?Benefitsof Gardening with Children Diagnosed withAutism:By:Sarah Pounders
Engage the senses without being over stimulating. Children can explore different colors, textures, smells, and sounds in a calming, natural settings.
Gardening provides opportunities for children to hone gross and fine motorskills.Gardening allows for repetitive activities, yet still offers some challenge by providing constant change. You can establish a comforting routine (gatherneeded 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.In programs that couple inviting garden spaces with appropriately designed horticultural therapy activities. “Manychildren with autism are calmer and not as anxiety-ridden in the garden space,” shares Gwenn Fried, Manager ofRusk Horticultural Therapy ServicesatNYU Langone
Medical Centerin New York, NY. “Children come intothe garden and explore the space on their own terms; the green nature envelops
them like a blanket and keeps them comfortable.”Believed to becaused by a mix of genetic and environmental factors, autism is a general termused to describe a wide range of disorders associated with brain development.
The disorder manifests itself differently in each child, although it iscommonly displayed as difficulties in communication, social interaction, andunexplained repetitive behaviors. These challenges often cause frustration andanxiety for the child and to those around him or her. Although there is nocure, 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.Gardens Children with autism bloom.
Gwenn’s team ofhorticultural therapists offer two models of outreach programs to local schools who serve children with autism:
GradualCurriculum 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 –TheNYU 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:
explore and participate on their own terms. Many of the youth are tactilelydefensive, 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 dangledin 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.