Learning Disability Today
Supporting professionals working in learning disability and autism services

Structured activities for people with a learning disability during the Covid-19 pandemic

In March 2020, people’s worlds changed almost overnight and the Covid-19 pandemic meant most adult education came to an abrupt end. People with autism or learning disabilities and their families were challenged with losing much needed services and lifelines.

Although there are some fantastic activities on the internet and social media many people we work with aren’t able to access or join in with these. We also know that when staff and families are busy providing care and support, many don’t have the luxury of spending time trawling for new and interesting activities.  

We looked for interesting ideas and resources online and shared these through our Facebook page, but wanted to also create something that those without access to social media could use.

Our team volunteered their time, skills and teaching knowledge to create a wide range of different activities. We shared these with colleagues in care homes, supported living, day services, family homes and hospitals to print out and use to help people keep busy and connect.

The activities were designed to only use resources that a person may have in their own home and could be enjoyed by people on their own or with others. They included games, crafts, wordsearches, treasure hunts, quizzes, practical activities, and role play.

We drew on our 15 years experience of designing and delivering adult education to ensure that each activity had clear guidance notes and maximised opportunities for engagement and achievement. 

We used feedback to adjust and improve the activities. People told us that they valued the guidance sheets for each activity which gave helpful ideas of how best to introduce, adjust and extend each activity in response to individual needs and preferences.

Reflecting on the ways we work

In the process of creating these activities we took time to reflect on the approaches we successfully use when spending time with people with very different needs. We are sharing in this blog some of the things that we have found best enable people to engage and get the most from activities.

Communication and people with intellectual disabilities

When supporting people with intellectual disabilities, communication is the most important thing to get right. If a person uses communication aids you need to know about them and use them all the time. Communication aids may be Makaton, a talking mat, specific sounds or words that have particular meaning to a person or other individual means. When we fail to use these all of the time, we are denying people their voice.

In our experience most issues regarding disengagement come down to communication and a lack of shared understanding. Just by giving information doesn’t mean that it is understood, in our experience, people’s levels of understanding are often over- or under-estimated.

Checking that we understand each other is crucial. This is about me understanding you and you understanding me.

  • ‘Easy read’ can be very helpful to people who have some reading skills, however it will usually also require someone to spend time with a person to help them understand and act on the information. Pictures can offer good visual clues but may create misunderstanding where they don’t accurately support the detail of the text
  • Reading and speaking is not the same as understanding. It is important to ‘drill down’ to check out what the words mean for that person
  • It can often be the simpler everyday words that can cause confusion. We may have different understanding of words such as ‘home’ or ‘care’. If you were offered a ‘short break’, what might it mean to you? A weekend away? a half hour to relax? 10 minutes loo break?
  • Behaviour is an important form of communication. By spending time learning the purpose of a person’s behaviour we are best placed to understand and communicate with them

Three key elements to good engagement

We believe there are three key elements to any successful engagement -know the person, resources, and support.


Learning disability teaching

Know the person

Knowing the person is more than knowing their name and age, it’s about finding out how they communicate, their interests, needs and preferences. As an example, if a person likes music, what sort of music? Jazz? barber-shop? specific band? a particular opera or musical? We need to reflect on what we know about the person and adjust what we do so that together we achieve the best engagement.

 A person with sensory needs and autism may experience the world very differently. When planning activities be mindful that everyday things such as a sound, smell, taste or touch may have significant impact on a person’s experience and therefore enjoyment and success.

When people aren’t fluent in reading and writing there is often an assumption that this type of activity will not be enjoyable. In our experience, people love the chance to demonstrate and progress their skills in this area. By looking at the detail, we have found so many examples of individual’s reading and writing skills that had not been previously recognised – writing their own name, recognising the numbers on buses, reading the logos for shops and products, and much more. How can reading and writing by embedded into everyday life? Examples may be using ticks and crosses to indicate choice, tracing letters, reading pictures, copying words, matching numbers – the opportunities are endless.

It’s about getting to know what the person can achieve and adjusting the activity to enable them to succeed.


We use a lot of resources in our teaching. Some we buy, but lots are home made resources that we continuously adapt as needed.

Some resources may be seen by some as not ‘age appropriate’ or patronising. We believe it is good to be openminded in the use of resources, always looking to maximise a person’s opportunities. If the resource fits a person’s abilities and preferences but not their age, careful thought is needed into  how it is introduced and used. It’s about respecting the dignity of the person whilst offering something that is meaningful and achievable.

Using everyday objects as resources can work well and draw on people’s imagination and humour. In our own work 4 dining chairs quickly became a taxi for safe travel role plays, unopened food tins were exercise weights and a cardboard box was a pizza oven. 

For many people lockdown was an opportunity to rediscover resources that were hidden away and neglected at the back of cupboards and to bring them out to use and enjoy again.

How we use resources can also have a big impact on their value to an individual. For example, a young man with autism and some intellectual disabilities that we worked with found it difficult engaging with adapted activities. He felt they were patronising, and he didn’t want to join in. However, he found mainstream activities too difficult and he was left feeling extremely frustrated. We took some playing cards in and experimented until we created a simple but competitive game that he enjoyed. He chose to take the cards away to teach the game to his support worker.

Support for people with a learning disability

A good supporter knows how important it is to find out and adjust to the needs, wishes, and communication of the person they are spending time with.

How we set the scene, introduce and adjust an activity has a big impact on its success and the person’s willingness to participate. Enthusiasm and positivity about the activity and the person you are spending time with are essential. How we show this may be different for each person.

We have often seen people we support being held responsible when things go wrong or they disengage. We have learned that key to the success of any activity is much more about the way we as ‘supporters’ behave, we are an integral part of success or failure. We need to continually reflect on our own practice and make the adjustments to our own behaviour and approach to improve the experience for the person.

Active support is a method of enabling people with learning disabilities to engage more in their daily lives. It turns person centred plans into person centred action and changes the style of support from ‘caring for’ to ‘doing things together’. The aim is to enable all people to take an active part and be fully engaged in all aspects of their own lives.

Active support runs through everything we do. It’s about doing things together and within that, saying ‘I will do what I can do’ and ‘you do what you can do’.   

It’s about making everyday life more interesting and every minute count.

Keep busy, connect and learn

Finding activities can be a challenge in busy lives. We have created activities and shared our approach to benefit people, families, care staff, and organisations.

With structured and personalised activities, time passes more quickly. People feel busy and purposeful and there is increased job satisfaction.

As small steps are recognised and self-esteem is improved, they are also a useful way to measure outcomes and progression for everyone involved.

Julie Thorpe is Director and Teresa Randon is Training and Development Manager of a-2-e, which is a social enterprise 


Pavilion Publishing will be publishing Keep Busy, Connect and Learn by Julie Thorpe and Teresa Randon.

This is a fully illustrated manual containing 52 stimulating, tried, and tested activities It includes full guidance for those supporting people with learning disabilities and related needs who may be living restricted lives in the covid-19 pandemic, or would benefit from opportunities to connect and learn, either individually or in groups.

The book can be pre-ordered at https://www.pavpub.com/learning-disability/keep-busy-connected-and-learn


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