Safe Gardening for Children on the Spectrum

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My son was 6 when we got his formal diagnosis, but I had been managing his autism since he was about a year old. The first time I held his bare feet above spring grass in the yard, he drew them up toward his torso and wailed; he didn’t like the feel of it on his feet. He has deep-seated texture aversions, and one of them was grass. This was a sign of things to come: My son hates the great outdoors. However, with a little ingenuity and a lot of trial and error, we were able to create a safe and engaging play area in the backyard of our home where he can run around and get plenty of exercise. 

Bite-Sized Gardens shares a few tips. 

Unstructured Play, In A Structured Setting

When you first assess your yard, make sure yours is a fully-fenced backyard that can help eliminate wandering. Greater Learning LP suggests also doing a perimeter check on a regular basis to address any structural issues. 

For extra safety, consider installing a keyed or combination lock on any gates kids have access to, which ensures that a curious hand won’t be able to swing gates open. If you don’t have fencing, now is the time to have this installed. This significantly reduces the chances of your child eloping. Determine which materials you want to use, then connect with top-rated fence companies through a site like Angi. Be sure to review customer testimonials and ratings, and find at least two companies to give you quotes and timelines. 

Typically, a young child with autism will engage in parallel play, alongside other children, more than interactive or cooperative play. You can encourage involvement with other kids by offering multiple designated areas within your playspace for many different activities. Group noisy activities together and have separate locations for quiet play.

A Place To Get Dirty

Set up a sandbox area to enhance sensory play. This should be a contained space with clean play sand and utensils for scooping, sorting and building. This can be a great place for a pretend building site, or an imaginary archaeological excavation. You can also work with your child’s interests here. Create a treasure hunt for buried Pokemon, or help him draw out a map of his world with colored sands. 

Somewhere To Swing And Spin

Children with autism frequently experience vestibular abnormalities that can cause issues with balance. Scholastic notes that a swing set and jungle gym help kids develop coordination and dexterity, and learning to cooperate with other children to use the equipment is great for improving social skills and communication. Climbing, spinning, swinging and sliding all work to help your child understand how his body occupies space and moves within it.

A Place To Be Calm And Quiet

Set aside a quiet space in the yard where your child can recoup his energies and calm down when he needs to. A playhouse, gazebo or even just a shady area with comfy seating, such as a glider, can be a good addition for the whole family. This will permit your child to move away from loud or uncomfortable situations going on elsewhere in the yard. Consider keeping some quiet time toys in the area. For restorative downtime, you can provide a table for building blocks, or even keep a waterproof toy box containing books and art supplies.

Add non-toxic, colorful flowers and plants for visual interest. You can even encourage your child to participate by cultivating his own garden. Consider teaching your child how to use a good pair of gloves and tools to develop his own floral or vegetable garden. By planting his own garden, he might develop a new taste for different types of vegetables, which can bolster healthy eating. 

A Word On Water

Access to water can be a great sensory tool in the garden, but be careful when installing fountains and pools. As PBS points out, children with autism can be drawn to water, as many find it calming. But this can be extremely hazardous if they are not strong swimmers. Any pool should be fenced in such a way that your child cannot access it without adult supervision. Pool alarms can let you know if someone has entered the pool without authorization, helping you respond quickly in case of an emergency. Outdoor water features should be designed so that your child cannot enter them or fall into them, behind fencing or landscaping and in open lines of sight. 

An Eye To The Future

After we created our son’s outdoor play area, we realized that our hard work paid off in two ways. First and foremost, it provided our child with an area all his own where he could comfortably and safely play outside. Second, we did such a good job making outdoor improvements that it helped our resale value once we finally had to sell our home. While our son’s comfort was of the utmost importance, that little boost made an impactful difference that we still appreciate today. 

By no means do these tips provide a comprehensive look at what you can do for a playspace for your child with ASD, but my hope is that it offers you some food for thought. Children with autistic spectrum disorder can enjoy an outdoor play area just as much as any neurotypical child. They like to climb, swing, run and play like any other child. They just need a little more attention to help keep them safe and engaged. With the right preparations, any parent can create a functional play space that is both safe and stimulating for their whole family. 
Bite-Sized Gardens is a water-wise gardening blog filled with tips and expert advice. Reach out today for more info!

About bitesizegardens

Master gardener, specializing in small-space water-wise gardening. Other interests include . . . Community volunteering, work-shops, computers, reading, music, hiking, camping and fishing

Posted on February 5, 2022, in Gardening. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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