Creating the Ideal Backyard for a Child with Autism: Four Key Characteristics
January 29, 2020
Being outdoors is not just enjoyable for children with autism — it’s good for them, too. For example, one study found that a natural environment helped improve communication, helped them deal with emotions, and increased their physical activity. You could see these benefits in your own child by setting up your backyard to be a rich and calming environment. Here are four key ways to do that.
Create a Safe Environment
According to a study published in the journal Pediatrics, nearly half of autistic children over the age of 4 will attempt to run away at least once. So the first step in yard safety is to fence the area completely and install child-safe locks on any gates. Drowning is the most common cause of death for children with autism spectrum disorder, so if you have a pool — even a shallow inflatable one — do not let your child go near it unsupervised. You should also get a cover or a fence to prevent your child from falling in the pool accidentally. If your child also suffers from pica (the tendency to eat non-food items), limit the number of items in the yard that they might reach for. For example, avoid pebble beds, minimize exposed soil, and fix any areas with peeling paint. When it comes to mowing your lawn, you may want to invest in an electric lawn mower if your child has issues with loud noises. Electric models are much quieter than gas-operated mowers, and they’re easy to use as well.
Take Part in Shared Activities
As The Star points out, there’s something about being outdoors that helps children with autism to learn. Take advantage of this by making the yard a place where you can participate in family activities. For example, you could try bird watching together — you just need to set up some bird feeders in the garden to encourage the birds to come and visit. Bird watching can help build your child’s curiosity about the natural world and help them to focus on things outside themselves. Another possibility is to try backyard camping one night. Going on vacation can be stressful for children with autism because of the break in routine, but backyard camping can give them a new experience without the stress of leaving home.
A study published in Academic Pediatrics in 2014 found that autistic children are around five times as likely to be obese than children who are not autistic. Part of this is due to gastrointestinal problems, side-effects of medication, and a reduced ability to know when they are full. However, the low activity level often seen in autistic children is also a factor. On top of keeping a healthy weight, many studies show that exercise can help manage the symptoms of autism. So, make the yard an active place! You could set up a running track, play games like hopscotch, or create an obstacle course. Activities that require some motor skills and coordination are great too — catching a ball, playing tennis, or playing soccer, for instance.
Provide Sensory Experiences
You are probably familiar with sensory rooms. Often used as therapy rooms for children with autism, they are set up to provide stimulus to many senses — different textures, colors, shapes, and sounds. Well, the garden can be like an outdoor sensory room. One way to make the most of this is through gardening. Different flowers can provide a range of sights and scents, while planting seeds and tending to weeds can be a unique tactile experience. Of course, you need to keep your child under close supervision, especially if they have pica. If you are worried about them getting messy, just pick up a decent pair of gardening gloves.
Outdoor water activities and a sandbox are other great outdoor sensory activities for children.
Each child is different, so how you set up your yard and garden will depend heavily on what your child likes. Just make sure you put safety first and never leave your child unsupervised. If you do that, your yard can become a safe haven for your child, a place where they can relax, play, and focus on the outside world for a while.
Guest Article: Rob Woods