London for kids with autism couldn't be more of a contradiction. Hordes wading along busy pavements, sifting in and out of tube stations. Chaotic, unpredictable, and crowded venues are no-one's friend. Add visual sensitivity, unpredictability and overwhelming smells — plus plenty of angst-inducing strangers — and you could have all the ingredients for a rubbish day out. But this need not be the case.
Much of London is now switched on to neurodivergent visitors. With just a little planning, you can have some fantastic days out, thanks to relaxed performances, sensory rooms, quiet opening times, apps to help you travel during quieter times, queue 'jumping', dimmed lighting, separate opening times and more.
As my own daughter — an autistic 13-year-old — says, "I love the way London is so inclusive — they make space for everyone and I feel welcome, I don't feel like I shouldn't be there. London appreciates people for who they are."
Getting around London
My daughter regularly travels in and around London with her best friend. They plan the route first — in fact her best friend has the whole of the London tube and train maps memorised. For those who don't have that skill, there are tube maps to plan your journey with kids, as well as a live interactive map app and quieter times for travel.
Good to know: TfL has a travel support card [pdf] for those with invisible disabilities and learning differences. You can print it out. Or, there's the more visible sunflower lanyard if you want others to know. There are also badges you can wear, making it easier for people to know you/your children may need a seat.
London for children on the spectrum
London is rich with kids' theatre, and many cater to children with autism. Among those that put on relaxed performances are: Unicorn Theatre (London Bridge), Little Angel Theatre (Islington), Polka Theatre (Wimbledon) and Half Moon (Limehouse).
You should also be aware of Go Live Theatre Projects, a charity which uses theatre to create inspiring experiences for children with autism and sensory needs (and their carers), taking them to London shows at a significantly subsidised cost. The performances are relaxed, and, before the performance, information (think story boards, travel information, nearby restaurants and workshops) are given. It all helps to make theatre welcoming, rather than overwhelming.
Many of the bigger West End shows do relaxed performances now, including The Lion King, Matilda and Frozen.
London Transport Museum may seem a bit of a stereotype, but lots of autistic kids do love trains. This place is an absolute favourite, and opens outside of regular hours on certain days for special quieter times. During these it's closed to the general public, most gallery sounds are switched off and your kids can explore in peace. Sensory bags are available at reception.
The Postal Museum is another popular one with kids (again, there are trains — but this time you can ride on them!), hosting relaxed events co-produced with Ambitious about Autism, and their youth patrons. It's suitable for anyone who would benefit from visiting during less crowded and noisy times.
The RAF Museum in Colindale — heaven for lovers of all things that fly — offers plenty of parking, wheelchair access, big open spaces, and lots of SEN resources including quiet Mondays and a free autism-friendly trail.
The National History Museum is perfect for kids who love dinosaurs, creepy crawly or butterflies. It's as vast as it is impressive, but because of this it's often busy. That's where its Dawnosaurs events comes in, especially for children with neurodiverse conditions (not just autism) and families. These events are kept free of the general public and are much quieter. Visitors get access to a wide range of galleries and activities, all supported by autism-aware facilitators.
The Science Museum invites you to explore outer and inner space with Early Birds; this is a sensory-friendly event for families with members who need a quieter, calming setting — and that includes autism spectrum conditions or sensory processing differences. You can catch these on Saturdays and Sundays across the year.
Young V&A reopens in July 2023, focused on being a dedicated space to young children until teens, with lots of activities. It also includes lots of exhibits such as Sky Brown's Olympian skateboard. For visitors with learning disabilities and dyslexia, it also offers a guiding service which can be booked in advance. You'll also find assistive tech, and kids can use ear defenders, available at the entrance.
Discover Children's Story Centre in Stratford is a multi-sensory play, where noise and lighting levels can be changed. The majority of equipment and events at this place mix visual, tactile and auditory stimuli/sound effects. It's great for those who love stimulation, and some spaces have dim lighting. Ear defenders are also available upon request.
The Harry Potter Experience is one you might at first glance think 'no way'. Perhaps this one is better for those who like bright lights and lots of stimulation, but even for kids who would find this overwhelming, there's a sensory room which can accessed during any tour. The room provides a calming environment for those with autism and other additional needs; it contains a sensory shell chair, interactive light box, mirror ball and tactile mirrors, and is located adjacent to the Backlot Café. If you would like to access the sensory room prior to reaching this point, you can ask a member of staff. A full autism guide is available here.
St Paul's Cathedral invites you to 'discover the sounds of St Paul's' with its Sensory Sound Tour, created for children and young people with special education needs and disabilities. You can see it on YouTube before you visit.
Westminster Abbey is one of the city's top attractions, and access to anyone with any disability and their carer, is free. For additional info about visiting, email visitor.experience@Westminster-abbey.org
Tower Bridge is perfect for lovers of giant Lego sets and Meccano, and once a month, on a Saturday, there's a relaxed opening for anyone who wants to explore under calmer circumstances.
Dopamine Land is just around the corner from the Natural History Museum, and is one for the all-out sensory seekers. There are bubble bars, digital forests, giant pillow fighting and enormous ball pits. Anyone under 16 needs a big kid (aka adult) to go with them.
Premier League football teams like Chelsea, Arsenal and West Ham have sensory rooms, where light, sound and heat can be controlled, away from crowds — as well as tactile toys and games, and options to watch matches on screen. Wembley Stadium has two massive sensory rooms for both match and concert days.
London Zoo is iconic, but go on a busy day and the noise is overwhelming. That's where the Sense-sational Days come in, with curated events especially for kids with learning diversities, and their families and friends. Also look out for its out-of-house relaxed opening tours throughout the year
Park Lane Stables in Teddington is an award-winning charity and Riding for the Disabled Association centre. It invites neurodiverse kids to help to brush and pat a horse, as well as riding lessons. Advance booking is essential.
Golders Hill Park is a personal favourite of mine. It's a sweet and charming corner of north London, featuring undisturbed areas, flower gardens, and a play area with sensory areas. There's a mini zoo and butterfly garden which is also quiet and uncrowded. Entrance is free and there's a nearby ice cream parlour. Read more about it here.
Vauxhall City Farm is in the heart of London and provides fabulous sensory experiences, including the chance to touch some of the farm animals. It has activity programmes available for children of all ages. Entrance is free. There are, of course, many other city farms in London, offering similar opportunities.
The Gate in Islington is one of my top tips for a restaurant for families looking for good quality, 'autism friendly' dining. This veggie eatery has great staff, a 'chill zone', and has received an award from the National Autistic Society of the UK. The food's excellent too.
And for teens…
The Roundhouse is a legendary north London music and arts space holds, which also hosts relaxed performances and workshops. Teens can access an online tour of the venue too.
Wellcome Collection's free exhibitions challenge the way we think about health and being human. It combines science with psychology, art with life. It also houses a brilliant workspace if you want to avoid sensory distractions. It's quiet, has collaborative and quiet study areas, and assistive study too, with things like screen readers.
Royal Academy of Arts offers a sensory map for art lovers to explore, plus temporary exhibitions to help plan for your visit in advance. It also offers relaxed openings, where teens can avoid the usual bustle of its opening hours.
Essentially, autistic teens can explore most of London if they're up for it, planning a route and venue that they're comfortable with. My daughter is always out exploring places like Covent Garden, Camden and Piccadilly. She has autism, ADHD, and visual stress disorder, and constantly tells me to 'stop overparenting!' And yes, sometimes it's way too much. But most of the time it's an enriching experience. As my daughter says, "If you don't try, you’ll never know!"