Create the Ultimate Backyard Oasis for Children With Autism
by Danny Knight
For parents of children on the autism spectrum, spending time outdoors over the summer can be a source of both fear and fun. Nature play is calming for children on the autism spectrum, as well as educational and therapeutic. At the same time, your garden space also poses some safety hazards. When the weather starts to warm up and everyone migrates outside, eliminate the worry by making your backyard safe, accessible, and functional for everyone in the family.
Address Safety Concerns
There are some outdoor safety hazards that are a higher risk to children on the autism spectrum. For example, it is common for children on the autism spectrum to be fascinated by water, so they may be more likely to wander too close to a pool or fountain. Keep these general tips to keep in mind for backyard safety:
- If you have a pool, the entire pool area should be fenced off so that children never have access to it without being supervised. Consider installing a pool alarm that will go off any time someone enters the water without warning. And while pool safety and preventing accidents is your primary goal, Autism Parenting Magazine recommends that children also learn to swim so they know how to manage in water.
- Any chemicals that are used for pools, lawns, and gardens should be locked away. These include weed killers, fertilizer, pesticides, and gas for lawn mowers. Your best bet is to designate a single spot in your garage where you keep all of these items locked.
- When spending time outdoors over summer, be aware of heat and sun exposure. If your child has difficulties with sensory processing or limited verbal communication, they may not be able to communicate while becoming overheated.
Maximize Function and Accessibility
As long as you’re aware of safety concerns, being outside in the garden can be incredibly rewarding for you and your child. Many children on the autism spectrum actually learn better and are more open to new experiences when they are outdoors, which has led some schools to create outdoor classrooms. You can create the same rich learning environment in your own backyard by setting up a space tailored to your child.
Children who are on the autism spectrum have unique sensory needs — they thrive when they have access to activities that engage the senses, yet they also need a calm and soothing space where they can disconnect from stimuli. The ideal outdoor space will have two distinct areas so they can go to a certain spot in the garden to meet each of these needs.
Set up your garden with these ideas in mind:
- Create an outdoor space that feels safe and secure for your child. The American Society of Landscape Architects recommends setting clearly visible boundaries to create this effect. You can do this with a fence, landscaping, or some combination. Give your child their own space separate from activity as well, and make sure it is shaded so they have a calm and comfortable place to retreat.
- Create an engaging space with outdoor sensory activities. When you set up sensory play outdoors, the options are limitless, and you can use all sorts of materials without worrying about mess. Try water activities, soap foam, sand, ice… even mud!
- Create spaces for physical activity. Planting a vegetable gardening is an easy way for children to enjoy nature while getting some physical activity too. Be sure to have gardening gloves, shovels, and watering cans for yourself and children so the whole family can be involved. Children who are on the autism spectrum sometimes have challenges with motor skills, so this is a great way to practice those skills in a low-key and relaxing environment.
When the weather warms up and everyone heads outdoors, it can be therapeutic to get back to nature and away from the sights and sounds of “real” life. Don’t let worries about safety keep you and your child from enjoying the outdoors together! Your children will love having an outdoor oasis that provides sensory fun and a calming refuge.
Jessica Valentine is a Chartered Counselling Psychologist who supports people within the local community and worldwide online. She offers online Skype therapy and face-to-face counselling in East Sussex, Brighton-Hove.
follow her on Twitter, FB and IG: @getwellbrighton