Anyone who gardens knows how good it can make you feel. Whether you’re a bit tired, had a stressful day at work, an argument or are dealing with serious depression or heartbreaking loss, I’ve heard time and time again from people how powerfully healing gardening can be. It enables us to take time out from the constant busyness, noise and over-stimulation of the 24/7 modern world and just be. It’s no wonder then that those on the spectrum benefit greatly from any time spent in the great outdoors.
As Sarah Wild, Head Teacher at Limpsfield Grange School in Surrey, (whose inspirational work was showcased in an ITV documentary ‘Girls with Autism’ last year) told me recently, “Being outside is of enormous benefit for the girls; it really helps them to process their feelings and emotionally regulate.”
I’ve seen it first hand with my seven-year- old son with autism, Arthur. Over time, the garden has become a bit like an open sensory room, only better, with crunchy gravel and slate pathways that make a delightful sound when you walk along them, tons of wildlife and many, many sounds, smells and sensory appealing details and areas to explore. When we’ve had people over and Arthur’s had a meltdown, the garden is where we’ve gone and he is almost instantly calmed. In the early days when getting him to eat healthy foods was often tricky, a little forage in the garden worked wonders. He’s under-stimulated by food so it made (and continues to make) the process of eating more interesting to him, and as a result, he now thankfully eats a wide range of fruit and vegetables.
So what makes a therapeutic garden?
Green spaces and wooded areas tend to be naturally very cathartic and calming for those on the spectrum. Here are just a few suggestions on how to make your garden even more autism-friendly:
- Add scented plants
Some safe (non-toxic) examples include roses, jasmine, elderflower and herbs such as lavender, rosemary, mint, thyme and sage. If you add just one plant do make it lavender and add in as much as you possibly can because the scent is incredibly calming and attracts a wide range of beneficial insects, such as pollinators.
- Encourage birds and wildlife in
There are lots of things that can be done here, from hanging bird feeders about your outside space to allowing certain areas of the garden to grow a bit wild and letting native flowers move in, building a child-friendly mini pond to encourage frogs and toads, and letting plants go to seed to feed birds over winter. All of which will encourage a greater range of wildlife to your garden providing positive stimulation and interest.
- Create foraging interest
I’ve mentioned already how beneficial it has been for my son’s sometimes very controlled eating that he can pick fresh fruit and vegetables straight from the garden and I’d recommend it for any child on the spectrum. The best and arguably easiest plants with which to start are soft fruit bushes such as blackcurrants and raspberries because they are easy to incorporate into existing planting. Otherwise, if space allows, I’d also recommend fruit trees and peas, tomatoes, strawberries and fennel (which encourages appetite) to name but a few.
- Use sound
Gravel for pathways comes in a range of colors so you can always choose one your child prefers. The lovely crunchy sound they make when you walk on them provides both comfort and interest and can help lead your child from area to area in your outside space.
Water is also often extremely popular and a good draw ‘in’ to be in the garden and gardening so an outside tap is highly useful. Then watering cans, paddling pools and safe water features can enable your child to both plays (and help out with watering plants) as he/she sees fit.
The whooshing sound and spectacle that trees make in light wind is mesmerizing and highly grounding so I’d recommend incorporating trees at each and every opportunity.
- Create a haven (or havens)
This is incredibly useful as it provides your child with space into which to retreat should they feel overstimulated and require ‘time-out.’ Even a pop-up tent can do the job nicely but if you have the time, space and inclination, then you can create a tree or hedge lined area(s) within your garden and even better with a seating area (or den) within.
- Go with his/her interests
Then I’d recommend working around which area interests your child most and use this to glean enthusiasm. A lot of the time it’ll probably be moving and ‘doing’ based such as watering, pushing wheelbarrows and digging in the ground which gives him/her something to ‘hook’ onto. This is also good because it can help encourage communication and provide focus in extremely positive ways. Often it can be useful to offer a range of suggestions so the child can choose where to go first and then figure out what to do next. It might help to develop a visual timetable of what he/she will be doing in the garden, at least at first till he/she can adjust.
I really do believe that gardening has the potential to empower those with autism — to build confidence that will flow into other areas of their lives no matter where they lie on the spectrum. So often a diagnosis brings with it a negative perception which can be disheartening and all the more reason why building ability and therefore greater resilience is key.
Kim Stoddart is a national gardening writer and social entrepreneur. She believes so much in the potential of ecotherapy (with gardening and animals) she is setting up a care farm for those with autism on her smallholding in Ceredigion, West Wales. Kim also blogs at www.getbadlybehaved.com and you can follow her on twitter @badlybehavedone and on facebook @getbadlybehaved.
This article was featured in Issue 54 – Surviving Family Challenges