Kim explains how getting up close and personal with nature has greatly helped her ten-year-old autistic son, Arthur get close and personal with nature
If someone had said to me ten years ago that autism and the therapeutic benefits of gardening will become your life, I wouldn’t have believed them. Yes, I enjoyed growing some of my own food in my back yard in Brighton, but it wasn’t until my son Arthur’s autism diagnosis a few years back that everything changed. Now I believe so strongly in the power of gardening to help those on the spectrum having seen its positive impact on my son, I’ve set up a social enterprise to do just this.
It’s also very much about the eating, with a combination of raised beds, herb gardens, polytunnels, soft fruit garden and lots more foraging opportunities besides. Every person on the spectrum is under- or overstimulated in a number of ways, so it’s important for us to aim to cater for all. We’ve already got one quiet corner as a place of retreat in case of sensory overload. It’s a lovely spot nestled under our majestic beech tree and surrounded by various shrubs and trees, so even in the slightest breeze there’s a gentle rustling sound all around. It has a wildlife wood pile and feeders to attract birds and we’re planting lots of scented herbs such as mint, rosemary and lavender around the edges. My son is almost instantly calmed when he sits here.
Movement is incredibly important for a lot of autists, so you don’t want a garden just to sit in, there should be lots of opportunity for walking and doing things as well. A predominately fruit and vegetable filled space is ideal, especially so when you consider sensory issues can often lead to challenges around food and result in a more restricted and sometimes not particularly healthy diet. This is another area I think being involved in growing some of your own produce can help with. In my son’s case, he needs food to be exciting; he gets easily bored, so picking food fresh is stimulating for him.
Sometimes animals are able to connect and therefore help in a way that our neurotypical society probably can’t explain, so we also have a small collection of extremely friendly Shetland pony, sheep, chickens, ducks and dogs. Autistic scientist and author Temple Grandin has spoken about the benefits of animals , while the Horse Boy book and film demonstrated it. I myself have seen it in action time and time again. Our Shetland pony, seem especially able to anticipate my son and understand him so intuitively, it’s heartwarming to see. I also heard a story recently from an autism social worker about a young autistic lad whose confidence absolutely excelled after being able to help look after his neighbour’s dog. It was the first time he’d been given responsibility for anything.
All so often we expect autists to fit into what society defines as normal, which is something that a non-neurotypical mind will often seriously struggle to do. Rather than focusing on what can’t be done, I’m instead hoping via my social enterprise to hone in on what can. To use the nature garden as a therapeutic space to build confidence and help ideas blossom and grow. In a so-called normal world that is spiralling seemingly out of control, difference needs to embraced and celebrated more than ever
A version of this article first appeared on the Guardian website