The third guideline for a meaningful task pertains to leisure pursuits. As noted earlier, many center-based programs provide various types of leisure opportunities for their participants. Leisure experiences are important for adults with autism just as they are for all adults. In particular, the degree of enjoyment experienced during leisure time has a significant impact on overall quality of adult life.

As also noted earlier though, the types of leisure tasks provided for adults with autism in center-based programs are often of questionable value. A primary concern has been whether the tasks represent something which individuals truly enjoy versus something just to keep them occupied. A related concern is that the types of leisure opportunities often provided are limited in number and variety. To illustrate, many adults in center-based programs are observed doing the same basic thing day in and day out during designated leisure time. Such a process limits opportunities for adults with autism to develop new leisure skills for expanding their leisure preferences and accompanying enjoyment during leisure time. Generally, the more leisure opportunities, skills, and preferences one has, the more likely the individual will truly enjoy his/her leisure time.

As with the other guidelines for meaningful tasks, this guideline requires that both the leisure activity and materials used within the task be considered. Regarding the activity in which an adult with autism is engaged, it should be something that other adults would typically do during leisure time, or at least it would not be considered unusual for an adult to engage in the activity. To illustrate, a common leisure activity observed in some center-based programs is threading toy beads onto a string (which are then taken off the string, often by a staff person, and then the individual puts them back on the string).

Repeatedly stringing toy beads is not a leisure activity that would typically be done by other adults during their leisure time and therefore would not meet the meaningful guideline. If, however, an adult with autism was stringing plastic or glass beads to make a necklace to wear or give as a gift, the activity would be deemed meaningful. That is, it generally would not be considered unusual for an adult to make jewelry for him/herself or to give to others as a leisure hobby. In this example, the purpose of the two types of activities is a key distinguishing factor that impacts the meaningfulness of the activities. Adults usually do not use toy beads for stringing purposes and they certainly do not string beads as an end in itself. Rather, they use beads that are commonly used to make necklaces or other decorative items and then they use or give those items as gifts.

To illustrate further, another commonly observed leisure task in center-based programs involves adults with autism using crayons to color in children’s coloring books. Coloring pictures, or sketching for example, is something that typically would not be considered unusual for an adult to do during leisure time. However, adults usually do not color with crayons in children’s coloring books. Rather, they use colored pencils or pens to draw on sketch pads. It is also becoming increasingly popular for adults to use adult coloring books now available in many bookstores. Hence, for coloring to meet the guideline for a meaningful leisure task for an adult with autism, the coloring materials should be the same as what other adults would use. Additional examples of tasks that would be considered nonmeaningful versus meaningful using the guideline for leisure tasks based on the activity and/or materials involved are presented in the following box.

Examples of Nonmeaningful and Meaningful Leisure Tasks in Center-Based Programs

Nonmeaningful: playing with a child’s pop-up toy (e.g., pushing buttons to make plastic animals stand up)

Meaningful: playing on an iPad

Nonmeaningful: putting different geometric shapes into a wooden form


Meaningful: putting flowers in vases to make a floral display

Nonmeaningful: listening to children’s songs on a toy music box Meaningful: listening to soft rock on an iPod

Nonmeaningful: putting toy plastic pegs in a preschool pegboard Meaningful: weaving a pot holder

The examples above also illustrate an underlying premise of the meaningful guideline for leisure tasks, that of age appropriateness. The age appropriateness concept means that activities and materials provided for adults with autism should be the same types of activities and materials that other people of their age group would engage in and use, respectively. The same age group in this situation means other adults. Staff in center-based programs often object to the concept of age appropriateness on the basis that many adults with autism are reported to prefer doing child-like things during their leisure time. Hence, because leisure time generally means people can choose to do what they want to do, adults with autism should not be prohibited from engaging in childlike activities if that is what they prefer. There are several problems with this view. First, in many center-based programs, childlike activities and materials are the only things available for participating adults. In such cases, there are no opportunities or choices for individuals to engage in adult leisure tasks, which they may prefer over the former tasks given the opportunity.

A second and related problem is that because childlike tasks are the only leisure experiences available in a given program, adults with autism have not had opportunities to learn other, more age-appropriate leisure skills. When provided the opportunity to become familiar with more adult leisure activities, and appropriate instruction in using materials associated with the activities, many adults with autism can develop preferences for the latter pursuits. They can then experience the enjoyment that other adults experience during leisure time.

A third problem with adults with autism spending their leisure time doing childlike things involves the dignity with which they are viewed and treated. This is particularly the case when they engage in age- inappropriate activities that they routinely do in a center when they are outside of the center in a community setting. Consider, e.g., a gentleman with autism who repeatedly plays with a toy rubber soldier when at his day program. When he goes to a restaurant with the support staff from his group home, he also plays with the toy while at the restaurant. In this scenario, other people at the restaurant are likely to stare at, shy away from, or otherwise respond to him in an unusual way—because it is highly uncommon to observe a man playing with a child’s toy at the restaurant. In short, the gentleman with autism is not viewed in a dignified manner. If, however, the gentleman had opportunities to experience and potentially enjoy doing things that other adults do at a restaurant, such as engaging in a conversation or using a smart phone, other people would likely not view or treat him any differently than other adults at the restaurant.

The above example also illustrates how the meaningful guideline for leisure activities coincides with the goal of inclusion. When adults with autism have experiences and instructional support to learn age- appropriate leisure skills, and corresponding opportunities to develop preferences for various adult leisure pursuits, they are more likely to be included in community leisure activities with other adults. They are also more likely to experience the enjoyment that other adults experience with the activities. In contrast, if the leisure repertoires of adults with autism involve only childlike activities, they are much less likely to have opportunities to participate in leisure and recreational activities with other adults.

When considering the age-appropriateness aspect of the guideline for meaningful leisure tasks, a point of qualification warrants highlighting. The focus here is on what adults with autism do during leisure in center-based programs with other program participants and in regard to extending those leisure activities to community settings. However, age appropriateness is viewed in a different light when considering leisure activities of adults with autism in their homes.

Specifically, many professionals and caregivers hold the view that when adults with autism have opportunities (and necessary skills) to engage in age-appropriate leisure pursuits in their homes but truly choose to do something that is not age appropriate, there is little or no reason for concern. The general consensus is that what adults do for leisure in the privacy of their homes is considered their own business for their personal enjoyment—provided social laws and mores are generally adhered to and there is no likelihood of harm for anyone. Additionally, what adults with autism do in the privacy of their homes is not likely to have a detrimental effect on the dignity with which they are viewed relative to what they do in a public or community setting.

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