How to Create an Autism-Friendly Sensory Garden
Hello and welcome to DIY Gardening’s guide to creating a sensory garden for those with autism.
My name is Hannah Miller, I’m a co-owner of this website, and this guide is very personal for me.
You see, my sister’s son suffers from autism and experiences issues that many readers of this guide can relate to.
Recently, my nephew’s school built a “sensory” garden for the pupils and feedback from the teachers has been very positive.
With my love for gardening in mind, I decided to explore the topic of sensory gardens, what they are, how to create them, ideas, inspiration and so forth.
As this is a very personal subject for me, I won’t be displaying any adverts or promotional material in this article, and I have no desire to profit from this guide or the subject in general. Any external links or suggestions are there because I think you’ll find them helpful.
Many of the ideas in this guide will be for children, but I also feel adults can benefit from a sensory garden just as much.
By DIY Gardening
Most of us lack a detailed understanding of what an autism diagnosis really means. The Autism Society, for example, explains that autism is:
A complex, lifelong developmental disability that typically appears during early childhood and can impact a person’s social skills, communication, relationships, and self-regulation.
The Society also reveals that little is known about the causes of this condition, which currently has no cure.
Though autism may cruelly rob its sufferers of the ability to display many attributes of what might be called ‘human warmth’, it does tend to leave certain sensory responses virtually intact. That means there is great potential to enhance lives, especially for children living with autistic-spectrum impairments, by expanding their access to carefully designed sensory experiences.
What is a Sensory Garden?
In many respects, a sensory garden is rather like any other garden, apart from the fact that it has been carefully crafted to stimulate the senses.
The recipe includes an inspirational blend of natural features, textures, skilful planting and sensory experiences, all designed to promote and support a broad range of feelings and emotions.
It’s best to think of these experiences according to how they might be accessed and enjoyed via our principal channels of sensory communication:
Anyone young or old can enjoy a sensory garden. Still, they will be especially loved by children who have to grow up coping with autistic impairments or other sensory processing issues.
Medical research terms autism a ‘spectrum disorder’ – which means the symptoms can vary along a continuum from mild to extremely severe and each sufferer could potentially have a unique mix of different kinds and varying degrees of sensory impairment.
For professional garden designers, that means making allowances for a broad range of possible requirements for the multi-user sensory garden.
For DIY Gardeners, the sensory garden can be much more customised for a specific user.
Regardless of the number of users, some principles must be considered first and foremost.
Basic Principles – Sections
A sensory garden should be divided into clear sections so that the visual, tactile or other sensory ‘messages’ each area conveys remain clear and undistorted.
The transition from one zone to another is also a key point; many children with autism dislike any sudden sense of shock or surprise. Something as simple as a sudden colour scheme change could trigger an unwanted feeling.
This also means, for example, that quiet areas, which are very important to any sensory garden, should not be located right beside sites dedicated to more boisterous activities.
Similarly, any sectors likely to be more challenging to access should preferably be sited around the perimeter to avoid presenting less confident users with too many obstacles right at the entrance to the garden.
Transitions will require some careful thought whilst bearing in mind the five senses; sight, sound, touch, smell and taste. Any movement from one zone to another should be sensitively managed and planned, so there are no jarring or sharply contrasting experiences as they travel around the sensory garden.
Create separate sections and do include a calm zone. Ensure the user can travel from one section to another without any jarring or sharp contrasting experiences. Veg patches, even small ones such as a herb garden are a great addition and work well if placed close the calm zone.
The TechRadar website has listed the best design software products for mapping landscaped gardens. From complex CAD software to basic planners such as Garden Planner, check out their list.
Basic Principles – Calm Zone
A key principle of almost every sensory garden is the calm zone.
Sensory gardens should include their own quiet, secluded zone where users can experience a peaceful atmosphere.
Privacy and some shelter can be achieved by a fence or wall partition, by the siting of a shed/hut or even a sunken area with raised beds around the edge. Waterproof floor mats can also be used for comfort.
Quiet, peaceful zones can be placed close to vegetable patches, herb gardens and decorative areas but should be kept as far away from noisy, hectic “play” areas as possible.
Where possible, use calming neutral colours and focus on comfort and seclusion, perhaps a bench or bench/table combination. A shaded area of the garden would be perfect for a calm zone so the user can also stay out of direct sunlight.
Locate calm zones away from hectic areas but close to educational sections such as veg patches and herb gardens. Use neutral colours and focus on relaxation with suitable partitions comfort furniture. Try to make the calm zone less busy and hectic it terms of design and contents.
A calm zone is the perfect place to locate comfy seating such as a swing seat, hammock or our favourite; the globo seat.
Basic Principles – Safety
Needless to say, safety is the most important consideration when building a sensory garden and there a couple of points we’ll cover:
- Plants and toxicity.
- Monitoring and supervision.
There are thousands of plants to consider for your sensory garden, some will be edible while some might be only decorational. When deciding on which plants to include, check your list against the Gardeners World database of plants. There you’ll find in-depth information about most plants, including toxicity to humans and pets. For example, this page tells us that Dianthus “Sugar Plum” isn’t toxic to humans but can be to cats and dogs.
The RHS also has a detailed list of plants toxic to humans.
The monitoring of any child is important, not just children with autism. While supervision of a child in a small garden with just a lawn is fairly straightforward, a complex sensory garden with lots of sections and items could pose some extra hurdles.
There are several ways to ensure safe supervision and monitoring:
- First, design the garden so there’s a clear line of sight from the property to the most popular parts of the garden. This will likely be the calm zone and the activity zone.
- Next, use strategically placed mirrors so there are no blind spots.
- Finally, don’t be afraid to install a security camera. These days they are really cheap, small, easy to install, produce clear pictures up to 4K Ultra HD quality and you can use phones, laptops, pads and TV screens to view the footage over wifi.
Check plant suitability on Gardeners World for safety. Design the garden with a clear line of sight if possible and deploy mirrors and cameras so it’s easier to monitor your child wherever they are.
Beyond the Basics: Textures, Colours, Patterns and Shapes
The sensations arising from the feel of various elements in a garden have the capacity to draw children to explore them in greater detail.
More importantly, sensory feedback has a far deeper impact on a child than even the best verbal explanation:
- The crunch of gravel underfoot.
- The feel of sand trickling through the fingers and around the toes.
- The roughness of tree bark.
- The dryness and softness of a patch of moss.
- How running water feels and sounds.
A collection of plants can contribute a full spectrum of colour with seasonal changes as a bonus.
Single colours can create quite dramatic effects while contrasting colours can add stimulating visual highlights.
Just as in decorated interior spaces, colours can be perceived as both hot and cold. So solo displays and combinations of cooler colours like white, blue and green have a calming effect, while bright, warm colours such as orange, yellow and red hues tend to promote energy and stimulate lively responses.
Materials can also, of course, be arranged into exciting shapes and patterns. For example, plants can be arranged in circles or twisting spiral patterns that appear to flow.
Texture wheels are a mainstay of professionally designed sensory gardens, and competent DIYers should find them easy and fun to build. The idea is incredibly simple; create a circle in the ground, perhaps 3 metres across and then split into sections. Each section should contain different material; some suggestions are:
If ingestion is a concern, embed loose materials in glues or concrete.
The materials can also be embedded in walls to create visual and tactile mosaics; these are perhaps more suitable for smaller gardens where space is limited.
Textures, colours and patterns can be created with many affordable and easy-to-use products such as sand, gravel and marbles etc. These often compliment arrangements of plants. Whether creating an entire section or a path between sections, do bear in mind that sharp, jarring contrasts should be avoided and the transition from one zone to another should be smooth and predictable.
A sensory garden. Photo by Senteq Garden Designers. Note the different flooring materials, their colours and textures.
Beyond the Basics: Taste
Taste gives us all a new perspective, and thus another way to appreciate and learn about our gardens.
Once again, it is far better to allow children to experience the delights of picking apples and tasting the delicious fruits. This will promote greater satisfaction, and thus a deeper understanding, than even the best multimedia classroom presentation or even buying bland, mass-grown foods off a supermarket shelf.
The same applies with vegetables which require preparation: a project which involves digging fresh potatoes from the soil before cooking and eating them will give children the chance to make an enduring connection between what the earth can nurture and that tasty portion of chips or mashed potato.
Most of the full-flavoured fruit and vegetables we eat are surprisingly easy to grow. Some tasty vegetables to try could include; peas, carrots, broad beans, radishes and lettuce.
Herbs are also traditionally used to add extra spice to our food, and those with a distinctive taste include; rosemary, basil, chives and spearmint, as well as nasturtium, pot marigolds and the sweet, diminutive wild strawberry.
Children with autism often (but not always) limit their choice of food to only a few items. For example, my nephew loves chips and quite literally, only chips (along with plenty of ketchup of course). My suggestion was for my sister to grow potatoes in her garden and lots of them. Not only has this proven fascinating to Jason, but my sister is also now introducing sweet potatoes to the garden. Maybe introducing tomatoes (as an alternative to ketchup) to the garden might be a step too far for my nephew but it’s worth trying.
Is your garden small and space limited?
No problem, grow in pots or containers that are fixed to the walls or fence to save floor space.
Create a veg patch or herb garden section in the garden as the results can be very visually appealing and educational. If the person with autism is expected to consume the food grown, start with comfort foods they are familiar with and already eat regularly. Avoid the temptation to force the person to try new foods as this can lead to pushback.
Many flowering plants give off strong scents. But, apart from adding some delightful smells to any sensory garden environment, nature uses this ability to produce a distinctive aroma to attract a range of pollinating insects.
The opposite also applies – where it is necessary, for example, to prevent insects eating plant leaves, a plant may naturally produce a smelly odour to ward off any insects foolish enough to try.
Some plants to try in a pick-and-sniff herb or flower bed include:
- Purple-flowering lavenders, which have a fresh, relaxing smell.
- Scented geraniums with crinkled leaves, which give off a lemony aroma when crushed between the fingers.
- Curry plants with aromatic leaves that fill the air with a spicy curry smell during warm weather.
- Chocolate cosmos flowers, which have a scent something like chocolate or vanilla.
There are far too many scented plants to list here but do consider the users preference and toxicity/safety. The rest will probably come down to trial and error.
Sounds Like a Good Idea
Sound, and indeed silent states, are so well woven into our experience of the natural world that most children (and many adults too) may need to be prompted and encouraged to actually ‘hear’ and/or identify them. This applies all the more to subtle sounds such as the low whisper coming from a reed bed as the breeze passes through, or the satisfying buzzing and murmuring of pollen-hunting garden bees.
Any study of natural sounds, and the calming, healing effects they can have on any listener, could begin by noticing the birdsong in a sensory garden and its environs, as well as in the air above our heads. Our more common garden birds are attracted to gardens containing insect-friendly plants, as well as carefully sited bird feeders.
Other natural sounds include leaves rustling in the wind and the swaying stems of bamboo, tall and elegant ornamental grasses, reeds, and some taller vegetables such as sweetcorn.
Water is another rich source of natural sounds and other sensory experiences: the calm, mirrored surface of a small pool in some quiet, secret corner; the pleasant, low-level babbling of a small stream or a flowing, artificial water channel; the trickling, splashing, bubbling and dripping effects achieved by fountains and garden water features of every description.
With some creative planning, a further fascinating range of atmospheric nature-activated sounds can be added to your sensory garden. These could include wind bells, and a variety of wind chimes and xylophone tones all induced to emit short bursts of musical notes randomly created by the blowing of even the gentlest summer breeze.
There’s no easy blueprint for creating sounds in a garden. Some on the autism scale may enjoy wind chimes while for others they could be very disturbing. It’s best to include natural sounds where possible, encouraging wildlife to the garden is an easy win. Water and tall grass-like plants produce natural sounds that are often calming.
An outdoor musical instrument. Photo by Percussion Play. Check out their site for ideas, inspirational and very good quality, if pricey, products.
To get started with your sensory garden, we suggest starting with good old fashioned pen-and-paper.
Draw out your garden and, we suggest, start by splitting the space into clear zones:
- A play area containing perhaps a lawn, sandpit, toy boxes, and other fun stuff.
- A veg patch or herb garden, this is great for education, it creates smells, colours and textures from plants that are safe to touch as well as eat. Strawberries, potatoes and tomatoes are great plants to start with.
- A calm zone or relaxation area, this is essential and should contain a sheltered area ideally with seating such as a comfy bench.
- An interactive area and/or an educational area. This can be part of the garden where touch, smell and sight are explored. Surfaces and walls can be created or covered with different materials such as marbles, slate chips, gravel, sand, tarmac, concrete, artificial grass, rubber mats etc. These can complement plants that are interesting to touch, such as Lamb’s Ear. I advised my sister to install garden lights amongst the plants and to point up the walls/fences/trees etc.; each light could have a different coloured bulb and each with its own switch. This introduces an element of interactivity and allows the user to set the mood when natural light levels are low. Switches can also be used to activate water features such as jets of water anywhere in the garden. Ant farms contained in glass boxes can also be of educational interest, as can bird and hedgehog boxes. The installation of small CCTV cameras can complement the garden as the wildlife can be monitored from inside the home, perhaps on a rainy or cold day.
- A growing zone. This is where fast-growing or seasonal plants can be placed, and they don’t have to be edible. A good starter is, of course, the sunflower plant!
List of external pages:
Not specific to autism, but the Sensory Trust is worth exploring nonetheless.
The SenTeq website has a small photo gallery of sensory gardens, note the different floor materials/textures and colours etc. and the use of lights.
Percussion Play produces top-tier products that are perhaps more suited to multi-user gardens, but there’s plenty of ideas to be had from their website.
Our preferred registered charity – Ambitious About Autism.
15 teaching strategies and resources for teaching children with autism. Just a helpful page I’ve bookmarked, worth a read.
Please share our guide on Facebook, Twitter or your blog or any groups you are a member of.
Thank you for reading.
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Meet The Author: Hannah Miller
Hannah is a former NHS administrator, mother of two and keen gardener with a horticulture qualification who loves growing new plants and experimenting in the garden.
She enjoys gardening as much as she cares about the environment and likes to share her knowledge with others.
This year is all about pollinators, and Hannah has set herself the goal of only buying new plants that attract pollinators; she aims to make the garden as bee and butterfly friendly as possible.