I am a BCBA working in an ABA Teaching Home. I am adept with teaching play skills to younger children but would like some guidance on assessing interests and helping young adults develop hobbies that they can pursue in an independent and meaningful manner.

Answered By Megan McCarron, MS, BCBA
Milestones Behavioral Services

This is a very important question. There is an abundance of research on how to teach leisure activities using instructional methods such as modeling, video modeling, and activity schedules (Blum-Dimaya, Reeve, Reeve, & Hoch, 2010; Carlile, Reeve, Reeve, & DeBar, 2013; Chan, Lambdin, Van Laarhoven, & Johnson, 2013; MacDuff, Krantz, & McClannahan, 1993), moreover, it is vital that careful thought and planning be put into selecting individualizing leisure activities. This can be challenging given that what one person considers to be leisure, another individual could see as work.

Let’s start with a basic definition. Google dictionary defines leisure as, “Free time; use of free time for enjoyment; opportunity afforded by free time to do something.” A key phrase in this definition is, “for enjoyment.” When selecting leisure activities for an individual, a key focus should be to determine their preferences and look for ways to build on those.

Typically, one’s interests are developed over time via exposure to and interaction with new and varied people, places, and activities. Exposure usually occurs over the course of life without much forethought, planning, or overt teaching, resulting in interests that shift and change over time. Unfortunately, this is often not the case for individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

There are two key deficits within the diagnostic criteria for ASD that are likely to impact individuals’ exposure to and interaction within varied leisure activities. First, persistent limitations in social communication and social interaction can hinder an individual’s ability to request access to items and activities, to fully engage in activities, and/or to express one’s level of interest at any point throughout the activity. Second, the presence of restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities may prevent an individual from exploring novel items or activities.

Individuals’ difficulty making or expressing choice, lack of social reciprocity and initiation towards activities, and potential unpleasant reactions to change and novel stimuli can lead those around them to consciously or unconsciously limit exposure to new and varied items and activities. Limited interests or those that are markedly different from those of same-aged peers make it that much more difficult to determine ways to expand and develop interests. As a result, careful thought and planning are required to help individuals with autism develop, access, and engage in meaningful leisure activities.

Finding Leisure Activities

Given that there is an unending number of items or leisure activities that could be assessed, it is important to make the most of your assessments by narrowing down the field to things that are likely to be of interest before conducting your assessments. A few of these approaches are as follows:

    • Expand upon current interests. Identify known preferences. Ask caregivers, teachers, siblings, or others who spend time with the individual to complete an interview, checklist or other type of survey. Create your own questions or use published materials such as the Reinforcer Assessment for Individual with Severe Disabilities (RAISD; Fisher, Piazza, Bowman, & Amari, 1996). Do not immediately discount unusual or idiosyncratic interests. Look to see if there are groups in the community or online that share that interest, you may be surprised. If necessary, teach a “Time and Place” (i.e., when and where it is okay) to engage in preferences that may be annoying to others or are socially stigmatizing. Examples:
Known InterestExpansion Ideas
Looking at photographsTaking photographs, uploading photographs to computer, editing photographs, creating digital album, printing, photographs, scrapbooking, photography clubs/groups, etc.
Comic booksAttending Comic Con, visiting comic book stores, participating in community-based or online comic book clubs
ChessJoining chess clubs (school, community).
Playing online


    • Select novel activities that contain components of already preferred activities. Identify common features of known preferences, and then identify novel items or activities that contain the same or similar features. Examples:
Known InterestsKey FeatureNovel Items
Flicking things
Waving or fluttering motionsRibbon dancing
Exercise ropes/ Battle Ropes
Thomas the TankTrainsPuzzles with Thomas
Watch other train videos
Model trains
Electric trains w/ tracks


    • Or, make modifications to existing activities to incorporate the preferred feature of other preferred activities. Examples:
Known InterestsModification
Specific CharactersAdd characters to board games by using stickers, changing out playing pieces
Read books containing those characters
Create your own puzzles or playing cards
Craft / building projects that incorporate the character


    • Alternatively, pair a known interest with a compatible novel activity. Examples:
Known InterestsPair with novel compatible activity
MusicListen to music while exercising
Dance while listening to music
Garden while listening to music

  • Identify shared interests. In addition to identifying activities by exploring and expanding upon current interests of the individual, it can be worthwhile to identify interests of the people the individual spends a lot of time with and activities available in the individual’s school, home, and local community. These activities, if also preferred by the individual with ASD, will offer up the opportunity for social interaction with others.

Assessing Activities

Once potential activities are selected, assessments can be conducted to determine how preferred the activities are. While preference assessments are commonly used and talked about in terms of finding reinforcers (Carr, Nicolson, & Higbee, 2000; Graff & Karsten, 2012), they are equally useful for assessing preference levels for potential leisure activities. There are various methods of conducting preference assessments (e.g., paired choice, multiple stimulus with replacement, multiple stimulus without replacement [MSWO]; Toner, 2014). Initially, free operant assessments are very helpful in terms of assessing potential leisure activities. These can be conducted in the natural environment or a contrived and enriched setting.

Free operant preference assessments can be conducted through direct observation by providing free access to activities without demands, time limits or requirements to use items in a predetermined manner (unless it is a safety issue). Assessments can be conducted in either a natural or contrived setting, as described below (Toner, 2014; Chazin & Ledford, 2016).

Direct natural environmentDirect observation in contrived/enriched setting
Mall, school, gym, park, etc.
Go to the environment and observe where the individual goes and what they do.
Gather items or activities you think may be of interest in one area. Allow the individual to explore the area.
Collect data on:

  • Which items/activities the individual interacts with
  • Duration of each interaction
  • Can be helpful to note the individual’s observable signs of positive affect during interactions, such as smiles or laughter
  • If the individual interacts with an item in an unexpected or unusual manner, make note of what he or she did

Once the free operant assessment data have been collected and ranked in order of which activities were engaged with the most (e.g., by calculating a percentage of time of the observation in which the student engaged in each activity), subsequent paired choice preference assessments or MSWO assessments could be conducted to better assess the individual’s relative preference for activities. With this information, you can make an informed choice about what activities are likely to provide “enjoyment” and thus fit the definition of leisure.

Selecting Teaching Targets for the IEP

It is important to help an individual build a repertoire of activities that can be used to fill the various functions of leisure. Therefore, the activities chosen as a focus of teaching should cover a variety of leisure situations.

  • Social Activities (any activity done with another person).
  • Individual Activity (any activity that can be done alone).
  • Health and Fitness.
  • Longer duration activities.
  • Short duration activities that can be done while waiting (looking at books, magazines, music on phone, etc.).

Some activities may be adaptable enough to be used across several leisure functions. For example, listening to music can be a social or individual activity; it can easily be paired with a variety of health and fitness activities and can be used for short or long durations.

In addition to selecting specific activities/skills for leisure, it is advisable to include an objective in a student’s IEP that targets the individual’s exposure to leisure activities, such as “Sampling Leisure Activities.” The goal of this objective would be to have the student continue to try out new activities over three to four opportunities to further expose them to new activities that may be of interest. During the sampling sessions, staff should collect data on duration of engagement, observable signs of affect, and any skill deficits that inhibit engagement.

Considerations for Increasing Functional Independence in Leisure
While identifying preferred activities is a major part of building a leisure repertoire, there are a whole host of skills that, when taught effectively, can increase an individual’s ability to access and engage in leisure activities as independently as possible.

  • Ensure the individual has an appropriate and effective means of communication. An essential skill, regardless of the individual’s vocal verbal ability, is teaching an appropriate way to request access to activities, especially those that are not readily available in the current environment such as requesting to go to the mall or to a specific store (Schneiter & Devine, 2001). Equally important, but often overlooked, is the ability for an individual to appropriately decline participation and/or end an activity when the activity is not preferred.
  • Teach prerequisite skills. If a student shows interest in an activity but is not able to fully engage in the activity, it may be necessary to teach the individual specific prerequisite skills. Examples:
ActivityPotential prerequisite skills
Listen to music on phoneTurn on phone; locate music app; turn on app; adjust volume; plug in headphones
Play a board gameRoll dice; spin a spinner; count spaces; turn taking; set up the game; learn rules; etc.
Play a card gameDeal cards; hold the cards so other players can’t see them; shuffle the deck; etc.
Accessing activities in other environments (i.e., how to get to offsite locations)Use public transport; request a ride in advance; crossing streets (if walking); using a cab/Uber or other means of transportation, etc.

If a Sampling Leisure Activities objective has been included in the IEP, the sampling period can be used to help identify what types of prerequisite skills may need to be taught.

  • Gathering and caring for materials. The individual may need to be taught skills related to any materials or equipment required for an activity. For example, gathering equipment / materials prior to starting the activity; caring for the equipment / materials (e.g., getting uniforms washed, charging electronic devices, washing dishes after a cooking activity, pumping up bike tires, basketball, etc.); putting equipment away when finished, and problem solving (e.g., what to do if materials are missing, broken, or need to be replenished).
  • Time management. Time management skills, such as identifying when it is time to engage in a leisure activity, selecting an activity that fits the amount of time for leisure, identifying when activities are available (and tolerating denial or delay of preferred activities), are essential components of increasing independence, access and engagement with leisure activities. Using schedules and calendars can be helpful to structure and prompt leisure activities but may require specific teaching. For example, using a calendar app on a phone can be very useful, but it may be necessary to start off with teaching the student to respond to an alert to engage in an activity and build up to having them enter information into the calendar.

Final Thoughts

Every individual has different interests, abilities, and obstacles to work through in establishing leisure skills, which means there is no one-size-fits-all answer for how to build a meaningful leisure repertoire. However, building on and expanding from high preference, high availability activities and using evidence-based assessment and teaching strategies to establish independence in leisure activities provides a strong foundation from which to start.


Blum-Dimaya, A., Reeve, S. A., Reeve, K. F., & Hoch, H. (2010). Teaching children with autism to play a video game using activity schedules and game-embedded simultaneous video modeling. Education & Treatment of Children, 33(3), 351-370.

Carlile, K. A., Reeve, S. A., Reeve, K. F., & DeBar, R. M. (2013). Using activity schedules on the iPod touch to teach leisure skills to children with autism. Education & Treatment of Children, 36(2), 33-57.

Carr, J. E., Nicolson, A. C., & Higbee, T. S. (2000). Evaluation of a brief multiple-stimulus preference assessment in a naturalistic context. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 33(3), 353-357.

Chan, J. M., Lambdin, L., Van Laarhoven, T., & Johnson J. W. (2013). Teaching leisure skills to an adult with developmental disabilities using a video prompting intervention package. Education and Training in Autism and Developmental Disabilities, 48(3), 412-420.

Chazin, K. T., & Ledford, J. R. (2016). Free operant observation. In Evidence-based instructional practices for young children with autism and other disabilities. Retrieved from http://vkc.mc.vanderbilt.edu/ebip/free-operant

Fisher, W. W., Piazza, C. C., Bowman, L. G., & Amari, A. (1996). Integrating caregiver report with a systematic choice assessment. American Journal on Mental Retardation, 101(1), 15-25.

Google Search. https://www.google.com/search?q=define+leisure&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&client=firefox-b-1 (accessed February 5, 2017).

Graff, R. B., & Karsten, A. M. (2012). Assessing preferences of individuals with developmental disabilities: A survey of current practices. Behavior Analysis in Practice, 5(2), 37-48.

MacDuff, G. S., Krantz, P. J., & McClannahan, L. E. (1993). Teaching children with autism to use photographic activity schedules: Maintenance and generalization of complex response chains. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 26(1), 89-97.

Schneiter, R., & Devine, M. A. (2001). Reduction of self-injurious behaviors of an individual with autism: Use of a leisure communication book. Therapeutic Recreation Journal, 35(3), 207-219.

Toner, N. (2014). How do you figure out what motivates your students? Science in Autism Treatment, 11(1), 12-14.

Citation for this article:

McCarron, M. (2018). Clinical Corner: Leisure skills for adults with autism. Science in Autism Treatment, 15(2), 19-26.

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