Gardening and Autism

Horticultural therapy has proven benefits for individuals with autism.

The integration of horticultural therapy and therapy gardens within health and human service agencies has grown exponentially in recent years. In senior centers, gardening and garden spaces are used to help with fine motor skills, socialization, and ambulatory movement. In veteran’s hospitals, gardening is used for exercise, vocational training, and education.

There is one population that, in my opinion, receives the most benefit from the incorporation of gardens and horticultural therapy in daily services. That population is found in the organizations, schools, institutions, and training centers that serve individuals on the autism spectrum.

PHOTO: Rimland horticultural therapy garden
Flowers like butterfly gaura (Gaura lindheimeri) can be observed with quiet fascination.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and autism are general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development. These disorders are characterized by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors.

In the spring and summer of 2013, I worked with two organizations and schools and led weekly horticultural therapy sessions in their outdoor gardens. We observed many benefits when engaging both children and adults on the autism spectrum.  For today, I’ll discuss three primary benefits I observed: quiet fascination and stimuli reduction, the ability to follow direction, and tactile sensory integration.

The first benefit has to do with the physical garden space itself. I observed a sense of relief displayed by the participants when in the garden space. Gardens can serve as a welcome break from the classroom or facility environment, for clients and staff, and provide a space for “quiet fascination.”

Kaplan, Kaplan, and Ryan state that quiet fascination can “come from the setting itself, from the sound patterns, the motion, the intensity of forms and color” (69). An evaluation was designed at the beginning of the season and results demonstrated that 72 percent of participants were observed having slightly to significantly less anxiety when engaging in the garden and with horticultural therapy activities in comparison to other daily tasks.

Installing an edible garden with a client from Rimland non-for-profit organization
Installing an edible garden with a client from the nonprofit Rimland Services

The second benefit was the participant’s ability to follow directions with multiple steps. Individuals with autism spectrum have greater difficulty shifting attention from one task to another or changing routine. During horticultural therapy activities, participants would be asked to follow steps in order to complete the activity. For example, when planting the garden, instructions were to dig a hole, take the plant out of the plastic, place it in the soil, gently push the soil back around the base, and repeat. The hand-over-hand technique was often used to aid in the task and 77 percent of participants were observed being slightly to significantly more responsive to a multiple-step process and able to repeat without instruction.

The last benefit dealt with sensory integration with a focus on the tactile system.  When engaging participants in garden activities, dysfunction in the tactile system prompted actions such as withdrawing when being touched or helped, and overall avoidance of getting one’s hands dirty. With assistance from facility staff, we worked with participants to slowly introduce the sensation of soil, plant material, and water to participants. Each week, we’d encourage participants to touch, rub, and smell numerous plants with interesting textures and aromas along with the soil and water. As the weeks went on, it was observed that participants were not only less reserved but also were fascinated with the soil and plants.

rimland 2013jun07_3279
With assistance from staff and horticultural therapist, participants were encouraged to plant with their own hands.

The integration of gardens and garden-based activities in health and human service agencies is expanding year after year. If you know an individual or organization who could benefit from a garden, share some of the information you learned in this blog. It’s often in those conversations, filled with factual evidence and interest, that new ideas are planted and grown.  

Source: Rachel, Stephan Kaplan and Robert Ryan. With People in Mind: Design and Management of Everyday Nature. Washington D.C.: Island Press, 1998. Print.  

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Fight your Winter Blues!

As I stepped out of my house this morning, I thought: “I can smell winter.” It’s that subtle shift that you feel as the days click on, and we are led farther away from the beloved fall season.

The days continue to get shorter, and the sun doesn’t seem to shine quite as bright so naturally; moods shift, and energy becomes muted. I have a number of friends and family members who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. Its abbreviation says it all: lackluster moods, low energy, and even mild depression.

Seasonal Affective Disorder is defined as depression associated with late autumn and winter, thought to be caused by a lack of light. Most people with seasonal affective disorder have symptoms that start in the fall and continue through the winter months, which in the Midwest, can seem endless. Lucky enough, there are many ways to remedy this SAD state of mind. 

HT ‘Simmering Spices’ supply list for 15 participants

Let’s begin by talking about a few winter-themed Horticultural Therapy (HT) activities that will fill your home or office with the sights and smells of the season.

One of my favorite HT activities to do this time of year is our ‘Simmering Spices’ project. During this activity, participants mix together a wide array of spices to create a holiday sachet to use in their home or office, or give as a gift. This activity serves as therapy on multiple levels. It encourages participants to engage their fine motor skills as they measure, mix, and create the sachets. Perhaps more meaningful, however, are the vivid and wonderful memories that are brought forth with the smells of the spices. 

Scent triggers the area of the brain that is connected to the experience of emotion as well as emotional memory. I see this time and time again in my sessions; a participant smells a spice such as rosemary and become engulfed with memories of his or her mother’s roast turkey during the holidays. Socialization plays a large role in horticultural therapy, and it’s a joy to share in the memories with my many participants; young and old.

Holiday greens ornament
Holiday greens ornaments example

Another fun, and inexpensive, activity is our ‘Holiday Greens Ornament’ project. For this activity, participants get the opportunity to create a beautiful ornament out of fresh, seasonal greens. When I bring this activity to one of my school classrooms, I like to incorporate a garden walk as part of the session. The students, teachers, and I take a quick (and if it’s cold, very quick) walk around the school gathering small acorns and pine cones to add more interest to the ornaments. 

Most of the craft supplies for the activity can be found at your local craft store. I use clear, plastic ornaments, fake snow, and ribbon to add additional visual appeal to the greens. These ornaments make a beautiful addition to any tree or gift to a loved one. 

My final recommendation to combat those winter blues is to fully embrace the beauty of the season. Winter is not always the easiest season to get along with; that much I’ll admit. It’s cold and gray and seemingly endless, but it’s also fascinating and full of unique beauty. 

If you’re feeling blue, bundle up and take yourself on a walk around your neighborhood, and appreciate our region and its four distinctly different and beautiful seasons. As you walk, gather some pine cones, and create a fresh wreath using natural supplies. Activities like these will turn a SAD state of mind to a glad one, with just a bit of effort. And of course, if all else seems gray, a nice hot cup of hot cocoa (which always tastes better in the winter) and some whipped cream will surely add a bit more enjoyment to any activity or winter’s day. 

Happy holidays!

Spring Activities for Horticultural Therapy

Although it may not look like it, spring is on its way, which means it’s time to start prepping for the anticipated spring planting season. This is a great time of year for horticultural therapy contracts. Everyone is itching to start planning and prepping for a successful horticultural therapy outdoor garden program, and our excitement level is right there with them.

Sunflower seedlings
The emergence of the radicle through the seed coat of a sunflower seed.

I am frequently asked, “what kinds of activities do you do in the early spring to engage participants in horticultural therapy?” I turn to garden prep activities for both engaging and therapeutic plant-based sessions this time of year. The possibilities are endless with the added perk of being very affordable and therapeutically significant.

When gearing up for gardening season, I focus my horticultural therapy activities on three topics: seed plantings, propagation, and transplanting. All three topics not only have a wonderful educational component, but also serve as meaningful therapeutic activities.

Planting Seeds

Seed planting, or seed germination, activities serve an educational and therapeutic purpose. For the educational component, focus on the life cycle of a seed with the group of participants. Visuals, such as a seed germination chart, help participants understand the process of seed germination. It never ceases to amaze at least one participant (especially young students) that plants, even those as great as sunflowers, start out as tiny seeds.

Seedlings just starting to sprout.

Therapeutic significance

Seed germination activities allow horticultural therapists to connect the importance of seed germination and plant care to the care of oneself or others. In health care facilities or special education programs, many individuals are taken care of around-the-clock due to an inability to solely provide for themselves. Something as tiny as a seed carries great significance because it allows anyone the opportunity to care for a living thing. Participants are educated on appropriate sun exposure (typically on a light cart or windowsill) and watering techniques to guarantee the plant’s health and success. Each participant receives a variety of seedlings to tend to as we approach the planting season. The intent is to enable each individual to care for their own plant so that, when the time comes, it can be combined with other plants to create a beautiful, outdoor therapy garden.

Plant Propagation

Plant propagation is another great activity for a group of any size or ability. All that is needed are containers, soil, a mother plant and some snips. Some of my favorite plants for plant propagation also add a wonderful sensory component to the activity. Coleus are great plants for propagation and they come in a variety of beautiful colors; succulents propagate easily and create fun talking points pertaining to desert plants;  lipstick plant (Aeschynanthus radicans) adds a tropical element as well as the excitement of a potential beautiful red bloom.

Coleus cuttings for plant propagation.

Therapeutic significance

Plant propagation activities can be used to teach valuable lessons in a health care setting. They teach a lesson about taking something old or overgrown to start something fresh and new. This activity can also be paired with a pruning activity to add to its therapeutic benefits.  The concept of taking away or lessening a load in order to become more healthy is a theme that resonates with many horticultural therapy participants.

Transplanting Activity

When the time comes to begin planting in the garden, a lesson on transplanting can greatly enhance the garden’s immediate beauty while increasing the feeling of ownership among the participants. Ideally, the seedlings and cuttings that were previously done have developed into mature, healthy plants that are ready to transplant into garden beds/containers. Each participant has the opportunity to place their plant(s) in an area of the garden to continue to watch it flourish throughout the growing season.

An HT participant at Shriners Hospital for Children, collecting flowers for the days activity.

Therapeutic significance

The feeling of ownership or pride over a space greatly enhances the success of a garden and horticultural therapy program. When  participants get the opportunity to place their own plants within a shared space, their individual ownership and care over the space is heightened. They feel a sense of responsibility, not only for their plant, but for the entire garden. On numerous occasions, I have seen participants pull family members or friends out to “their” garden to show what they’ve planted.

While we all continue to stay busy, start thinking of all the different activities and ways in which to engage enthusiastic gardeners with easy, horticultural therapy activities. If Punxsutawney Phil thinks spring is just around the corner then we better be ready! Until then, get those seeds going, stay warm, and dream of snow drops, crocuses, and early spring showers.

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Military Appreciation Day

250 family members attended the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Military Appreciation Day with USO Discovery Kids on August 6. We’d like to thank the Tawani Foundation for their support and the USO of Illinois for their partnership. Visit for more information.