Logan finds disruption stressful, large groups overwhelm him but because he loves sailing he has learned to deal with change and crowds. When he first started he wouldn’t speak to anyone but now he is much more confident

Marie, Logan's Mum

What is autism

Autistic people increasingly say that the way their brain functions and processes information is different which can lead to strengths and challenges when relating to other people and engaging in a complex social world.

Autism is a lifelong disability and a spectrum condition. All autistic people share certain difficulties but being autistic will affect them in different ways.

Autism is often diagnosed alongside other conditions. It's important to support people with more than one condition in a way that meets all their needs, while understanding that the needs arising from autism are distinct.

Autism is one of a number of conditions where a person’s neurodevelopment is different, including Attention Deficit Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Tourette’s, Complex Learning Disabilities, Dyslexia, and Dyspraxia.

Strengths a person may have

There are lots of strengths associated with autism that can be very useful in boating. Everyone is an individual of course, but below are some attributes autistic people can have that may benefit their boating.

  • Problem solving: A logical and structured approach to tasks – quickly spotting where things can be improved
  • High levels of concentration – the ability to focus on detail and work without distraction, but with consistency and accuracy
  • Reliability and loyalty – very conscientious and committed, punctual, honest with bags of integrity. The potential to be a very committed sailor.
  • Technical ability – very knowledgeable, developing highly specialist skills, able to see things others can’t

Of course, some things are more difficult. People may struggle to turn detail into a coherent whole, put plans and words into action and to self-initiate tasks. It takes time and a lot of effort, particularly in relation to:

  • Communication
  • Social interaction and relationships
  • Social imagination and flexibility of thought
  • Sensory sensitivities

The way we organise activities for the majority may disable autistic people who engage in a different way and who would benefit from a personalised approach.


Communication is a two way process. Autistic people may have differences with both verbal and non-verbal communication. They may:

  • have a literal understanding of language
  • have a restricted vocabulary
  • not realise an instruction to the group includes them
  • find it difficult to use or understand facial expression, tone of voice, and jokes and sarcasm
  • find it difficult to give attention to others around them
  • use eye contact differently from social conventions
  • repeat words and phrases
  • use different intonation
  • not use speech
  • communicate in a way that doesn’t fit the social context
  • find it difficult to sequence communication

All in all, these differences can make it very hard for an autistic person to understand the message someone is trying to communicate, particularly if too many unclear non-verbal hints are used and people do not state things clearly and directly. Communication will take longer.

Social interaction and relationships

People with autism say it’s the way others engage with them that makes life difficult. The differences an autistic person experiences may cause them to stand out in social situations and find building relationships, navigating the social world and reading other people difficult, including:

  • Joining in with small talk, the give and take of informal conversation, discussing things you aren’t interested in and finding the right things to say – it is easier to go straight to a topic of interest, repeat what has been said, talk at length about your own interests or ask for information
  • Being overloaded by other people – it’s easier to seek time out alone
  • Seeking comfort from others
  • Adapting use of language in informal situations
  • Following the conventional rules on eye contact
  • Finding out how other people are feeling and responding in the right way, not misinterpreting others’ actions
  • Forming friendships
  • Expecting others to realise their own thoughts and feelings
  • Understanding sarcasm, facial expressions and body language
  • Sustaining attention

The rules of physical boundaries and touch in boating change depending on a range of factors – for example whether you are ashore or afloat, the size of the boat, the team work needed, the conditions and the task at hand. It can be difficult for an autistic person to navigate this.

Social imagination and flexibility of thought

Many autistic people describe high levels of anxiety around change – the world can seem unpredictable. For example, where activity takes place, the equipment used, changes in coaches / instructors, or new situations and skills to learn can all be confusing. Routine and structure can help, along with advance notice of change and a clear understanding of the purpose of what they have been asked to do and any rules that need following.

Thinking hypothetically, or imagining situations and considering potential outcomes can be challenging. One result is that making choices can be hard – concrete binary choices are easier. An inability to predict what may happen can impact on a person’s sense of danger.

People describe having intense and highly focused interests which can be fundamental to their wellbeing. They may have a single focus and find it hard to pay attention to multiple things at once.

Differences with social imagination are not the same as a lack of imagination, and many autistic people are highly imaginative. This can lead to over analysing or dramatising a situation.

Stress and anxiety

Anxiety can be triggered by sensory difficulties, by a loss of control, challenging social situations, or new environments. Stress can come from routines being disrupted, people not doing what they said they would, plans and timetables not being followed, not knowing what is going to happen next, getting to new places, trying new situations, new food, or having to wear new clothes and equipment.

It can lead to people physically tensing up, being restless, getting tired, being irritable, edgy, showing aggression or running away.

For most non autistic people, levels of anxiety are low so when something stressful happens anxiety may rise a little but the brain is able to process this and anxiety levels quickly return to normal.

Autistic people describe high levels of anxiety just from the impact of the different ways they experience the world around them, so when they come across a new stress or sensory input, anxiety increases and the brain struggles to process it to the point where it is hard to function properly.

While sailing and boating can help as a release, clearly if the environment is not right it can be a trigger as well.

Sensory sensitivities

Many autistic people describe being either over sensitive or under sensitive to sounds, touch, tastes, smells, lights, colours, temperature or pain, often causing reactions that are incomprehensible to others. Too much or too little information can cause stress and anxiety. People may be fascinated by particular sensory stimuli. Self-stimulating behaviour such as repetitive movements or sounds can be used by the person to manage under or over stimulation, or their anxiety, and so are really important to them.

Equally, what is going on inside a person’s body may be harder to interpret for an autistic person – am I nervous or excited, hungry or thirsty, do I feel unwell, am I in pain, am I cold or hot?

The table below shows how this may impact on a person



Over sensitive

Under sensitive


Assess various conditions, the feel of the boat.

Recognise and feel pain.

Can be painful

Dislike having things on their hands and feet

Only tolerate certain types of clothing

Hold objects or others tightly

A high pain threshold

Chew objects

Enjoy heavy objects on top of them


Defining parts of the boat and the controls

Identifying people

Judging distance and space around the boat.

Objects, bright coloured walls and bright lights may jump around

Images fragment

Easier to focus on detail

Difficulty sleeping

Objects appear quite dark or lose features.

Some things may be magnified, others blurred.

Poor depth perception.



Communicate with people around you

Assess the environment

Supports balance.

Hard to filter out noises and focus on what is being said

Sounds may be distorted or muddled

Seeks noisy places or objects / actions that make loud sounds


Meals are an important social time and food fuels us

Flavours are too strong, so limits a diet

Prefers strong flavours and spices

May try to taste non-edible items


Assessing the environment

Alerting us to danger

Overwhelmed by every day smells and tries to avoid them

Misses out on smellthat alerts us to danger

Seeks out strong smells

Misses out on smellthat alerts us to danger


Body awareness

Assessing where our bodies are in relation to the boat and how different parts of the body are moving

Fine and gross motor skills are harder

May need to move their whole body to look at something

Stand too close to others, struggle to recognise personal space

Hard to avoid obstructions around the venue or boat

Can bump into others


Maintaining posture in the boat

Assessing how fast our bodies move

Keeping our body in the right place to perform tasks

Hard to control movement, to stop quickly

Even harder if the head is not upright and feet are off the ground

May need to move to get enough sensory input – rock, swing or spin

Taking the time to get to know the person, what is important to them, and for them is key

Next - practical strategies