Autism and Gardening

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Benefits of gardening with children diagnosed with autism:

  • Gardens engage the senses without being over stimulating. Children can explore different colors, textures, smells, and sounds in a calming, natural setting.
  • Gardening provides opportunities for children to hone gross and fine motor skills.
  • Gardening allows for repetitive activities, yet still offers some challenge by providing constant change. You can establish a comforting routine (gather needed tools, check on the plants, pull a few weeds, water, etc.), but there will be subtle changes to engage the curiosity of the child with each visit such as ripening tomatoes, new insects to observe, flower buds opening, and leaves changing colors.
  • Gardening is an activity that can be shared. There are many opportunities for positive social interaction and teamwork.

Children with autism bloom in programs that couple inviting garden spaces with appropriately designed horticultural therapy activities. “Many children with autism are calmer and not as anxiety-ridden in the garden space,” shares Gwenn Fried, Manager of Rusk Horticultural Therapy Services at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York, NY. “Children come into the garden and explore the space on their own terms; the green nature envelops them like a blanket and keeps them comfortable.”

Believed to be caused by a mix of genetic and environmental factors, autism is a general term used to describe a wide range of disorders associated with brain development. The disorder manifests itself differently in each child, although it is commonly displayed as difficulties in communication, social interaction, and unexplained repetitive behaviors. These challenges often cause frustration and anxiety for the child and to those around him or her. Although there is no cure, when correctly identified, purposeful therapeutic interventions show great promise in helping children with autism reach their fullest potential. As seen through the program at NYU Medical Center, gardens and horticultural therapy activities offer exciting opportunities for connecting with children with autism.

Gwenn’s team of horticultural therapists offer two models of outreach programs to local schools who serve children with autism:

Gradual Curriculum Enhancement – Therapists bring plants to local classrooms or schools bring their students to the hospital’s gardens for weekly sessions. Each lesson is tailored to enhance the classroom’s curriculum, and therapists work to find the best way to communicate with each child participating. “All children can learn,” shares Gwenn. “Therapists just need to find the right door to communicate with them, and especially with children with severe autism, the door may be less obvious. Usually a child will take interest in some part of the activity and then the therapist can identify that as the door.”

Prevocational Programs – The NYU Medical Center team also works with older students aged 17 to 21 on job and life skills. The older students visit the garden a couple of times a week to learn about plants and practice teamwork. Gwenn notes that one of the most remarkable things about this program is “watching kids who you would not consider leaders take on leadership roles.” The program helps build confidence, pride, and a sense of responsibility.

When asked why she thought horticultural therapy was such a useful tool for working with children with autism, Gwenn responded, “Nature is non-judgmental, alive and real. They can touch and feel, plant a seed and watch it grow.” Here are a few specific strategies Gwenn’s team of therapists employ that contribute to their program’s success:

- Students explore and participate on their own terms. Many of the youth are tactilely defensive, so they are never forced to complete any activity. Curiosity and engagement in the lessons will encourage most students to take down their own barriers.

- Repetitive activities are utilized. Students move through the same steps over and over again to increase comfort level and experience success. Potting up transplants using different types of plants is a frequent activity.

- Students are slowly encouraged to interact with each other. For example, when the program begins, each student will have their own bowl of soil for planting, but by the end, they will be sharing bowls of soil. Also, activities that involve passing things from student to student are planned.

- Positive reinforcement is used to guide behavior. In each session, therapists plan a reward. The reward is never mentioned during the session, so it is not dangled in front of them like a carrot or threatened to be taken it away, but the students learn that at the end of the session, if they have exhibited good behavior, they get praise and the opportunity to do something extra like spend free time in the garden or take a plant to home.

If you would like more information about gardening with children with autism, Gwenn is happy to have you contact her by email at [email protected].

Additional Resources:

A thesis by Bonnie Hebert at Louisiana State University offers guidelines for designing therapeutic gardens for children with autism. Here are a few of the key concepts presented:

• Design for security, safety, and supervision – enclose on all sides and use appropriate plants.

• Use spatial arrangement to create a private space – block out traffic noise or other visual stimuli.

• Design space for sensory integration activities.

• Provide spaces with loose parts for manipulation.

• Create a clear and unambiguous layout – design clear, logical, orderly and structured plantings.

For more guidelines, the full thesis is available at: Design Guidelines of a Therapeutic Garden for Autistic Children by Bonnie Hebert.

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