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Gardening and Autism

Gardening offers therapeutic value for so many conditions, supporting optimal physical and mental health. By improving physical, social, sensory, and emotional health, gardening can also help improve symptoms of autism while encouraging the development of critical life skills.

Many of the symptoms of autism relate to sensory integration, which is why researchers are so interested in therapeutic gardens. Sensory integration is the ability to feel and understand sensory information from the environment and body. By designing a sensory garden, hypersensitive children with autism can enter a calming environment and hyposensitive children benefit from stimulating effects. However, this is just the beginning.

Offering a wide range of benefits, here’s why you need to consider gardening therapy if you or your loved one are on the spectrum — plus how to get started!

What Is Gardening Autism Therapy?

Also known as horticultural therapy, autism gardening therapy has been shown to have a dramatic effect on individuals with autism, regardless of age. Since autism manifests differently in each child, no two individuals are identical. As these children grow into adults, they showcase unique challenges related to sensory input, communication, and repetitive behaviors — just to name a few.

Gardening involves so many steps and skills, which is why everyone with autism can take something positive away from their gardening experience. One individual may connect with plants as a living thing, being able to talk to them about their thoughts and feelings. Another individual may reduce feelings of anxiety while gardening, whereas another individual may become interested in new food groups, benefiting their long-term nutritional health.

Gardening therapy is an organized natural setting that allows individuals to explore calming and stimulating sensory experiences. It is essentially a form of sensory therapy. Whether it is a vegetable or flower garden, there will be different colors, smells, textures, and even sounds. Since many individuals with autism are most comfortable with routines, gardening is the perfect activity. In many ways, it is a repetitive activity and a routine can be established. However, there will also be changes that can engage curiosity across time.

For example, there may be a set routine, such as gathering the tools needed to garden, checking and watering the plants, and pulling weeds, but there will also be subtle changes. Whether it be the ripening of a tomato, a flower bud opening, or the presence of a new insect, this can be highly beneficial to individuals with autism. In addition to ABA therapy, this type of hands-on learning is key.

The Benefits of Gardening Therapy for Autism

Not all “classrooms” are overly obvious. A garden space offers a unique environment that helps individuals develop the skills they need to grow and thrive.

The wonderful thing about a garden is that it provides opportunities to honor individual strengths and preferences while sharing enjoyment with others. Individuals with autism can approach gardening on their own terms. This allows them to slowly go outside of their comfort zone without feeling overwhelmed.

A 2020 study, focused on the therapeutic benefits of a healing garden among individuals with autism. Participants were between the ages of 15 and 23. Seven of the participants had low-functioning autism, and one participant was high-functioning. The three primary goals of the program included:

  • Greater verbal/gestural communication and interpersonal interactions
  • To promote the initiative in expressing will and completing a task independently
  • Improving adaptive behaviors

Activities included sowing seeds, seed collection, plant cultivation, and conservation efforts. There were also activities within the local community, promoting greater social interaction. The results show that these individuals with autism made significant improvements in areas of interaction skills, independence, and adaptive behavior.

Similar studies have been conducted, focusing on sensory gardens. This 2020 study found that taking a learning approach in a sensory garden improved communications and language skills, enhanced learning focus, and changed select behaviors.

Strengthening the ability to follow directions

Following directions can be challenging for those with autism, as this valuable skill requires many underlying skills. From paying attention and understanding what the instructions mean to remember the instructions and physically following through, there are a lot of steps. For example, Legacy Farms shared the gardening experience of a young man named Ben. Ben is on the spectrum and struggles with task completion, which is one of the major benefits of gardening. After a little practice and guidance, his job was to water all the plants, which he enjoys very much. Being able to follow multi-step directions is incredibly beneficial, both in the garden and within everyday life.

Sensory integration

As discussed this is an exciting benefit for those with autism, as well as their family members. Witnessing the joy and peace a garden brings can be a beautiful experience. Whether an individual with autism is looking at a newly bloomed bright red tulip or smelling lavender, a garden is highly sensory, yet calming.

Reduces feelings of anxiety

Research shows that up to 40% of youth with autism have one or more diagnosable anxiety disorders. These feelings of anxiety typically follow individuals into adulthood, affecting their ability to take part in everyday activities. Nature is soothing and relaxing, helping individuals with autism participate in a new activity without feeling stressed. This activity can also provide an outlet for any physical aggression while building confidence and greater self-esteem.

Offers opportunity to work with others

Gardening is an activity that can be shared and enjoyed together. While working in the garden, there are many opportunities to interact socially and work as a team. This encourages individuals with autism to work on their communication skills. This can help them feel more comfortable working with others. For example, parents of an individual with autism often search for ways to better connect with their loved one. While some find this connection through art or music, others spend quality time in the garden.

Related: How to Get Adults with Autism to Socialize

Improves motor skills

Research shows that up to 87% of people with autism experience motor difficulty. These difficulties include gross and fine motor skills. Whether it be an autism flower garden or a community vegetable garden, gardening activities can address both types of motor skills by encouraging the use of a wheelbarrow, digging, pulling weeds, raking, planting seeds, and picking/pulling a harvest. These steps can help individuals develop muscle strength and motor skills that will benefit them for years to come.

Learning about eating the foods you grow

Watching a plant grow can be an incredibly rewarding experience for individuals with autism, especially when they are part of the process. By growing nutrient-dense food, individuals learn the value of various food groups and may be more open to trying new foods. There are often concerns associated with autism and diet, as many individuals opt for unhealthy food choices. By harvesting the foods they grow, they may be more interested in cooking with these healthy ingredients.

Tips to Make Gardening Fun and Easy

Like any activity, it’s important to focus on each individual’s strengths and interests. However, here are some tips that may make your gardening experience more enjoyable.

  • Use a gardening visual schedule that shows the steps involved
  • Depending on the individual, start with small plants instead of seeds — this will yield results they can see right away
  • Choose flowers or plants with lots of colors to provide sensory input
  • Decorate your garden with small objects based on the individual’s unique interests
  • Keep a gardening journal together — this is a fun way to improve communication and learning

The Adult Autism Center’s Agriculture Program Is One-of-a-Kind

Being the first of its kind, the Adult Autism Center of Lifetime Learning offers many unique programs, ranging from culinary to home living.

Of these programs, the agriculture program has been a tremendous success, for many reasons. Throughout this program, individuals take part in the entire growing process. From seeding to transplanting, harvesting to packaging, tasks are repetitive and predictable, yet challenging and exciting. Many of the participants develop an immense passion for gardening and even get involved in the local community.

Like all our programs, we take a person-centered approach. We consider each individual’s needs and interests, placing them where they’ll shine and thrive. While some enjoy spending time in the greenhouse, others like selling vegetables and flowers to those in the community.

If you have questions or seek ongoing education and support, we welcome you to contact us today!

smiling headshot photo of Heather Davis, clinical director editor of the adult autism center

Heather Davis graduated from Texas A&M University with her Ph.D. in Special Education and is a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA). Heather has spent 18 years of her professional career working with children diagnosed with autism and their families. In her previous role as the Clinical Director of the Carmen B. Pingree Autism Center of Learning, her focus was to provide on-going staff training to ensure the delivery of high-quality, evidence-based services to meet the individualized needs of each child diagnosed with autism. She is inspired to continue to work in this field by the progress clients demonstrate which helps to improve their quality of life. Hearing individuals speak their first words, gain independent living skills, and demonstrate skills families never thought possible are what drive her to become a better clinician and continue to work with these important members of our community. In her free time, Heather enjoys running, reading, and spending time with her twin girls and husband exploring all the wonderful landscapes of Utah.

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