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By Jackie Edwards
There are many holistic ways to help young children on the autism spectrum improve their social and communication skills and one of the best is gardening. Garden (horticulture) therapy dates back as far as the 1600’s when people who couldn’t afford to pay for their hospitalization worked in the gardens to compensate for it. Physicians observing these patients realized that they were recovering faster than the other patients and in 1955 the Michigan State University offered its first undergraduate degree in horticultural therapy. Today, gardening therapy is used in schools, rehabilitation facilities, nursing homes and community centers and is of great benefit to individuals on the spectrum.
The benefits of gardening with your child are countless.
One almost-immediate benefit both you and your child will enjoy is a sense of relief and a very welcome break from the classroom environment. While creating your garden you are practicing valuable life skills such as social interaction in a relaxed atmosphere. Be sure to make the activity as easy and enjoyable as possible. You can start by creating a small garden outside or even introducing a hardy, easy-to-care for indoor plant such as the yucca into your home. Yucca plant care is minimal and a great way to teach your child the responsibility of tending to a garden.
Here are some tips to make gardening fun:
Plant small plants (rather than seeds) and make your garden colorful and fun.
When a child plants seeds there is no instant gratification, making the concept abstract and very hard to explain, especially to younger children. When children plant seedlings, however, they can see the result right away. They’ll be more likely to stay excited and engaged in your gardening project. Children are naturally drawn to colors and will have a lot more fun creating a garden that is both brightly colored and beautiful. Choose fast-flowering plants as most children do not like to wait to see the results of their efforts.
Add small objects to your garden while taking special care at watering time.
Decorating your garden with small, interesting objects such as painted stones or clay animals will increase your child’s interest in participating. It will also provide you with ample opportunity to develop your child’s language skills by pointing to objects and naming them, or even asking questions. Depending on where your child is situated on the spectrum, they may even want to paint some rocks or signboards.
When it comes to watering the garden, make sure to fill the watering can with the exact amount of water required. Children are prone to emptying out the whole content, unknowingly drowning the flowers. Having only a small amount of water at their disposal to start with, the activity will run smoothly for all concerned.
Make use of a visual schedule and keep a gardening journal.
Making use of a visual schedule will help prepare for each activity as well as offer guidance in following through with all the steps to completion. Clear, concise instructions with illustrations representing each step will make gardening more fun and organized. Keeping a journal about all your gardening activities can prove to be both fun and therapeutic. Journaling is a very valuable habit to invoke in your children and one that can serve them very well right into adulthood.
Gardening with children on the spectrum is a wonderful and functional activity that teaches your child how to follow steps as well as building communication skills. More importantly it provides you with a valuable opportunity to spend quality time together in the beautiful outdoors.
*Now a writer, Jackie Edwards is also a full time mom to two girls, one of whom is on the autism spectrum. Jackie is also diagnosed with Aspergers. When she’s not writing, she volunteers for a number of local mental health charities and also has a menagerie of pets to look after
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Image by Jelleke Vanooteghem