The Built Environment and Autism 2013

April 1st, 2013

Today, April 1st, is the beginning of Autism Awareness Month. It is also Landscape Architecture Month. And thirdly,it’s also my third anniversary writing about the role of the built environment in the daily lives of autistic people.

A little bit about me: I am a Landscape Architect and the mother of a teenager who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. Since 2004, I’ve been researching how children act in different natural settings. In 2006, I entered the Doctoral Program in Environmental Psychology at City University of New York’s Graduate Center, and have been researching the role of the Physical Environment in the daily lives of children and youth diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).

This month, I’d like to share many of my findings with you.

Researchers usually start with reviewing all the literature on a subject that they can get their hands on. I’m no exception. I’ll share what other people – many of them designers (architects, landscape architects, interior designers, software designers) – have written about and how we can build on this literature.

I’ll also try to connect you with other people who are blogging about Autism this month as well. Please share your own findings as well! This is an opportunity to change the world – the built environment – to make it more accessible for all people!

And, yes, I’ll share my work with you. I’m just scratching the surface, but I can say that, yes, the physical environment does affect how autistic people (and all people, for that matter) act and live.

This is not an April Fool’s Joke! Stay tuned tomorrow for more …

“Stooling” or cutting back shrubs and trees

February 24th, 2012

Normally, this time of year is a good time for performing rejuvenation pruning on shrubs that have overgrown. However, with our warm winter, it’s also time to start “stooling” shrubs and trees. What is “stooling”? It’s cutting back plants such as Paulownia so that the plant puts its effort into huge leaves without making a big tree. Or it’s increasing the intense purple color of Smokebush (Cotinus coggygria). Or, it maintains the bright, intense color of red and yellow twig dogwoods, as well as certain willows.

Contact me to arrange colorful pruning!

Late “Winter” Pruning

February 23rd, 2012

I usually recommend rejuvenation pruning now (for bringing back overgrown shrubs), followed by “stooling” — cutting back shrubs to increase leaf size or bark color.

Click on the following link to learn more about what’s happening in the garden and what you can be doing (or have done!)…

WildlifehabitatFeb2012 – Copy

Play For Life: Accessing the World

September 29th, 2011

Years ago, when I met Tim Denny, the Director of Parks and Recreation for Haverford Township, PA, he discussed the inclusive Merry Place park and how it got started as a place where people of all abilities could “play” together. To sum up his story about this remarkable place and the importance of universal design in our lives, he concluded with, “After all, we are only temporarily able!” This thought kept resurfacing throughout the Play For Life Symposium held in Minnetonka, MN, this past week.

The Symposium open with Muffy and Jeff Davis, an extraordinary couple. In 1989, as a young Olympic trainee in skiing, Muffy Davis’s life changed when she crashed into a tree and suffered spinal injuries that left her paralyzed from the waist down. Not one to give up, she focused on academics and graduated from Stanford University. In 1998, she took the bronze medal while on the US Disabled Ski Team competing in the 1998 Paralympics in Nagano Japan. Today she is a member of the US Paralympic Cycling Team, a wife, a mother of an almost-three year old daughter, and founder of Access the World. The Play for Life Symposium opened with a video made by Muffy and her husband, Jeff, of their journey around the world as ambassadors for inclusivity. While the video showcased the organizations in developing countries that were furthering the cause of inclusivity, the couple provided insight into the difficulties of travel outside of the modern world.

Some of the biggest problems: sidewalks or streets were not accessible; the cities (or villages) provided access only by stairs, not ramps; wheelchairs were too wide to access lavatories/rest rooms; and transportation methods, such as taxis in pre-Olympic China, did not stop for handicapped people.

The couple recommended that those countries and cities with the best accommodations were recent Olympic sites and big modern cities. Developing countries and historic old cities frequently have problems, especially with accessible toilets and transportation. Their recommendations: if you have disabilities and need to (or would like to) travel, you need to become a good planner, be flexible, and select your destinations carefully. Bring your own assistive devices and carry all your medical supplies with you (but don’t label them as such because that will carry a high fee). Be ready for anything and, above all, have a good attitude.

A few minutes later, Billy McLaughlin got up to play his guitar. Unlike most acoustic guitar players, McLaughlin doesn’t strum his instrument; he plays it up on the neck. This style made him famous back in the 1980s when he rose up the charts in New Age music and was offered recording contracts by Wyndham Hill Productions. Then, two of his fingers stopped functioning. Doctors said this was a neuromuscular disease called focal dystonia. Within five years, McLaughlin’s world fell apart –unable to play the guitar, he lost his record contract, his gigs, and even his marriage. Yet, his passion for playing guitar would not let up. After hearing poor medical prognoses about his recovery, he evaluated what still worked – his other 8 fingers – and began playing the guitar with his left, instead of right, hand. The change took him years to master – “I had to start all over again as a beginner,” he confessed, “and this was perhaps a bigger obstacle. But it was not nearly as bad as never playing again.” Then McLaughlin treated us to more of his musical magic and Tim Denny’s words pop up in my head, ”We are only temporarily able…”

Think about all the people you know – from your elderly parents or grandparents to toddlers and infants, to your spouse or friend who pulled a muscle or needs new glasses or has gluten intolerance – and you realize that we all have difficulties in the physical environment. It’s not just about the nameless faces on disability television commercials or billboards! It’s about US – all of us! Our need for interdependence as well as independence shows us the importance of universal design.

What Attracts You the Most in the Environment?

September 9th, 2011

My talk in two weeks at the Play for Life Symposium will be about how to engage people of all ages and abilities.

In the past four years of research, evaluating children’s environments from aquariums to zoos, I discuss eight things that are practically guaranteed to attract children.

I’d be interested in hearing from those of you who read my blog, however. I presume you are mostly adults and I haven’t observed what adults like in the environment.

So, the QUESTION: What single thing attracts you the most in the environment?

It doesn’t have to be just outdoor places. Ok, if you want to list more than one thing (many of us can’t make up our minds), go ahead. It would be great, however, if you could list them from Thing That Attracts Me Most to Thing That Attracts Me Least.

Also, what age group are you in?
1) 0 – 7
2) 8 – 12
3) 12 – 18
4) 18 – 36
5) 37 – 45
6) 46 – 55
7) 56 – 75
8) 76 and older!


The importance of touch in engaging children

September 7th, 2011

When landscape architects and architects design children’s environments, we usually start with the height of the child. Actually, we are starting from the eyes – the child’s view point. While this is a good start, ideally, we should be moving around at this level so we, the designers, can see what our users will be seeing! A number of years ago, I gave a talk at the annual meeting of the Pennsylvania/Delaware Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) where I demonstrated how we should be positioning ourselves as children. For kindergarten/early elementary school students’ perspective, I got down on my knees. To get the preschoolers’ perspective, I sat down on the floor. And, for toddlers’ perspective, I reclined on the floor and raised my head so it was about two feet off the ground.

As part of my post-occupancy evaluation of the Indoor Children’s Garden at Longwood Gardens, I created a series of behavioral maps which showed where children of various ages spent the majority of their time. These maps also included the activities in which the children were engaged. While the older children were in the Grotto Cave and Secret Room, the younger children spent most of their time on the Ramp or in the Central Cove.

From the archival drawings as well as through interviews, I learned that Tres Fromme, the designer of the garden, started all of his sketches by first drawing a child, then drawing the environment for that child. The children are 42 inches high in Tres’s drawings. This accounts for older children’s ease of access to the water in the Secret Room and the Grotto Cave.

When Tres Fromme designed these latter two areas, he also showed the 42-inch high child in his drawings. There was a difference between the two areas, however. Although he showed the drawing of the older child, he made the coping walls for the Ramp and Central Cove much lower and narrower which made these areas much more accessible to the younger children. It appeared that the real difference wasn’t the height of the children. It was their reach – or length of their arms – that mattered.

From this point on in my evaluations of other children’s environments, I started testing this hypothesis. Was it the height of the child or the length of the child’s reach that made the difference in how engaging a place became? What do you think? What have been your experiences?

Musings on Post Occupancy Evaluations:

September 6th, 2011

On September 23rd, I’ll be speaking at the Play for Life Symposium in Minnetonka, MN ( about how to make play environments   engaging. (Note that my talk, is the same name as this blog: The Engagement Zone.) As a landscape architect, I have long used both my creative instincts as well as the process of design to create gardens. In my doctoral work in environmental psychology at City University of New York (CUNY), however, I started working on post-occupancy evaluations. This has enabled me to see the project through the eyes (and other senses, as well as ideas) of those people who use these environments. Wow! What a change in perspective!

My first Post-Occupancy Evaluation involved the – then – new Indoor Children’s Garden at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, PA. Not only did I observe and record where children and adults spent their time and the types of activities they were engaged in, I also interviewed them.

Too often, when we observe people, we presume we know what they are doing. It is as if our child asks us where babies come from and, as we turn all shades of purple and green thinking about what to say in response, our child then notes, “I thought it was from the hospital, but Freddie says his brother was born in a swimming pool…” It is so much better to ask, not just watch. You would be amazed at what you will learn, especially from children.

One of the most interesting examples was when a mother of a 4-year old told me her daughter was afraid to go into the Secret Room with the Drooling Dragon at Longwood Gardens. This “dragon” is a huge face with a mouth that not only drips water (it’s a fountain) but is backlit with red lights so that some of the kids think there’s blood back there. The woman further indicated that her daughter was so afraid of being eaten by this dragon that she would avoid going in that area of the garden.

She wasn’t the only one, it turned out. Other children, as well as other parents, said the same thing. I noticed that all of these children were younger than 4 years of age. Further, when I observed children in that area of the garden, I noticed that they were older. Actually, they were larger – at least their arms were longer. The kids who were not afraid of the dragon were those who could reach into the mouth of the dragon and touch the water!

At this same time in my evaluation, I was interviewing staff members who were involved with the garden. Nancy Bowley, in Visitor Services at Longwood Gardens, who created innovative activities for the children, mentioned to me that the pieces of chalk the staff kept in the Secret Room was discoloring the slate walls – something they had not considered in the design stage. I suggested that they use, instead, big paintbrushes that could be dipped into the water coming out of the mouth of the dragon and “painted” onto the walls. I had discovered this suggestion when I performed an archival review of Longwood Gardens’ design process as part of the Post-Occupancy Evaluation. However, I also noted that, by holding a big paintbrush, this would extend the reach of a younger child whose arms would not yet reach the water in the dragon’s mouth!

Nancy wrote a note over the door in the Secret Room: “Please dip your brush into my mouth and paint me a picture. Signed, The Drooling Dragon.” I immediately started observing older children following this advice. Further, I noticed smaller children watching the older children…before dipping the paint brushes into the dragon’s mouth themselves!

This shows how my interactive way of conducting a post occupancy evaluation increased usage of the garden, reduced damage to the materials, and helped children overcome their fears through watching their peers!

How might this process help your project???

Accessibility: What makes Morgan’s Wonderland Special?

August 9th, 2011

Morgan’s Wonderland is being heralded as a place for children of all abilities. It is, but in which ways?

This place was designed with even, level pathways and ramps first. Steps are included, but only occasionally, and then mostly for skill development rather than access from the ground up to another level. For example, a person who can’t walk without assistance may be able to hold onto the railing on a playground and use the steps for strength training. The major route, however, is a ramp with railings to allow for baby strollers, wheelchairs, assisted movement such as walkers, etc. The whole area is pretty flat to begin with; they’ve added some elevation to the paths to give them some variety. It doesn’t appear that the paths provide any challenges, however.

Swings are designed for a range of abilities. There is a large swinging area (maybe they should make a sign, “For Swingers Only!”) that has specialized swings to support individual’s backs, wheelchairs, as well as the small rubber swings for toddlers. By late morning, children of all abilities were out there, swinging in the shade made by brightly-colored shade structures that covered all the play equipment areas.

The carousel, conveniently located next to the Entrance Building, is set at the same level as the sidewalks. People enter the carousel either by stepping over the narrow gap between the sidewalk and the carousel or by rolling over a textured, galvanized steel- plate “bridge”. Once on board the carousel, riders can select their seat – there are traditional types of seats on animals or in gondola-like rides which also include special seating and locking devices for wheelchairs.

The Off Road Adventure Ride includes a series of cars that move on a track. The driver can, by turning the wheel (as did the youngster who drove our vehicle), wiggle around the course. Specialized cars have a back seat area that is large enough to support a cut out for a wheelchair, with locking devices. In order to provide access to the car, there is a wheelchair ramp that goes up to a platform which can be swung over to the back seat of the car. The swinging platform and the floor of the back seat are at the same level, providing smooth access. A group that got on before I did consisted of middle-aged brothers with their elderly father (who moved with the aid of a walker). They were all smiles when their car returned to the docking station!

The playgrounds provide ramp access for all. As mentioned in the beginning, there are “challenge” areas, such as steps or island-like pods that you can jump from one to the other. There are also a range of sensory see-saws or rockers: some are made for two people (traditional type), while others can be rocked by hand. Yet another is a huge rocking platform with two couch-like seats on opposite ends. Groups or individuals can sit on the couches and rock – either gently or more rigorously – and the momentum creates the effect of a glider chair.

There are sand and water table areas for sensory exploration and just plain old fun. (9877) The sand area consists of four sand pits with a central sand table, accessible from the sidewalk. One can wheel the wheelchair so your legs are under the sand table. This is not the case, however, with the water tables, where you can only gain side motion access because the motors that power the water tables take up all the room under the water tables. If the overhanging area for the water were made longer so that the wheelchairs could also be placed under it, like the sand table, the people in the wheelchairs would be able to put both of their hands in the water and move objects about more naturally. (Thanks to Ingrid Kanics for pointing this out). I will also note that if there were access to water in the sand area, children could wet the sand, making it more moldable. It’s one thing to be able to move sand about and feel it in your hands. It’s quite another to construct something with the sand – construction play involves both imagination and process.

Then there is the train. The platform along the train’s edge at the “station” provides access onto the train. And, then you can gain access all over Morgan’s Wonderland. It’s a great ride, brings back memories of childhood (ok, I was on a ride like this not too long ago…). Well, at the very least, it is cool and brings a smile to your face!
At the end of the day, the fact that just about everything is within easy reach for everybody is a relief for most of the people visiting Morgan’s Wonderland. Now, if we can get all of our public places to be like this, what a wonderful place the world would be!

Accent on Security

August 5th, 2011

One of the features that stood out for me at Morgan’s Wonderland was their security program. As I purchased my ticket in the air conditioned ticket “center” (more on this another day – it’s worthy of mentioning!), the ticket taker presented me with a wristband to wear during my visit.

All visitors, I was told when I asked about this, receive such a wristband. It has a chip in it that helps to locate certain features on the site – especially if you can’t read, have trouble figuring out maps, and still want to find places such as restrooms, food and drink, etc. There are kiosks (such as in the photograph) provided throughout Morgan’s Wonderland where you can scan your wristband and find these facilities. This wayfinding tool is pretty neat. I confess that I didn’t notice the kiosks in the park, except the one next to the entrance, so didn’t think about using it instead of the map that I collected upon entering (but I’m old fashioned). However, if you don’t read English, or have difficulty with maps, this tool can be really helpful.

More importantly, this system helps to locate individuals who may get separated from the rest of their party. When a group of people want to come and visit Morgan’s Wonderland, they are requested to register in advance. The staff at the playland produces a number of wristbands with the same chip properties for that group. In the event that someone gets lost, a group member can go to the kiosk and scan their personal wristband. This will activate ALL the group members’ wristbands so that they appear on the map, showing their individual locations simultaneously. Presumably, all members of the group who are not lost would be located in proximity to one another. The person who has become separated from the group should also show up on the kiosk map, enabling the group to find that individual.

As I have been writing this, it reminded me of the many times my young son would run away when we ventured into public space. He was between two and five years old when he would run away. His speech wasn’t well developed, and he wouldn’t speak to strangers. He didn’t do this all the time – which meant we never quite expected this to occur. He’d walk with me in a store, holding my hand; next minute, he was scampering off, hiding behind the legs of a store clerk. Early on, he figured out how to get out of the stroller harness and proceeded to run through the sprinklers at the local botanic garden. Or, once, he was sitting next to me on the coping wall of a small pond at a garden center. I was talking to one of the assistants about the pond plants at the time when my son suddenly stood up and jumped into the pond. Fortunately, the garden assistant was instantly able to grab him and pull him out of the pond! My husband reminded me of the time they were standing by a friends’ pond when our son just jumped in without any warning. Another time, we were sitting at a picnic table at a local farm where they made and sold ice cream. Matthew was eating his ice cream cone one minute. The next minute, he was bolting through the busy parking lot 50 yards away! (We now think he should be on the track team). We noticed, at the time, that he didn’t respond when we called for him to stop. It was as if he couldn’t hear or process the sounds. Fortunately, he (and we) survived his early childhood bouts with running away!

Our son is not the only one who does this! The aspect of running away has been written about in the literature regarding Autism Spectrum Disorder. Just this week, a young child (diagnosed with ASD) drowned in a puddle after a rainstorm in the Philadelphia region after the parents reported him missing from the house. Our local Autism Listserve keeps us abreast of articles regarding findings, events, and everything-autism. Here’s good information on wandering:

The National Autism Association has a safety toolkit on autism and wandering:

Morgan’s Wonderland has taken steps to not only make a place fun and accessible to be in, but also helps to reassure caregivers that their children/charges will be safe from getting lost because of wandering. I was not present when large groups came into the park, so I don’t know if the caregivers/chaperones were made aware of how to use the kiosk system to activate the wristband information. This may be an important consideration for play environments regarding children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder and other developmental delays; quite possibly, it may be important for toddlers’ environments as well.

Morgan’s Wonderland — Background info

August 4th, 2011

“The inspiration for Morgan’s Wonderland originated in 2006 when philanthropist Gordon Hartman observed a poignant occurrence involving his daughter Morgan, a child with special needs, and a group of other children. All were on vacation splashing in a hotel swimming pool. Morgan appeared as if she wanted to take part in the fun, and the others exhibited similar interest in interacting with Morgan. Unfortunately, the connection never materialized.

Hartman thought then and there how wonderful it would be to create a special place for special friends. It would be an environment for inclusion and understanding. It would be an oasis for those needing a safe place to relax and enjoy the outdoors. Hartman quickly learned that millions of children and adults with cognitive and physical challenges generally do not have access to facilities specifically established to assist them in enjoying outdoor activities.

Thus, Morgan’s Wonderland began with a desire to re-image the possibilities of what an inclusive park could be, if everyone were free to soar beyond their perceived limitations. This colorful and ultra-accessible 25-acre park serves as a haven not only for those with special needs but also for their families, friends and the entire community.” (accessed from the Morgan’s Wonderland website:

For those of you out there who are curious how this project was financed, there is an interesting description of that on the site as well: Hartman developed a large athletic complex that, through the funds brought in for the activities in this venue, provided initial monies for the purchase of land and other features for Morgan’s Wonderland.

Friends who keep abreast of the latest news in accessibility and children’s environments told me about Morgan’s Wonderland when it opened to the public. It wasn’t until I was scheduled to visit San Antonio for the National Trampoline Competition in July and I was searching for places to visit there that I reconnected with Morgan’s Wonderland.

In the next few days, I’ll go over some of my observations of this unique children’s environment. If you have visited this place (or other places) and would like to add your comments, that would be so neat!!

Tomorrow: Accent on Security (no, not National types).