Cultivate - the Horticultural Therapy Society of NSW

9 Dec 2016

Using Gardens to Improve Lives of Kids with ASD

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Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) creates many challenges for those with the condition but one thing that experts agree on is that early intervention is key to helping children to develop the skills they need to live happier, more fulfilling lives.

ASD is a group of neurological and developmental disorders. The use of the term spectrum is very apt for these children as the experience of their condition ranges across a broad range of symptoms and every individual’s response to the condition is different. Some children with ASD suffer greatly from over-stimulation of sensory input, whilst others require additional stimulation for their brains to respond to their environment. Some children with ASD are entirely non-verbal, whilst others have very good language skills. Many children suffer from physically impaired gross and fine motor skills due to disrupted vestibular systems, and many engage in repetitive behaviours and/or exaggerated fascination with particular interests.

The most fundamental impacts of the condition for children are the way the condition impairs their communication and their relationships with family, friends and carers. They also rarely engage in spontaneous play and need assistance to develop a range of skills related to learning life skills through role play and play therapy.

Recent research has shown that therapeutic gardens are especially helpful in alleviating the tensions, frustrations and challenges of living every day with the symptoms of ASD. The goal of a therapeutic garden for children with ASD is to provide a safe and inclusive environment that supports a range of therapies that compliment and build on therapies conducted in classrooms and other indoor spaces. The garden will provide a range of plants and natural elements, combined with a built environment that caters specifically to the needs of children with ASD.

A well-designed and implemented garden for children with ASD is significantly different from an everyday garden because it takes into account the symptoms and impairments imposed by the condition and allows for a gradual extension of skills and brain development that will provide the children with much needed life skills, together with a sense of achievement and self-esteem. The main ways an ASD therapeutic garden differs from an everyday garden include:

  • Catering to ASD individuals who suffer from over-stimulated sensory integration systems – gardens will provide places for individuals to escape and take a break from the strains of constant sensory overloading and provide soothing spaces for relaxation
  • The inclusion of sensory garden spaces that stimulate sensory perception – these inclusions cater to those individuals who need heightened sensory stimulation but are also designed in a way that allows for sensory integration therapy to take place and gradually build sensory stimulation for those whose systems are over-stimulated
  • Sequenced garden activities, both vegetative and in the built environment – this allows children time to adjust between activities and gradually extend their skills, building confidence and self esteem
  • Recognition of the special needs of ASD children who need to gradually build gross and fine motor skills in a safe environment that caters to their often impaired vestibular and proprioceptive systems
  • Safety features that take into account the fact that many ASD children fail to understand the sensory information from their surrounding environment – ASD individuals often do not recognise the dangers in their natural and built environments because without properly processing their surroundings they do not accurately process cause and effect
  • Spaces for play therapy, both free and directed – gardens for ASD children need to include a variety of props, spaces and include loose parts for varying the environment through the building of changeable obstacle courses and the like
  • Spaces for formal and informal interaction with peers, family, carers and therapists – the needs of family and carers are often overlooked but providing a wonderful outdoor garden can provide much needed relaxation for family and carers too, whilst providing additional opportunities for them to interact naturally with the children and build lasting bonds and memories with them.

All gardens give opportunities for greater and more frequent interaction with nature and can improve the health outcomes of individuals but providing specially designed natural and built environments for ASD children can exponentially improve the quality of life and the coping skills they develop. They can supply a much needed outlet for the stresses of living every day with their condition and can help to reduce undesirable physical symptoms such as hand-flapping and spinning in the classroom by releasing these impulses in a more suitable environment.

There are also many other garden types that are appropriate for other medical conditions and therapeutic needs. Therapeutic Gardens is a service that brings together teams of experts to provide a range of garden types, including but not limited to: general therapeutic gardens, healing gardens, sensory gardens, edible gardens, dementia gardens and gardens for post-traumatic stress disorder.

This is, of course, just a brief overview of some of the features and design principles for building a beautiful and appropriate space for children with ASD. There are many finer points to achieving your aims and providing a space that maximises the health and therapy results achieved, both outdoors and in the classroom. If you would like more information on the benefits of gardens for children with ASD, tips for achieving excellent design and implementation, or would like to consult with someone about having a garden built and maintained for you, visit the Therapeutic Gardens website

The Therapeutic Gardens website acts as both an information hub for those seeking knowledge about the benefits, research and principles involved in building these therapeutic spaces. It is also a community of people who are sharing their experiences, perspectives and personal stories about their conditions and the gardens they enjoy. Subscription to the site is free and subscribers will receive regular blogs and information on therapeutic gardens, such as sensational plant choices and new research in the field.


This news item has been written by Jo Aquilina from Therapeutic Gardens

More about JoJo Aquilina is a landscape project manager and marketing consultant who is also a mother of four children, two of who have special medical needs. Through her personal and working life, Jo saw a need to provide therapeutic gardens for a number of medical conditions and founded Therapeutic Gardens to design, implement and maintain gardens that could improve the health outcomes and the quality of life for a range of individuals and groups. Jo’s holistic approach to creating these gardens has led her to bring together teams of experts (including special educators, therapists, health professionals for example) to provide gardens that meet the specific needs of her clients. The result is beautiful, functional, natural spaces, supported by safe, inclusive, bespoke built infrastructure that can make a real difference in the lives of people with therapeutic needs.

Follow Jo and Therapeutic Gardens on their website at, on Instagram at and on Facebook at

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