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Exposure to nature for children with autism spectrum disorder: Benefits, caveats, and barriers

Summary


Children with autism spectrum disorder experience sensorimotor, emotional and social benefits through exposure to nature

Research provides strong evidence of multiple benefits of nature for children, including children with ADHD. Very few studies, however, have investigated if such benefits apply to children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This study was designed to address this gap. In addition to investigating whether benefits associated with exposure to nature extended to children with ASD, this study also sought to identify barriers which might make it difficult for children with ASD to interact with nature.

Twenty-two parents and caregivers of children with ASD participated in one-on-one interviews conducted by the same researcher who is Chinese-English bilingual. The interviews were semi-structured, lasted between 42 and 79 minutes, and were recorded. Each participant was a parent or caregiver of a child 4–18 years old with a formal diagnosis of ASD and had lived in the same household with the child with autism for at least two years. All of the participants were from two large cities in China: Shanghai and Yantai. During the interviews, the participants were asked to share information about (1) the extent and in what way their child with ASD benefited from exposure to nature and (2) what concerns and barriers make spending time in nature challenging.

All of the parents identified benefits associated with time in nature. These benefits included sensorimotor, emotional and social benefits. Positive affect was the most frequently mentioned benefit. While outdoors, the children were especially attracted to such loose elements as sand, water, leaves, and twigs. These elements held the children’s attention for an extended period of time. Almost all the parents felt the children’s interactions with these materials enhanced their gross and fine motor skills. Parents referred to the natural environment as being a safer place than the urban built environment for their children with ASD. They also noted how the natural environment tended to have a calming effect on the children, and that the children seemed happy, energetic, and lively in this environment. Some of the perceived benefits, however, were also viewed as concerns. Being in the proximity of other children, for example, presented some social and behavioral challenges for the children with ASD.  Time in the natural environment, however, enhanced the social interaction between some of the children and their parents. All of the parents identified barriers to taking children with ASD to natural public spaces. Some barriers related to characteristics of the green space (such as intense visual and acoustic input); other barriers related to the social environment (such as judgement from others and social exclusion).

This research suggests that nature exposure seems to provide many of the same benefits to children with ASD as to neurotypical children. There are, however, some unique challenges and concerns for children with ASD and their parents. To capitalize on the benefits, planners and designers should create environmental settings that better accommodate the needs of children with ASD. Authors suggest that “designs should provide enclosed spaces with limited entry points to prevent elopement and allow parents to watch their children, offer private areas to help emotional control, upgrade safety standards to prevent falling and tripping, provide open-ended play options, support a variety of play, and provide a variety of sensory stimuli in some areas but also create sound and light buffers in other space to fit the need of children with different sensory processing conditions.” One option, particularly helpful for encouraging open-ended play is to provide settings with more loose parts and natural features, as these elements invite a wide range of behaviors.

Citation

Li, D., Larsen, L., Yang, Y., Wang, L., Zhai, Y., Sullivan, W.C., (2018). Exposure to nature for children with autism spectrum disorder: Benefits, caveats, and barriers. Health and Place

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