In the 1600’s, patients who struggled to pay for their medical treatment turned to gardening to earn extra money. Doctors noticed a difference between these patients and those who did not engage in gardening activities. Patients who gardened recovered faster than their counterparts and they were observed to have greater overall well-being. This is reported to have been the beginning of horticulture therapy with some believing that horticulture therapy dates back to ancient times. It has even been used to rehabilitate war veterans.
As a therapeutic option for people with autism, horticulture creates a nonthreatening environment, similar to the effect of music therapy. The environment of gardening is limited in sensory exposure and is by nature, a calming activity.
People who have an autism spectrum disorder can feel beset by anxiety, which leads to debilitating frustrations for the autistic individual and for those that work closely with the individual. The gardening space is designed so that the autistic learner can safely explore things in the way they want. The manager of one horticulture therapy program points out that:
“Nature is non-judgmental, alive and real. They can touch and feel, plant a seed and watch it grow.”
As an intervention therapy, gardening brings to bear the need for fine motor skills and coordination. As a gardener with autism practices planting, weeding, and cultivating, hand-eye coordination increases. Some horticulture therapy programs, such as the one offered by NYU Medical Center, use the repetitive behaviors of autistic learners to their benefit. As part of the program, the gardener with autism will need to pot up transplants, repeating the potting process for a variety of plants to get comfortable with it and to gain experience and through this, also gain self-esteem.
Because learning takes place within context, gardeners with autism improve their concentration and their memory skills through horticulture therapy. Many people find that gardening brings them mental and psychological benefits. Building on skills, becoming knowledgeable, and seeing the beautiful results of gardening efforts will give the autistic learner a sense of joy, self-esteem, and achievement.
Horticulture therapy is not a solo activity where autistic learners are left to their own devices. Gardening is a nontraditional classroom where autistic gardeners are learning and building on their social skills as information is taught and the joy of gardening is shared. Therapists look for “open doors” to communicate with people on the autism spectrum and nature provides numerous open doors amidst the pleasurable work of gardening. The garden is after all, a living and breathing environment where change is welcomed and new opportunities to learn abound.
Autism and Gardening | kidsgardening.org
Jun 27, 2013 … Children with autism bloom in programs that couple inviting garden spaces with appropriately designed horticultural therapy activities.