited'. Any entitlement to memberships should include a 'plus one' option so the autistic person can be accompanied by a friend, carer or family member.