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Guidance: Improving the experience and accessibility of leisure centres and swimming pools for autistic people

Apr 14, 2024


This guidance has been produced to help leisure centres and swimming pools improve the experience and accessibility of autistic people. Many autistic people face significant barriers in accessing leisure centres and swimming pools and do not meet the NHS' Physical Activity Guidelines for weekly exercise. With simple adjustments that any leisure facility or pool can make, sites can improve the experience and accessibility for autistic people. 


Facts for general awareness

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a lifelong neurodevelopmental condition. 
  • There are around 1,000,000 autistic people in the UK. 
  • In 2019:
    • Only 16% of autistic people felt the public understood what it means to be autistic; 
    • Around 28% of autistic people have experienced being asked to leave a public place because of their autism;
    • Just 4% of autistic adults felt supported following their diagnosis. 
  • In June 2023, there were over 140,000 people waiting for autism diagnostic services. 
  • Only 10% of autistic people show extraordinary ability in a particular area. 
  • Less than half of autistic people also have an intellectual or learning disability. 



  • Whilst all autistic people have their own preferences, most autistic people prefer first-person language when talking about their condition ("I am autistic" rather than "I have autism"). This is because autistic people view their identity as intrinsically entwined with their condition. However, it is acceptable, when referring to the condition, to refer to "having a diagnosis of ASD". Some autistic people will refer to the condition as Autistic Spectrum Condition, as they dislike the term disorder. 
  • Many autistic people do not consider themselves disabled but are instead disabled by their environment and others' lack of adaptation. The built environment has been designed for the needs of the prevailing neurotype (neuronormativity) and, until very recently, has not taken into account the needs of autistic people. The general public's understanding of the barriers faced by autistic people is, for the most part, inadequate. Operators should take care not to screen for accessibility needs premised only on individuals identifying as disabled.
  • You may hear autistic (and non-autistic) people describe themselves as being neurodivergent. Neurodiversity is a sociological (non-medical) descriptor for biological diversity in brain operation and function. We are all part of the neurodiversity that exists in the world. Neurdivergence describes a set of neurotypes which are atypical to the prevailing neuronormativity. Those who are neurodivergent include those who are autistic or have ADHD, Tourette's Syndrome, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, Dyscalculia and several other conditions. 
  • Where possible, communication with autistic people should focus on their many strengths and the value they can bring to, for example, an exercise class or a morning swim group. 



  • Getting a diagnosis of ASD will often take months to several years and involve a series of appointments. You will need to be seen by a psychiatrist or clinical/educational psychologist, typically with a specialism including ASD. The input of those with experience of your childhood is usually sought, as symptoms must be present since early childhood. Whilst the type and degree of impairment often varies across contexts, impairment on a daily basis must be shown. 
  • To reach the threshold for diagnosis, there must be persistent deficits in social communication and interaction across multiple contexts with a history of deficits in social reciprocity, nonverbal communicative behaviours and relationships present since early childhood. There must also be restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests or activities with at least two of the following: stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, highly routinised verbal or nonverbal behaviour, restricted fixed interests abnormal in intensity or focus, and hyper/po-reactivity to sensory input or unusual sensory interest. Intelligence is irrelevant to a diagnosis of ASD. 
  • There is a long waiting list on the NHS for access to diagnostic services. This has led many to question whether it is fair to use a diagnosis of autism as a barrier to accessing services or whether self-identification should be sufficient. 



  • Many autistic people experience heightened sensitivity to light, sound, taste, texture, touch, and temperature. Leisure centres and swimming pools are often too bright and too loud. Large echoey spaces can also be a barrier. Alarms and tannoy announcements are a frequent source of distress. Some autistic people feel very uncomfortable around physical contact with others, including shaking hands. 
  • Autistic people have often had a lifetime's experience of previously embarrassing and awkward social interactions with others that lower their confidence when interacting with others. These interactions remind autistic people of their limitations, which is a key contributor to many autistic people also developing depression. This can lead autistic people to avoid social interactions with others, not because they do not enjoy and benefit from interactions with others, but because of fear they might have a negative experience. Sales or reception staff who are overly talkative or pushy sellers are likely to deter autistic people from going to your centre. 
  • Autistic people often plan journeys and activities to avoid adverse sensory or social experiences. An inadequate number of photos or no virtual tour of your facility is likely to deter some autistic people from attending your facility. Having to walk past a loud exercise studio to access the changing rooms to go swimming may also be offputting. 
  • Autistic people are often logical and evidence-based thinkers. Highly emotive or brash marketing slogans are unlikely to persuade autistic people to undertake an activity. Equally, body confidence is often less important to autistic people. Autistic people often undertake little exercise because the reasons given for why they should exercise don't resonate with them. 
  • Some autistic people may want to wear headphones or ear defenders in the pool to dampen the effect of loud or unpleasant noises, but some pools do not allow this or unnecessarily challenge those who walk onto the poolside wearing headphones. 
  • Many autistic people face barriers to getting to the leisure centre or swimming pool. Public transport is a frequent source of distress and discomfort for autistic people. 


Improving accessibility

  • Talk to your staff about accessibility needs for autistic people. 
  • Involve the autistic staff in your business in raising awareness of accessibility barriers and solutions. 
  • Set up a customer forum that includes customers with a range of accessibility needs, including autistic customers. 
  • Create a lighting corridor with softer lighting between the front entrance and the changing rooms. 
  • Facilitate customers signing up for activities online or via an app rather than in person. 
  • Facilitate customers swiping into the building with minimal social interaction. 
  • Advertise a headphone-friendly policy. Headphones on means I don't want to be interrupted unless it's important. 
  • Advertise a quiet hour where music is turned down, and tannoy announcements are avoided where possible. 
  • Using the right language signals a good understanding of autistic people's needs.
  • Provide detailed imagery and/or a virtual tour on your website. 
  • Use clear, straightforward language when conversing with autistic people. Leave the hyperbole and waffle for others who engage with that sort of messaging. 
  • Use reasons to exercise and use your services that engage with autistic people. 
  • Sell suitable earphones that can be worn in the pool. 
  • Permit customers to arrive in swimwear before using the pool to avoid changing (for those that find changing rooms difficult). 
  • Short, awareness-level eLearning packages can be helpful, but they are not a panacea. 


Learn from autistic people

One of the best ways to understand more about autism is by following and listening to the experiences of autistic people. 

  • Director, Charlotte Valeur.
  • Author and UN Youth Leader for the SDGs, Siena Castellon.
  • TV presenter, Chris Packham. 
  • Essayist, poet, novelist and translator, Daniel Tammet.
  • Deputy Director of the COVID TaskForce, Cabinet Office, Helen Jeffries.
  •  Vice Admiral, Nick Hine.
  • Climate activist, Greta Thunberg.
  • Solicitor, Jonathan Andrews.
  • Doctor, Harri Wilson.
  • Novelist, Patience Agbabi.
  • Gold medalist, Taekwondo, Commonwealth Games, Thomas Henley.
  • Commander of the Metropolis, Simon Dobinson.
  • Comedian, John Pendal.
  • Artist, painter, composer, actor, Sir Anthony Hopkins.
  • Tesla and SpaceX founder, Elon Musk.



HM Department for Work and Pensions. 2024. The Buckland Review of Autism Employment. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-buckland-review-of-autism-employment-report-and-recommendations/the-buckland-review-of-autism-employment-report-and-recommendations accessed 14 April 2024.

PAS 6463. 2022. Design for the mind. Neurodiversity and the built environment - Guidance. Available at: https://www.bsigroup.com/en-GB/insights-and-media/insights/brochures/pas-6463-design-for-the-mind-neurodiversity-and-the-built-environment/ accessed 14 April 2024. 

APPGA. 2019. The Autism Act, 10 years on. A report from the All Parliamentary Group on Autism on understanding, services, and support for autistic people and their families in England. Available at: https://www.autism.org.uk/what-we-do/campaign/england/how-we-work-with-parliament/all-party-parliamentary-group accessed 14 April 2024. 



There is a wide range of resources available which vary in their quality and accuracy. If you would like us to recommend your resource on this page, please get in touch. 

National Autistic Society, available at: https://www.autism.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/what-is-autism 

Autistica, available at: https://www.autistica.org.uk/ 



Citation: Jacklin, D. 2024. Guidance: Improving the experience and accessibility of leisure centres and swimming pools for autistic people. Water Incident Research Hub, 14 April.