Gardens Can Help
Gardens give children with autism and special needs a great chance to get outside and use nature to help to combat anxiety, promote sensory integration and develop positive social skills through active, whole-body play. Of course anyone who gardens knows how good it can make you feel. Studies have verified that autistic children who spend time in natural environments have increased attention span, reduced response times, and improved behavioral temperament.
Benefits of Gardens for Kids on the Spectrum
The first benefit has to do with the physical garden space itself. A sense of relief and calm is often displayed by the kids on the spectrum when in a garden space. Gardens can serve as a welcome break from the family stress and the classroom or facility environment.
Gardens can provide a space for “quiet fascination.” The fascination can come from the garden setting itself: from the sounds, the motion, the intensity of forms and color, the fragrance and the light and shadow. It can also come from the surprises of texture, creatures, shapes and variety of plants and all the thousands of other little details that come together to create a garden.
A place to practice the art of following directions that contain multiple steps. Kids with autism spectrum have greater difficulty shifting attention from one task to another or changing routine. Through garden activities, young gardeners can be given steps that must be followed in order to complete the activity. This can be accomplished (or not) in a non-threatening manner so the kids enjoy the experience with no reprimand.
Gardens can help with sensory processing disorders. A sensory garden is a garden environment that is designed with the purpose of stimulating the senses. All gardens are sensory but some are more sensory than others. It’s the concentration of different experiences that defines a sensory garden. Kids who have sensory processing disorders tend to have extreme reactions to sensory stimulation in that they are either stimulated too much or too little. Gardens can have passive places, designed to be calming, or places that stimulate activity and “feed” the senses.
Tips from Award-Winning Garden Designers
Award-winning English garden designer Frederic Whytecreated an award-wining autism-friendly garden at the Royal Horticultural Sociey’s Chelsea in 2016. Frederic says: “Gardens can be wonderful places for people with autism, either providing a calm and safe retreat or an open, free area for running around and relieving stress – ideally both. Making simple adjustments to your outdoor space and creating a low arousal environment that supports their needs, can greatly benefit their well-being.” After the show, the garden was packed up and relocated to Leiston Abbey in Suffolk to serve as a soothing space that will benefit children with autism for years to come. While we can’t all have professionally designed gardens, we can use the tips offered by professional garden designer’s to adapt a green space to provide a special pave for kids the spectrum:
• Calming scents – people with autism can have acute senses so delicate fragrances from plants like roses, elderflower and jasmine are highly beneficial
• Create a calm zone – people with autism can be sensitive to noise, light, heat or smells. It’s important therefore to define an area of the garden as a calm zone
• Add an action-packed area – an area for exercise and letting off steam will provide a positive place to focus energy, if space permits
• Colors and shade – color is important. Strong bold colours like red and yellow in sunny areas help to stimulate, soft whites and purples in the shaded areas are calming
• All non-toxic – people with autism have a habit of putting things in their mouths so ensure you have no toxic paints, creosote or weed-killers for a safe environment
• Edible flowers – as well as fruit and salad, pretty flowers that can be eaten such as Begonias, Dahlias and Cannas are a must, and no poisonous plants
• Lighting – fluorescent lights are disturbing, use LED lighting – a sensory light wall that changes color depending on your child’s need and mood at the time
• Safe spaces – enclosed, private ‘hiding spaces’ like pods to read, relax and rock back and forth in comfort help a child with autism feel safe
• Spark interest – children with autism like logic and reason, so use a variety of planting, with different purposes (e.g. wildflowers for wildlife) so they can make lists
• Herbs to sooth – chamomile, thyme, mint, lemon verbena can be turned into tea which is highly calming for a child with autism
• Introduce structure – think about physical structure of any space that a person with autism occupies: walls, furniture and flooring can all be used to create a calm, structured environment
• Kinetic energy – plants, such as soft grasses, that sway and blow in the wind, can be soothing to people with autism
To read more about the special gardens developed for the RHS, see “Autism-Friendly Gardening Showcased at RHS Flower Shows in 2016” on the RHS media site or on the Royal Horticulture Society’s website.