Children on the Autistic Spectrum Flourish Through Gardening Programs

After watching Sonia concentrate as she determinedly dips her over-sized paint brush into a pallet of red acrylic paint, one would never guess the four-year-old is autistic: a disorder that falls under the umbrella of pervasive development disorder. Yet, like the rest of the one in sixty-eight children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in the United States, Sonia (not her real name) is challenged educationally on a daily basis.

Many autistic children (depending on the degree of their diagnosis) are not fully able to adapt to a regular classroom environment nor do they classify as special education. Autism manifests itself differently in each child whether it via language and communication, behavior and social interaction, and/or recurrent obsessive actions.  Stuck in non man’s land— so to speak— children on the autistic spectrum require a great deal of individually catered interaction to analyze which skills in particular should be honed in on.

“It’s hard to understand what’s going on. She’s in a different world. Some days are really tough, full of tantrums, but I try to have her really look into the person’s eyes she is talking to. If you start early enough engagement exercises, it can reverse her tendencies,” said her mother, Krissy Broek, an elementary school teacher in California and a teaching coach for a non-profit organization, the Teaching Channel.

Teachers have many students all across the developmental spectrum and finding a way to engage everyone of different developmental needs is a task gardens help teachers face. Schools across the country are incorporating gardens into their facilities and are enabling children like Rhiannon to thrive in an educational space. The utilization of gardens to reach autistic children has driven many schools to allocate space dedicated to horticultural activities. Non-profit organizations, such as the National Gardening Association (NGA), are a leading force in incorporating garden-based education to school garden programs. The NGA offers an outline and guide for administrators, teachers, and parents on how to initiate and fund a garden program on school campuses on the homepage of their website.

New York City, an area where open green space is hard to come by in the majority of school districts, has jumped on the bandwagon and begun to include gardens on campus. “Having access to a rooftop garden is highly desirable for many parents with children who have special needs,” said Jessica Torres, principal of the brand new Mt. Eden Children’s Academy in Bronx, New York. “Most families don’t have access to these spaces otherwise.” Mt. Eden Children’s Academy is home to eight special needs classrooms that assist seventy-five students. The children of Mt. Eden, the adjacent high school, and middle school have access to the large rooftop garden where they plant, cultivate, and harvest their own vegetables. Working with other students in a calm and anxiety-ridden environment to grow a plant, whether it is a flower or a vegetable, establishes a sense of confidence.

“Children take what they grow and cook it in the home economics kitchen, which is fantastic,” said Jack Doyle, executive director and planner of the New Settlement Community Campus where Mt. Eden Children’s Academy is housed. “They take trips to the garden throughout the day and at the end of the year we have a big harvest event where they help prepare food for their parents.” The very nature of gardening is engaging, repetitive, and collaborative, abilities autism hinders.

According to Gwen Fried, a Horticultural Therapist and an outdoor garden curator at NYU’s Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine a horticultural experience can teach autistic children skills for having jobs later in life. Many autistic children struggle socially and cannot sit still or focus on a group activity, but they test off the charts in other areas such as cognitive thinking. “We do an initial desensitization program to calm the child and get them used to touching and closely interacting with nature which is better for learning,” said Fried. “We don’t want to overwhelm them.” Fried focuses on the anthropological uses of plants through history and weaves these lessons into classes at the institute.

Devon Maloney of the Garden Academy, a school founded in response to the critical shortage of appropriate services for children with autism, located in Maplewood, New Jersey, sees how research and autism developments plays out in a school setting on a first hand level. “Individualized therapy reinforced with gardening and outdoor programs are proven to be effective,” said Maloney. Going through the motions of a repetitive action bring comfort and allow for children to fine-tune kinesthetic skills while visually and auditorally challenging them to identify different types of plants by the differences in how they grow.

Sensory gardening programs are deeply rooted in horticultural therapy. Horticulture therapy is nothing new, its use is only being reapplied and modernized. Recognized since the early 1800s by Dr. Benjamin Rush, horticulture therapy has been a method to treat mental illness. However, American child psychologist Leo Kanner, M.D, did not publicly coin autism until the 1940s. Crude medical treatments such as LSD and electric shock were thought to be the prevailing method to mental illness and gardening as a primary outlet for treatment disregarded. During the 1980s and early 1990s, the role of behavioral therapy and the use of highly controlled learning environments emerged as the primary treatments for autism. Sensory gardens applied specifically to autism spectrum disorder are a recent phenomenon of the 2000s.

Horticulture therapy is conceivably part of a larger movement to increase and renovate green spaces outside of school grounds, such as parks or community garden. New York City has a plethora of green space available to its residents with special needs, however many of these sites require renovation and restoration. The New York Restoration Project has been transforming green spaces throughout the city’s five boroughs green spaces since 1995. Volunteers of all ages are actively engaged by projects such as replanting native species in an effort to restore the ecological integrity of degraded urban green spaces and to promote naturally occurring ecosystems. “They speak to the greater need of green spaces in communities in general, it gives people a calming sense,” said Tony Lewis, Highbridge Natural Area Supervisor, New York Restoration Project. People look up at all tree and can kind of find themselves by detaching from the hectic outer world.” While this organization is not explicitly seen as being a source of horticulture therapy, its statement rings the same bell – getting outside and interacting with nature  is beneficial to your health. By providing access to these spaces, residents with and without mental or physical abilities are able to live a healthier and more full life.