Autism Inclusion in Recreation

Community inclusion for people with autism, in an ideal world, means fully including people on the spectrum in every aspect of community life—from sports and recreation to religious services to the arts.

Of course, this is not an ideal world, and "inclusion" programs don't always live up to that ideal for a wide range of reasons. There are many levels of inclusion and many methods for helping community organizations and the people they serve to come closer to the ideal.

This article will discuss the benefits of inclusion, levels of inclusion, barriers, and inclusion in sports and recreation. It will also address planning an inclusive recreation program and examples of successful programs.

Children in swimming class

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Community Inclusion Benefits

People with disabilities are people. And all people are—and should be treated as—full members of their community. Like anyone else, they have a need to belong to a community, to have friends, and to feel accepted.

In fact, says Lisa Drennan, founder of MERGE Inclusion Consulting, people with disabilities experience loneliness and depression at an unusually high rate, and community inclusion is one way to address this issue.

Overcoming "Othering"

Even well-intentioned people create segregated "special" programs for "those with special needs," rather than considering ways to include those people in programs, venues, and experiences theoretically intended for the general public.

This "othering" behavior displayed towards them makes people with disabilities feel that they are non-members of the larger community. Often, however, people with disabilities are also people with gifts, and those gifts can only be recognized when exercised in a public way.

Broad Benefits of Universal Design for Inclusion

When programs are designed to be universally accessible (accessible to all with or without disabilities), they can become more approachable even for people without diagnoses or physical challenges.

For example, a "Yoga for Beginners" class can provide extra support, explanations, repetition, and less challenging moves. This makes the experience more accessible not only for people with autism but also for older adults, people recovering from injury, or people for whom the idea of a yoga class is intimidating.

Building Bridges and Community

People who create and participate in fully inclusive programming are often surprised at how much they get from the experience. Not only is it worthwhile getting to know a wider range of community members, but it can be rewarding to make experiences available that would otherwise be inaccessible.

Levels of Inclusion

 There are multiple levels of inclusion; not all are anything like the ideal of universally designed experiences for all. Lisa Drennan describes these as follows:

  • Specialized: Community organizations often offer "special" programs or events to the disabled community. These may include special classes, early morning hours, or events such as "autism awareness day."
  • Integrated: Integrated programs provide "special" experiences within the context of experiences designed for the general public. An example would be a group of autistic campers who participate, with support, in typical camp experiences alongside their typical peers.
  • Unified: Unified, or "peer buddy," activities or events include both typical and autistic people engaged in the same activity—but the activity itself is geared toward the autistic population, and the neurotypical participants are essentially peer volunteers. An example is a "unified" basketball team in which typical high schoolers help their autistic teammates to throw the ball into the basket.
  • Inclusion: Full inclusion means that people with autism and typical peers are equally engaged in the same activity simultaneously with similar or equal success. Inclusion often requires preparation and some level of support to be successful.

For many people, it may be helpful to start with a specialized or integrated program before getting involved with a fully inclusive experience. That's because specialized and integrated programs are more likely to be smaller, move slowly, and have a higher staff-to-participant ratio.

The path is much smoother once a person with autism learns the skills they need to be fully included. On the flip side, if an autistic person has none of the skills required for inclusion, the experience can be difficult for everyone.

Limits and Barriers to Inclusion

Full inclusion can only occur when the individual being included is prepared for the experience and both physically and emotionally capable of participating. Preparation and direct instruction are very important, especially because autistic people, in general, are not good at reading behavioral cues and imitating group behaviors.

Limits to Inclusion

Even neurotypical individuals might or might not be included on a team or cast in a show because they don't have the physical or creative talents required—and the same is true for individuals with autism. (Neurotypical people do not have a diagnosis of autism or other intellectual or developmental differences.)

In addition, depending on the strengths, challenges, and interests of the person with autism, it may be impossible to be fully included in specific activities because autistic symptoms themselves can get in the way. For example:

  • A person who can't predict what another person is likely to do next may struggle in a team sport like soccer and may be better off in an individual sport like tennis.
  • A person who needs to vocalize and move in unpredictable ways isn't likely to do well on a dance team, though they might do well in hip-hop dance.
  • A person who cannot follow spoken directions will have difficulty succeeding in a large group activity but may do well in a smaller, quieter situation.

Barriers to Inclusion

Lisa Drennan explains that, at many community organizations, there is a misunderstanding of what inclusion is, "It's not special programs for people with disabilities, but programs that involve people of all abilities. That includes volunteers and staff, too." Hiring a special needs coordinator to create and run programs for the disabled is not the same as inclusion.

Drennan approaches inclusion on an organizational level and says, "When a group says we can't do this, it's usually lack of training and knowledge." She explains that specialists aren't required to make inclusion work—but plunging in without any training can lead to problems.

Generally, she says, when staff is anxious about inclusion, it's because of fear of the unknown. What
if I do or say the wrong thing? What if the person with the disability does something strange or scary? Autistic behaviors like flapping can seem scary if you've never experienced it, so getting that experience is key to success.

Autism Inclusion in Sports and Recreation

 Not every person with autism is interested in sports and recreation—but they are a big part of most children's lives and many adults'. Physical activity is important for health. Engagement in the "usual" activities of neurotypical life can make it easier for autistic people to feel a sense of community connection.

Sports

Certain sports lend themselves to full inclusion more than others, though individuals on the autism spectrum may succeed in almost any activity. In general, non-competitive sports are a better option than competitive teams, and individual team sports and activities can be a great choice.

Some of the most autism-friendly sports include:

  • Running and walking
  • Bowling
  • Swimming
  • Biking and skating (if balance isn't an issue)
  • Exercise classes including yoga

Recreation

People with autism may have little difficulty with many forms of recreation if they are prepared, taught any necessary skills, and invited to participate. It's important to remember that many people with autism, especially older adults, may have had little exposure to recreational activities—so preparation and direct instruction are key.

Recreation can take many forms, but some of the most autism-friendly options include:

How to Plan an Inclusive Recreation Program

As Lisa Drennan says, inclusion is not an event or a program or a staff member. It's an outcome of organizational commitment, which includes intentional work behind the scenes to be sure everyone is welcomed, engaged, and supported in every program or event offered. Think, too, about finding individuals' strengths rather than focusing entirely on challenges.

Training and Support

To achieve the goal of organizational commitment to full inclusion, staff must be trained and supported. If you have a university nearby, you may have access to potential trainers; if not, consider online options.

It's also very important to have sufficient staff and alternatives available to cope with unanticipated events or needs. That means that a single instructor may not be enough to manage a fully inclusive program.

As programs are developed, keep inclusion in mind. What are the barriers and prerequisites to participation? Can any or all of them be lessened or minimized?

For example, might it be possible to offer an "intro to aquatic exercise" workshop that helps everyone (not just people with autism or other disabilities) to understand what aquatic exercise is, how a class runs, what the equipment is called, and how to follow direction while in the pool?

The chances are that autistic individuals aren't alone in feeling nervous about joining an experienced group of exercisers as a novice.

While there is nothing wrong with providing a specialized class or program, these should not be the goal. Rather, they should serve as a bridge to full inclusion.

For example, a person taking a swim class for people with special needs should be learning the skills required to become part of a universally accessible swim class (or even a swim team).

Sharing Responsibility

Though much of the work is done at the organizational end, says Drennan, the person with autism and their support team also need to take some responsibility. If an autistic person has never participated in a class and simply shows up with no knowledge of expected behavior, chances are their experience will be negative.

Drennan suggests that people with autism should come to a program ahead of time, observe, and actively learn how the program works and what's expected of participants. Some tools for this process include:

  • Using video modeling or simply watching a video of the program, stopping it, and discussing what's going on.
  • Role-playing the process of, for example, coming quietly into a yoga class, greeting other classmates, spreading out a mat, placing a water bottle in the correct location, and waiting patiently for the class to begin.
  • Practicing any potentially difficult behaviors or activities ahead of time, along with the appropriate jargon. For example, what does a swim instructor mean when they talk about "treading" water? People with autism may have had less exposure than their peers to ordinary classes and activities, and may need more time to learn skills.
  • Use social stories to remind autistic participants of what they will be doing, what kinds of behaviors are expected in that situation, and what to do if a challenge arises.

Successful Inclusive Recreation Programs

The Y is probably the best-known national organization to focus on inclusion for all. With a motto that encompasses body, mind, and spirit, the Y's programs are geared for people with "diverse abilities” at all levels: physical, developmental, emotional, and mental. Some of the Y's secrets to success include:

  • Finding strengths and helping individuals to develop them
  • Finding a balance between good and perfect
  • Offering ongoing training and support for inclusion
  • Providing programs and events that are non-competitive, so that high levels of athletic ability are not required for success
  • Developing non-athletic programs for all ages ranging from leadership training to camping to arts and crafts
  • Creating a sense of intergenerational belonging for members who may have grown up in and continue to benefit from the Y as adults and even as older adults

Summary

Fully including people with autism in community recreation and sports is beneficial for everyone. It offers autistic participants a sense of accomplishment and belonging. At the same time, it provides neurotypical participants with extra support and opportunities to get to know their autistic neighbors in a new way.

To create an inclusive program:

  • Start by assuming that the entire organization will be inclusive and welcoming.
  • Design programs and events to be inclusive from the start.
  • Provide plenty of training and support to staff.
  • Share responsibility for inclusion with autistic individuals and their caregivers.
  • Work to find individuals' strengths and provide opportunities to build on strengths.

A Word From Verywell

Inclusion is not rocket science, but it does require a new outlook on sports and recreation. Perhaps the most difficult step to take is the first one: getting buy-in from organizational managers who are accustomed to thinking inside the box. Advocacy can work wonders in these situations, especially when a group of advocates works together toward the same attainable goals.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is autism inclusion?

    Autism inclusion is the practice of fully including autistic people in typical community experiences by designing those experiences for everyone. Autism inclusion is usually described in opposition to special needs programs that segregate the autistic population so that uniquely designed programs can be provided outside of the mainstream community.

  • How can recreation and leisure programs be more inclusive of autistic people?

    It is possible to design recreation and leisure programs to support all participants, autistic or not. Start by preparing people for the program by teaching basic vocabulary, expected behavior, and prerequisite skills.

    For example, to prepare people for a yoga program, explain that everyone can greet each other but should then be quiet, that everyone should spread out their mats upon arrival, etc.

    Other simple ways to support inclusion are lowering loud music, working in small groups, having more than one staff person available, and using multiple methods for teaching skills (not just talking but also showing or, if appropriate, touching).

  • Why is community inclusion important?

    All human beings need to feel that they belong to a community. While people with autism (like many people) often need a good deal of alone time, they also need a sense of belonging. What's more, autistic people often have significant gifts that they can bring to community settings.

    On the flip side, neurotypical people can gain a lot through exposure to community members who think and act differently.

  • What is the role of recreation in society?

    Recreation is a very broad term that describes almost everything we do for enjoyment. It can incorporate everything from mountain climbing to watercolor painting to playing the piano.

    Recreational activities provide us with a means to connect with others in our community who share our interests, and they can also provide physical exercise, communion with nature, artistic expression, and a sense of purpose. Recreation is important to the mental and physical health of virtually all human beings, regardless of age, gender, or ability.

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3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Rudy LJ. Interview with Lisa Drennan, Founder of Merge Inclusion Consulting. January 2022.

  2. Han GT, Tomarken AJ, Gotham KO. Social and nonsocial reward moderate the relation between autism symptoms and loneliness in adults with ASD, depression, and controls. Autism Research. 2019;12(6):884-896. doi:10.1002/aur.2088

  3. Spencer ABE. Autism spectrum disorder and family perspectives on their children's participation in a full inclusion recreation program. (Doctoral dissertation, The Wright Institute). 2018.

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