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The importance of outdoor play for autistic children and young people

Catherine Latimer, Research Officer at Middletown Centre for Autism

In Northern Ireland 4.7 per cent of school-aged children have received a diagnosis of autism: a spectrum condition characterised by differences in social communication and interaction as well as repetitive and restricted behaviours. Autism is often assessed in young children through differences in play behaviours as compared to typically developing children. These differences can present in terms of imaginative ability, motor skills, flexibility of thought, sharing attention with play partners, and sensory processing.

Although their play may be different, autistic children and young people benefit greatly from engaging in play – particularly outdoors. Research shows that autistic individuals are at a higher risk of obesity and higher body mass index (BMI) due to inactivity and sensory-avoiding behaviours, and are more likely to present with poor fitness levels and underdeveloped motor skills as well as Vitamin D deficiency from not spending enough time outdoors (Lawson & Foster, 2016; McCoy & Morgan, 2020). Playing outdoors creates opportunities for physically active play which can improve motor skills, agility, balance, handgrip strength and flexibility, as well as contributing to overall fitness, offering a variety of sensory input which supports regulation, focus and ability to learn as well as decreasing the stress hormone cortisol (Arslan et al., 2020; Barakat et al., 2019).

‘Although their play may be different, autistic children and young people benefit greatly from engaging in play – particularly outdoors.’

However, lack of awareness of how to support play for autistic individuals means autistic children and young people are often unable to participate in play in outdoor environments. Middletown Centre for Autism (established in 2007 by the Department of Education and Skills Ireland and the Department of Education Northern Ireland to support the promotion of excellence throughout Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in the education of autistic children and young people) has conducted research in collaboration with autistic children and young people, their parents and educators, to explore the play preferences, needs and barriers faced by the autistic community, in order to present solutions to achieving more equitable and accessible outdoor play within the home, school and community.

Funded by the Department of Education (NI), an online resource was developed from this research to provide advice and guidance on supporting outdoor play for autistic children and young people. The resource contains practical advice and guidance on creating inclusive play spaces, including toolkits for schools, visual supports and case studies, and provides a range of strategies that can be individualised to support autistic children and young people who wish to engage in outdoor play. Our downloadable outdoor play audit and play observation checklist are designed to help schools to review and evaluate outdoor spaces and identify opportunities for development, while the playground communication board, outdoor activity cards and range of social narratives can be used to inspire autonomy and inclusion in the playground.

It is important to note that all children have the right to play freely, and this includes non-normative forms of play. Any supports used should therefore be acceptable to the child and appropriate to their play needs and goals. We invite you to explore our resource, consider the play spaces in your home, school and community, and join us in our quest to make outdoor play inclusive for all.


Arslan, E., Ince, G., & Akyüz, M. (2020). Effects of a 12-week structured circuit exercise program on physical fitness levels of children with autism spectrum condition and typically developing children. International journal of developmental disabilities, 68(4), 500–510.

Barakat, H. A.-E.-R., Bakr, A., & El-Sayad, Z. (2019). Nature as a healer for autistic children. Alexandria Engineering Journal, 58(1), 353–366.

Lawson, L. M., & Foster, L. (2016). Sensory patterns, obesity, and physical activity participation of children with autism spectrum disorder. The American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 70(5).

McCoy, S. M., & Morgan, K. (2020). Obesity, physical activity, and sedentary behaviors in adolescents with autism spectrum disorder compared with typically developing peers. Autism: The International Journal of Research and Practice, 24(2), 387–399.