Motorway Service Areas and Autism
Motorway service areas can be very busy places that can be a sensory overload for some people on the autistic spectrum.
The industry doesn't really have a response to this, except to recommend travelling at quieter times. Motorway service areas are busiest on the weekends, especially Sunday evenings, and around Bank Holidays. They are quietest at night, and in the mornings.
A purpose-built sensory room opened at Strensham southbound (M5) in October 2022, with access available from the Duty Manager. Strictly speaking, the English motorway network has three other designated places of safety for people with autism, dementia and learning disabilities: according to National Highways, those are the Tibshelf northbound hotel (M1), the Lancaster southbound multi-faith room (M6), and the Blackburn with Darwen meeting room (M65). In practice, finding those is likely to be more effort than it's worth.
The rest of this page discusses the more positive relationship between motorway service areas and autism.
Neurodiversity and Niches
Taking a keen interest in a niche subject is a well-known trait that is closely associated with the autistic spectrum. This is because autistic people tend to derive great pleasure from things they find interesting, and autistic people can be very good at identifying minor differences that neurotypical people may not notice.
Transport is a common topic of interest, with one reason being that transport is generally very organised. On the motorway network, motorways are all numbered according to a system, motorway junctions are all numbered in an order, and motorway service areas are placed at regular intervals according to a policy. All this organisation can be both comforting and interesting, which then leads to plenty of discussion about the system.
Most importantly, motorways very rarely change, so you can memorise a motorway journey and be assured that the key features will remain the same every single time you make it. The junctions and service stations will be exactly where the map told you they are. This is important if you find comfort in repetition and stability, and it's something you don't get when, say, following a football team.
Motorway service stations cover all of the above points, plus they are very easy to categorise and compare: they are either at a junction or they aren't; they either have a bridge or they don't; they are usually managed by one of three companies; they usually have either a Costa or a Starbucks, and either a McDonald's or a Burger King. These small differences may appeal to people who enjoy identifying the patterns and working out why the differences and exceptions are there.
Compared with other niche hobbies, motorway service areas are spread out enough that it's easy to remember which ones you have been to, if you enjoy keeping track of places. There are almost 100 motorway service areas in the UK, so learning about them all is a lot easier than, say, learning about every professional football player.
Many people, especially those who don't drive, only use motorways when they are going somewhere exciting, so for them a service station is a happy memory. If you're blessed with a detailed memory, you want the places you remember to be happy ones. The service stations you haven't been to are just mysterious icons on a map.
This is not to suggest that everybody who finds motorway services areas interesting is autistic. Some people are interested in retail or the hospitality industries, or the history of motoring or architecture, all of which will involve knowing a few service stations. Many people have told us that they find motorway service areas to be unusual places that they like to visit just for the vibe. But we also understand how exciting it can be to learn everything you can about a chosen subject and, if this is the subject for you, we are delighted that our platform is helping to feed that buzz.
Whether you identify as neurodivergent or not, you are very welcome here.
Be Proud Of Your Hobbies
Motorway Services Online is a website kept up-to-date by a diverse group of volunteers. We try to strike a balance between providing lots of detail for people who like knowing the facts, and keeping our paragraphs short for anybody who doesn't like long blocks of text. If we can help by changing how we do or explain things, let us know.
If motorways are of interest to you, we hope you can use our pages to learn more about where things are across the country, and why things are the way they are. We have included some more links to pages you may find interesting at the end of this page.
Lots of people, neurodivergent and neurotypical, find motorways interesting. This website alone gets thousands of page views every day! In our time we have met people with interests in the different models of car washes, coffee machines, hand driers, street lamps, payment devices, post boxes and telephones boxes. While those aren't topics we explore here, you could be in any of those categories and you wouldn't be alone.
The motorway service area operators know that they have a lot of neurodivergent fans, and will do their best to accommodate your questions and requests, but sometimes they will be too busy to answer very technical questions. Most of your questions can be answered on this website.
For anybody who feels lonely because nobody shares their interests: please be assured that there are friends out there for everyone. If you're not convinced, work out how you are going to become the expert. Run an Instagram page? Make videos about it? Create your own space, and own it. This website started because nobody else wanted to write about service stations, and suddenly we're getting thousands of page views and being talked about in newspapers and on the radio. But don't look at the numbers - do it because you love it.
For any children who like motorways: one day you will be responsible for planning your own journeys, and you'll be able to stop wherever you like.
If you are interested in motorways, these pages may be of interest:
- See our list of motorway service areas and cross off the ones you have been to.
- Roads.org.uk's Motorway Database has a list and drawing of every single motorway junction.
- Roads.org.uk's How The Roads Are Numbered is a very detailed guide to the road numbering system, but the maps alone may be of interest. It also personalises some of the roads, which is a nice touch.
- SABRE is a British community for people who find roads interesting. It has over 40,000 members. It's open to all ages, but most of the members are adults, so parental guidance is strongly advised.