Gardening and Autism, a Match Made in Heaven

Families around the world with a child in the Spectrum are constantly searching for a way to get through to the ones they love. A way to give them a moment of peace or a chance to create something of which they can be proud or at least content. Some find it through art, others through music and now in Northern Virginia they are finding it in a garden.

Ben in the garden.

Ben Monson enjoys the sunshine and tranquility of the moment, while watering the tomatoes in Legacy Garden.  That simple task according to the Canadian Horticultural Therapy Association, is part of horticultural therapy, a formal practice that uses plants, horticultural activities, and the garden landscape to promote well-being for its participants.  Ohhh…snap…that’s what we’re doing at Legacy Gardens!

“Watering the plants has helped Ben focus on the task,” Tracy Monson, Ben’s mom said, “Watering seems to bring out his focus. Once I showed him how to aim the hose at an individual plant and sing ‘1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11 all good dogs go to heaven’ to indicate how long to water each plant, he loved it! He was determined to water all the plants.”

Ben finds it difficult focusing on completing tasks fortunately “task completion” is one of the benefits of gardening.

Two Gardens in Chicago

Clare Johnson from My Chicago Botanic Garden, shares the benefits of gardening in a blog posting titled Gardening and Autism.

“The first benefit has to do with the physical garden space itself....Gardens can serve as a welcome break from the classroom or facility environment.”  Johnson continues, “The second benefit was the participant’s ability to follow directions with multiple steps.” Finally, “The last benefit dealt with sensory integration, with a focus on the tactile system.” Early on, students would avoid being touched or getting dirty, however over time participants work through these avoidance's and  actually become, “…fascinated with the soil and plants.”

These are not the only benefits gardening offers adults with autism. In another area of Chicago, Growing Solutions Farm offers a vocational therapy garden created in 2013 by Julie Tracy, a mother of an adult son with autism.  The vocational therapy garden trains youth and young adults with autism, using agriculture as the vehicle to acquire vocational skills such as:

  • Time management
  • Interacting with co-workers
  • Appropriate dress for work
  • Possibility for a job in the agriculture/horticulture fields

While being interviewed on WGNtv, Tracy explains why she started Growing Solutions Farms. “Young adults with autism right now have an unemployment rate that hovers around 90%, it’s really a crisis.  In the next 5 years, 500,000 young adults with autism will turn 22 years old and age out of supports that are available in the public school system.  Our society is ill-prepared to deal with this tsunami, is what we call it, of young adults coming down the pike.” Growing Solutions Farm hopes to be an answer to the upcoming crisis.   

Presently, Growing Solutions Farm has 20 paid interns working several hours per week.  Tracy states that having a paid job on a student’s resume is putting that person on the road to success in securing employment in the post-secondary job market.

A Sweet Treat

Back at Legacy Garden, Ben’s mom inquires as to what other skills would be beneficial for these young adults to learn? “The other thing I found especially compassionate and sweet is when I was moving the hose around (the garden) and it got caught, Ben would automatically go and remedy the snag without being asked thus demonstrating teamwork!” 



So does gardening and autism go hand in hand?  When Ben started gardening at Legacy Garden he wasn’t that interested in the plants, but over time he is gaining gardening skills.  As indicated by Johnson and Tracy, gardening skills will increase independence, social and vocational skills ultimately demonstrating that gardening will provide numerous benefits for adults with autism and other developmental challenges.  With that…you be the judge.

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Patrick Cox

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