Experiencing nature improves physical, sensory, social, and emotional health and wellbeing and a garden is an ideal space to engage with nature. While research has and continues to demonstrate these benefits, little has looked at the impact on individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In time, we hope to fill the void and conduct some of this much-needed research.
Autism and Sensation
Why a sensory garden? Sensory integration challenges are common amongst individuals of all ages with ASD. They can experience under and overreactions to sensory experiences. Let’s unpack sensory integration. Sensation is information received from the environment. Sensation is hearing the sound of a lawnmower, looking at bright red and orange tulips, tasting a tangy lemon, and the sweet smell of lavender. Integration is how we interpret and use sensation.
For many, lavender smells nice, bright colored tulips make us smile, a lick of a tangy lemon is mildly aversive, but quickly forgotten, and the sound of the lawnmower can be a nuisance, but easily ignored. These small sensory “annoyances” are just that, nothing more or nothing less. Someone struggling with sensory integration challenges may have trouble processing sensation from the environment while maintaining self-regulation1. Staying composed and focused on tasks may be tough because the sensory systems are not processing in a typical way.
Some individuals with ASD may avoid certain sensory experiences like messy play in the mud, while others may seek them out, like swinging for a long time. Some may be sensitive to certain sound frequencies and noise, lighting, motion, or touch, or seek out these experiences excessively.
A garden may buffer the varied challenges that individuals with ASD experience2. Generally speaking, gardens provide children with important productive and holistic opportunities to be outside and exercise, socialize, learn, nurture their sensory systems, and improve their health. All children, regardless of skill or ability, deserve and need to participate in outdoor activities.
Professionals work tirelessly each day to develop strategies and interventions to address the needs of individuals with ASD and enrich their daily lives. With a significant rise in diagnoses, it is a necessity, rather than a luxury to provide individuals with ASD intentionally designed sensory gardens that meet them where they are, enrich their daily lives, and bring solace, excitement, engagement, and learning all in one space.
We would like to tell you about a sensory garden that we helped to design for the Els for Autism Foundation at The Els Center of Excellence. Come join us on a tour!
The Sensory Arts Garden at e is designed for individuals with ASD and their parents, educators, therapists, and caretakers who support and enrich their lives. The Center, located in Jupiter, Florida, is committed to helping individuals with ASD realize their full potential to lead positive, productive, and rewarding lives through world-class educational, recreational, and therapeutic programming on its 26-acre campus.
Although welcoming to people of all ages and abilities, we want to share how children are delighted by what the garden offers.
The 13,000-square foot garden supports and enriches children with ASD by providing opportunities to play, socialize, relax, and learn in a secure, fenced area that permits free movement and exploration. Much planning was devoted to make the spaces within the garden “autism-friendly.” The end results balance alerting and calming sensory experiences to allay stress and anxiety and gently enrich the basic senses — as well as a sense of balance (vestibular) and position and movement in space (proprioception).
To honor individual strengths and preferences while providing opportunities for shared enjoyment, the overarching intention of the garden is to offer a feeling of serenity, security, autonomy, and restoration. It acknowledges the realities of hypo- and hypersensitivities that many with ASD have supports curiosity and meaningful engagement, and most importantly, always welcomes everyone, regardless of ability.
Who tells us that the garden is working? A parent shared this about the water wall, “I stood before it staring as I listened to the sound. It’s in a beautiful garden with lovely plants. It makes this place more special for birds and humans too. It lends a certain presence that captivates the view. While autism still confounds me and remains a mystery, this wall of pure, clear water will write its own history.”
Two teachers shared similar thoughts, “Peaceful, calming. Draws the kids in. It’s a wonderful, sensory activity. Even the non-verbal kids can show their feelings on how much they love the water wall. It unifies the kids.” Another said, “It gives the kids a great sensory activity. All the kids gravitate toward the water wall – they all run towards it whenever they get to the garden.” As to the impact of the water wall on staff, one teacher told us, “Feeling – visual and auditory aspects were very meditative. Combined together, brings on a nice, calm feeling and creates an opportunity to reflect.”
Some of the children shared their thoughts about the water wall, saying things like, “I could take a shower with this!” and “It’s raining,” “It’s a waterfall,” and, “I can feel the water falling.” It is safe to say the water wall has become a popular destination in the garden! Other positive thoughts include a parent telling us “My son loves the swing in one of the Places Away so much, we bought one for him to enjoy at home.
One of his rewards for working in his classroom is to go out into the Garden for a break – he always makes a beeline for the swing!” A staff member said, “A garden is a place of peace and tranquility. It is space that I go to in moments when I need to stop, think, breathe and reset my intention for the day. It is truly a gift.”
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For the garden design to capture the breadth and complexity of ASD, we knew that close collaboration between the landscape architect, the Els for Autism Foundation’s COO (Marlene Sotelo), and occupational therapist (Amy Wagenfeld) was needed. We brought different ideas with a shared vision to the table.
This shared knowledge approach worked well for us. We planned for predictable routines, patterns, sightlines, and wayfinding while at the same time maintaining a degree of openness in the garden to encourage discovery, autonomy, and flexibility. The transition spaces and movement patterns are understandable and inviting, yet unobtrusive. Potential fears of the unknown or anxiety about what to expect during a garden visit are allayed at two neutral entry points that visitors use.
These transitional spaces allow for a pause before entering and to be able to see the entire garden. A densely planted perimeter encloses the space to subtly focus attention within the garden. Overhead, a majestic canopy of foxtail palms offers a sense of order, calming enclosure, and relief from the South Florida sun.
Everything in the garden was carefully considered for appropriateness, safety, durability, and therapeutic potential for children with ASD. “Sensory rooms,” aligned on the garden’s long axis, with foxtail palms as bookends for each planter, discretely target each of the five basic senses.
The planters’ varying heights bring sensory-appropriate plants to comfortable and easily accessible heights for standing and seated visitors. Small, movable, musical sculptures activate the surrounding spaces with sound. Teachers and therapists (and yes, children!) move the instruments around to encourage cooperative exchanges and encourage creative explorations.
Several nooks called “Places Away” along the perimeter provide calming counterpoints when children feel overwhelmed and need a moment of refuge. Smooth pebble seats offer playful and varied sensory experiences. Small water bubblers provide opportunities to touch and hear. The custom-built water wall provides immersive touch, sound, and sight experiences without worry of curious children jumping in.
Large pebble pavers strategically installed in several of the Places Away heighten sensation and motor skills as children walk from smooth concrete to slightly uneven layers of rock. A bench swing tucked within the plants and trees offers vestibular stimulation and opportunity to swing with friends, parents, or teachers.
All plantings were thoroughly vetted for toxicity. An environmentally-sensitive coordinated maintenance program ensures chemicals are used only as a last resort. Trees, such as a gumbo limbo and a bay rum were selected for their shape and shade capacity, visual, olfactory, and tactile features, and semi-permeability, so staff can see the entire garden. Repeated patterns of planting provide just the right amount of consistency, interest.
Implications of a Sensory Garden
In establishing an enriching therapeutic and educational environment that is inclusive and welcoming for all, the Sensory Arts Garden further advances the Foundation’s position as a leader and broadens its influence within the ASD community. The garden invites children to feel whole and safe on their own terms — becoming part of something bigger than themselves without feeling overwhelmed.
Children experience reprieve in the garden’s Places Away and enrichment through an exploration of the plants in the sensory rooms. Some identified favorite spots and return daily to engage with them. The garden has become an established space for outdoor instruction, particularly for students who may be challenging to reach inside the classroom.
High school students work independently on laptops or with a teaching assistant at “tree stump” tables centered in round grassy areas. Music and yoga classes and reading groups all benefit from this sensory-rich, living classroom. Within a lush and safe setting, the garden provides opportunity and choice for everyone to engage with nature on their terms, in their own way, and at their self-directed pace.
From quiet and serene reflection by the water bubblers to active sensory involvement on the swing or smelling and tasting herbs found in the sensory rooms, the garden offers various opportunities for active or passive participation. Everyone takes from the garden what they need and want. And every day in the garden is a time to experience peace and joy.
1. Sachs, N., &Vincenta, T. (2011). Outdoor environments for children with autism and special needs. Implications, (9)1, 1-8.
2. Tomchek, S.D., Little, L.M., & Dunn, W. (2015). Sensory pattern contributions to developmental performance in children with autism spectrum disorder.
3. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 69, 2-10.
Note to the readers: this work was adapted from an article to be published in Children, Youth, and Environments Journal.
Images provided by David Kamp, FASLA, LF, NA, President of Dirtworks, PC, Landscape Architecture and the Els for Autism Foundation.
This article was featured in Issue 90 – Practical Ways to Build Skills for a Lifetime