Healing Harvest: Autism From Nature’s Bounty

Photo by: Southern Foodways Alliance/Flickr

In today’s technological age, we often associate healing and therapeutic powers with the latest gadgetry in surgical procedures and advances in medicine and drugs.  When looking back through the ages, the focus of medicine has been strongly linked to nature. Some of our earlier hospitals were set in monasteries, and herbs and prayer were the focus of healing.

Fast forward to today’s explosion of autism on the rise, we see many teachers turning to nature once again in their work with children on the Autism Spectrum. The Autism Academy of Learning in Toledo, Ohio has teamed up with the Toledo Zoo ZOOTeens Program and Toledo Grows Program to build a vegetable garden on school grounds. One key skill the children are developing, by working in the garden, is patience, said school Founder and Board President Carol Holmes. Waiting is one of the hardest skills for autistic kids to learn, she says.

Last week, fifty-five students aged 6 to 21 turned out to harvest a bountiful array of produce from the school’s community garden party. All of the students at the school have varying degrees of autism.  The garden – 13 raised boxes measuring eight by four feet – holds other lessons for the students as well. In caring for the plants, they gain experience of working together and learn about where their food comes from. The harvested produce is donated to the Assumption Outreach Center, a local food pantry.

Bonnie B. Hebert of Louisiana has written a set of guidelines for designing a therapeutic garden for autistic children.  This extensive list has been written by reviewing literature on healing gardens, and the history of gardens in hospital settings.  In addition, published work on the effects of nature on stress and health outcomes and theories as to why nature is restorative was also reviewed.

In studying the effects of gardening on the subject children, Herbert took the children out of the small classroom and into the school garden.  During these outings she observed little to no outbursts of aggression and/or self-stimulating behaviors and more cooperative behavior.  The outdoor environment seemed to have a positive effect on the students and it gave the teachers a new resource in their teaching environment.

Gardens can be designed to be indoors as well as outdoors, on rooftops and even city window boxes. With so much positive feedback from professionals, gardening seems to be a promising approach.

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