Creating a landscape design with autistic children in mind

Updated Jan 21, 2022

Child walking on balance bridge at a parkThere are many different types of disabilities, varying from learning to mobility ones, and numerous conditions that affect an individual’s cognitive, sensory and communication abilities.

One particular disorder differs so greatly from one person to the next that it is viewed more like a spectrum. This, of course, is autism, which is a neurological developmental disability that impacts social interaction, repetitive behavior, speech and nonverbal communication.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 59 children is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in the United States. The Autism Society says that more than 3.5 million Americans live with an ASD.

With this prevalence, you might one day have a customer who is looking for help creating an outdoor space that can meet their autistic child’s needs. Rather than having to turn them down because you don’t feel comfortable trying to fulfill their request, take the time to educate yourself on the matter and learn more about the landscape design elements that can help create an environment that is comfortable and supportive for the child.

Understanding the challenges

Autism can manifest itself in many different ways, ranging all the way from Asperger’s syndrome where the individual has good language skills and above average intelligence to severe classical autism where the person is nonverbal, prone to social isolation and tends to practice repetitive behaviors like rocking.

“The main difference between people on the autism spectrum, regardless of how severe, and neurotypical people is their perception of the world around them and their sense of self in space and time,” Brian S. Johnston, founder of Square Root Design Studio based in Hemet, California, tells the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA). “Yet the responses can be as wide a spectrum as the disorder itself and vary widely even within siblings on the spectrum. A familiar phrase is ‘if you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met one child with autism’ because of how wide and varied and dynamic the spectrum really is.”

Despite these wide variations, the three main areas affected by autism are social interaction and communication, sensory integration and repetitive patterns of behavior.

Social challenges include being either nonverbal or having difficulty carrying on a conversation, which can lead to isolation. Many autistic children have some form of Sensory Integration Dysfunction (SID) that leaves the child over-sensitive to stimuli such as light or sounds or under-sensitive to pain, putting them at risk of injury.

“Individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) perceive their surroundings much differently – in that their sensory sensitivities are much more extreme, either hyper or hypo,” Johnston tells ASLA. “There may be the presence of sensory distraction issues, where an individual will ‘distract’ one sense that is very strong to enhance another that is very weak. They also have a proprioceptive condition that limits that sense of self and affects how they perceive and process their world.”

Repetitive behaviors like rocking, hand flapping and spinning are also common. They can be ritualistic and constant or serve as a calming mechanism.

When designing a space for an autistic child, not all of these factors may be an issue, but it’s a good idea to be aware of just how wide the spectrum is.

Elements to include

Just like how you’d consult with your clients about their likes and dislikes when working on any other landscape design, it is crucial to discuss with the parents what their child responds well to and what they struggle with. Only then can you go about adding the elements that will create a functional, safe space the child can thrive in.

“It is so important to consult with the ones who know the kids best,” Johnston tells ASLA. “They are the parents and families of individuals on the spectrum, the operators and directors who oversee daily operations of the facilities, and the therapists who work with the children on a weekly or daily basis. They are the experts, the ones who will offer the most accurate assessments, both before and after construction, more so than a doctor or scientist who may only see the child once or twice a year.”

Tara Vincenta, principal and founder of Artemis Landscape Architects based in Bridgeport, Connecticut, outlines a number of guidelines to consider when creating a landscape with autism in mind.

Some of the suggestions she makes include providing plenty of shade with trees and other structures for autistic children who are photosensitive and selecting a location with the least amount of distractions. Noise from an air conditioning unit or nearby traffic can be overwhelming.

Providing gardening areas can serve as opportunities to both improve motor skills and encourage one-on-one interaction with a parent.

“Our main goal on the private, single-family residential scale is to identify the individual’s sensory needs and provide customized opportunities that allow them to occupy the same spaces as the rest of the nuclear family,” Johnston says. “This will promote enhanced interactivity and offer a sense of inclusion to the child and the entire family.”

Including fixed elements that have consistency like a hedge or stone wall can help provide a predictable pattern and creating wide smooth pathways with clear edges aids the child in not feeling crowded and knowing where the surface ends. Avoid planting any toxic plant that is easily ingested.

A soothing area should be included to provide an area where the child can re-center when feeling overwhelmed. Vincenta suggests a bamboo tunnel or a fence panel with viewing holes.

“Maximizing security and safety through physical and clearly visual boundaries, providing familiarity, stability and clarity and minimizing sensory overload by providing areas of respite are some main guidelines to follow,” Johnston tells ASLA.

Vincenta created a concept called Sequential Outdoor Learning (SOL) Environment that incorporates the aforementioned guidelines into a series of spaces that allow autistic children to move through at their own pace and their own level of stimulation exposure.

Providing opportunities for autistic children to overcome their sensory issues in the space can also help. Building in challenges can allow the child to develop a level of comfort and overcome fear.

“Features that promote swinging, rocking, pushing, pulling, digging, climbing and jumping are very important to incorporate, as these activities are more physically engaging and stimulate the vestibular senses,” Johnston says. “Some important characteristics to consider: spaces that are nurturing and safe, that create a ‘cocooning’ effect; places that will allow one to re-center one’s self; proprioceptive elements that provide deep pressure, such as sand or thick rubber; outdoor spaces that offer choices of the level of stimulation desired; and sequential spaces that increase the levels of stimulation as one passes through them. Warm color palettes are also important, as they are less visually abrasive and more inviting to individuals with sight sensitivity.”

Offering autistic children the opportunity to connect with nature and others can help them engage more while easing some of their symptoms.

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