Nature as a Salve for Youngsters With Autism
Erin Laraway and four of her students were pulling radishes from raised beds in a pocket garden by the side of the Brooklyn Occupational Training Center, a public high school for youth with special needs in the Gravesend neighborhood of Brooklyn, one Friday morning.
“How many radishes do you have there, Javier?” Asked Ms. Laraway an 18-year-old who was rocking back and forth. It was stimming, a repetitive behavior that many people with autism use to calm themselves down. He raised five fingers.
“Well done,” replied the teacher. “How do you feel about working in the garden today?” She asked, holding out a tablet-like communication device. Javier pointed to a boy’s symbol that read “proud”.
Students “get a great sense of achievement in the garden, really accomplishing something,” said Ms. Laraway. “Javier lifts the wheelbarrow or waters the plants without being asked, while in the classroom he has difficulty removing the cap from a water bottle. I’m always amazed at what he’s capable of out here. “
Ms. Laraway is not attempting to cure her students of autism, a neurological condition that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, affects one in 54 children in the United States to varying degrees. But she hopes the relaxed garden atmosphere will help her students, many of whom are on the hard end of the autism spectrum, improve their verbal and social skills and prepare them for employment after graduation.
It seems to be helping. Her students interact more with their peers in the garden than in the classroom, Ms. Laraway reported.
“Autistic kids don’t do enough things outside,” said Temple Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University who has autism. “You’re stuck in the basement playing video games.”
Studies show that children with autism are particularly prone to screening addiction. That has only gotten worse since Covid-19 caused schools to close their doors, observed Dr. Grandin.
But now that summer camps and other outdoor facilities for autistic children are reopening, some autism experts are hoping that this trend could reverse.
“In nature, the nervous system has the ability to decompress and recover,” says Michelle Brans, who runs Counting Butterflies, a children’s therapy center near Toronto. “This is especially important for autistic children because their sensory system can be overloaded much faster.”
For young people with autism, nature is not only relaxing but also an exciting place, said Ms. Brans. The same ability to focus on one thing that can be addicting to video games allows them to focus on the smallest details – the sound of a single insect, the texture of a blade of grass. Of course, the spectrum of autism is wide and each child’s needs and strengths are different.
One boy Mrs. Brans worked with loved everything water-related – the feeling of feeling it on his hands, watching the water move and swirl. She encouraged his parents to put water bottles, fountains, and small ponds in their home.
“We used water as a bridge, a tool to make him feel more comfortable in the world,” she said. When the boy got into high school, he organized a club to discuss water issues – a big step for a child who had previously struggled with others.
Another natural help that helps many children with autism is working with animals, said Dr. Grandin: “I don’t think in words, I think in pictures. Animals don’t think in words. You live in a sensory world. Some autistic children can really identify with animals for this reason. “
An increasingly common form of natural therapy for children in the spectrum is working with horses.
Caitlin Peters, assistant professor at the Temple Grandin Equine Center at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, conducted a small pilot study that suggested that spending time with horses decreased irritability and hyperactivity in adolescents with autism and increased their level of communication.
Learning how to train dogs also appears to help some autistic children relate to people, according to a study published in Autism magazine in March.
One place that has done well working with a variety of animals is Elijah’s Retreat, a 50 acre dude ranch near Tyler, Texas that offers hiking, fishing, and horseback riding for children with autism and theirs Offers families.
“These kids are very tactile,” said Cheryl Torres, director of Elijah’s Retreat. “They want to feel the horse’s legs, examine their teeth, pick their nose. They try to find out – how does it move, how does it run, where are its muscles? “
She said it was worth the extra effort: “For autistic children, the wilderness is a place where they can be themselves without having to adjust to the expectations of others – in this world it can be a rare commodity.”
For some people with autism, a quiet time alone in nature can be spiritually transforming, said Gonzalo Bénard, an art photographer and therapist from Cascais, Portugal. Mr Bénard did not speak until he was 7 years old. “Autism has brought me a wonderful world of stillness and introspection,” he said.
As a young man, Mr. Bénard studied the ancient Bon religion with a shamanic teacher from Tibet. In some traditional cultures, autism is referred to as “the shaman’s disease,” Mr. Bénard explained, because it was believed that the people of the spectrum had better access to the inner world and were natural healers.
He trained himself in yoga and meditation and spent hours at a time “lying in the forest and listening to the earth,” he said.
“It gave me a deeper connection to nature and also to other people.”
How to help children connect with nature
Dongying Li, an assistant professor at Texas A&M University studying landscape and health, suggested being flexible and allowing children to play unstructured nature in their own way. “Take a puddle, tree, pocket park, or even a photo of a garden, and plan out incremental steps, starting where you feel most comfortable,” she said.
Other suggestions that can be adapted if necessary:
Allow children to find their safe place in nature, suggested Mr Bénard. If parents have a garden or property, build them a wooden house, a safe haven where they can go and be silent.
Look around and see different species, Ms. Laraway said. Families can make a game of this by counting the number of birds or butterflies they see each day.
Let the children play freely without instruction, suggested Ms. Galbraith. Allow them to stare at a log forever if they want to. Give them the space and time to experience nature in their own way. If they live far from nature, set up a bird feeder or window sill garden.
Plan a trip to a local ranch to pick apples, strawberries, pumpkins, or fresh vegetables, Ms. Torres said. You can enjoy scavenger hunts or stargazing. Keep exposing your child to new things so they can find the things that really inspire them.