Anyone who has visited London knows how child-friendly it is. With its interactive museums, dreamy castles and charming city farms there are plenty of activities to keep the little ones entertained. Every neighbourhood has leisure centres, parks and libraries. Kids are even tolerated in pubs during the day and some of them have small play areas or activity corners. But I have to say that I was impressed by all the autism-friendly activities in London that my daughter enjoyed.
Outdoor autism-friendly activities in London
ZSL London Zoo organises an event called Special Children’s Day aimed at children with special needs and their families and friends. The tickets were discounted and there was no queuing – we were actually instructed to use a different gate altogether.
This was our first visit and we had an amazing time. My daughter was especially fascinated by the penguins and she was so excited to find one who shares her name! We also saw the tigers, birds and monkeys. I tried to get her into the Butterfly House. However, the change in temperature and humidity was too much for her. The zoo developed a visual story that we downloaded to prepare our daughter for the visit. They also arranged Discovery & Learning sessions that were very interactive and inclusive. Make sure you are on their mailing list because the tickets sell out really quickly.
The Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA) is a charity that offers horseback riding to disabled children and adults. They have more than 500 centres all over the UK. And they use their riding and carriage driving activities to develop skills, build fitness and provide therapy to their members.
We were very fortunate our daughter’s special needs school offered horseback riding lessons through a nearby RDA centre. She looked forward to spending time with Pinocchio, her well-tempered horse, every week for over a year. If your school does not have an arrangement, you can still apply directly to an RDA centre but there is usually a very long waiting list.
A friend of mine heard about this activity and asked if we would be up for it. I am not really a big fan of water sports and I had never been in a canoe before but thought we should give it a go. My friend contacted Albany Outdoors, an accredited outdoor, adventure and water activity centre by the Thames in Kingston. They offer courses for adults and children in bell boating, canoeing, kayaking, and archery during the weekends and school holidays. But what is great about them is that they also adapt them for young people with disabilities.
In addition to teaching us how to use an oar, maneuver the canoe and be safe, our instructor also pointed out to us the different birds and fish in the river. Make sure you take a change of clothes with you because you will get wet and of course there is always a chance of rain in London!
Indoor autism-friendly activities in London
One of our family favourites is the autism-friendly film screenings organised by a charity called Dimensions. At least once a month ODEON, Cineworld, Vue, Showcase, Picturehouse and Everyman cinemas show popular films in a sensory friendly environment. The Barbican cinema and BFI Southbank also present regular relaxed screenings. Adjustments are made to reduce stress and sensory input, such as low lighting and sound. Most venues have staff trained in autism awareness.
We have taken our daughter to relaxed performances of famous West End musicals such as The Lion King and Matilda. The National Autistic Society usually arranges them so make sure you check their website for updates. There are visual stories, extra autism-aware staff, and dedicated quiet areas inside the theatres.
The Polka Theatre in Wimbledon offers relaxed performances for all their productions on the Main Stage, and some performances in the Adventure Theatre. Seating is flexible and there are designated chill-out spaces outside the auditorium. Their website has a pack which you can download in advance with a synopsis of the show and some pictures. The staff are wonderful every time and they always make sure you are comfortable and welcome.
Head 2 Head Theatre is an interactive multi-sensory theatre for young children. We booked a morning session on a Saturday morning at a nearby school to see a Peter Pan pantomime adaptation. We started the session with sensory games, and arts and crafts. Then we went on an immersive walkabout, which is where the actors took us around the venue to meet the other characters and discover scenes. My daughter loved dressing up in the costumes, playing with the colourful props and of course dancing and singing along. Bring a coat since some of the activities take place outdoors and also a picnic.
The Royal Albert Hall hosts a number of relaxed performances. The events are specially designed to be suitable for children and adults with autism, sensory and communication impairments and learning disabilities, as well as individuals who are deaf, hard of hearing, blind and partially sighted.
We attended the Relaxed BBC Prom which offered a relaxed attitude to movement and noise in the auditorium. We could move about, dance, sing or just listen. There were chill-out spaces outside the auditorium. The website had a video to help visitors know what to expect when visiting the Relaxed Prom, as well as a visual story and a guide for parents. There was also a free workshop where we could try an instrument from the orchestra and professional musicians were on hand to help out.
Other Autism-Friendly Activities in London
If you haven’t read my other article about autism-friendly museums in London, make sure you do! Also, check with your local leisure centre if they have any autism-friendly sessions in swimming, yoga or gymnastics or any other sports. A lot of soft play areas, trampoline parks and indoor climbing centres organise sessions for autistic children.