Archive for the ‘Sensory integration dysfunction’ Category

May Day!

Sunday, May 1st, 2011

My apparent monologue on April is Autism and Landscape Architecture Month has ended. I would greatly appreciate your comments!

As part of my research, I’d love to continue researching how autistic children engage in their day to day environments, and would attempt to evaluate places designed specifically for them to continue this discussion.

Do you know of public gardens, parks, playgrounds, or even schools and institutional uses that have been designed for children with autism? Comment here or send me an email at! Thanks!

April is Autism and Landscape Architecture Month, Part XVI: Places for Mastery

Wednesday, April 27th, 2011

Yesterday, I wrote that the autistic children who collaborated with me on my study particularly enjoyed places for mastering skills, hobbies or special interests that accompanied art, athletic and intense hobbyist activities. How can we incorporate these into the built environment?

Arts and crafts activities take place in studios and areas of playgrounds and schoolyards that are dedicated for arts. Outdoor areas frequently have picnic tables and easels, although adventure playgrounds usually provide small tables and saw horses available for building things and the activities associated with them: sawing, hammering, sanding and painting. Many of the child collaborators had mentioned that they preferred shady areas, so placing the tables in shade or making them portable enough so that children can move them easily helps them to work with less anxiety and fosters a sense of self-reliance and independence as well.

Athletic activities typically take place in recreational areas, fields, and playgrounds. But children will play in left-over vacant spaces that are large enough to accommodate the activity. Austin, for example, practices hitting a softball in the vacant lot next to his house. Max practices kicking a ball between two trees in his backyard. Josh and his friends play touch football on the sidelines of the varsity football game.

Flat places, such as paved driveways, empty parking lots and paved areas of playgrounds provide smooth surfaces for riding bikes, scooters and skateboards for newbies before they build skills and can ride on the road or places that are more challenging.

Playground features are being developed that accommodate a wider range of abilities. Kaboom and Landscape Structures are coming out with equipment for children with hypo- and hyper-sensitivity issues.

Other activities, such as intense hobbies, may be so varied that it is hard to provide for all of them in one place. I like to recommend checking out existing children’s environments for ideas. Places for children, such as the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia, frequently attempt to give children lots of choices for activities. While they may not have dinosaurs, for example, they do have a room with a huge water table, as well as places to build with blocks, draw, do crafts, and experiment with optics. San Francisco’s Exploratorium is a wonderful way to explore different forms of technology – some can be adapted to the playground or home environment and played with on a daily basis.

Perhaps the strongest design message is to provide a wide range of affordances. Let the child figure out ways to use the settings and props. If you plan in too narrow an interpretation, fewer children will use it.

April is Autism and Landscape Architecture Month, Part XIV: More on Special Interests

Monday, April 25th, 2011

For those of us who design physical environments for children, we tend to think about themes that attract young children: characters from television and children’s books prove to be popular. There are countless theme parks – from Sesame Street to Disney World – that are built around characters and stories (Harry Potter comes to mind). Even adults flock to these recreations of place and action (Universal Pictures) or actually create the place and action before the movie (Pirates of the Caribbean). Places like this can be the universal melting pot – engaging the kid in all of us!

The sensory situations of these types of places frequently leave much to be desired! Crowds, noise, smells and other forms of sensory overload can send kids over the edge. However, most of my child collaborators and their parents have told me that when the child is really interested in something, they will put up with a lot in order to just participate. One young woman, who regularly wears noise-canceling headphones when the lawn is being mowed outside her house, was able to enjoy herself at a professional hockey game where the reverberating noise was an even higher volume – without the headphones. The difference was she wanted to be at the game with her friends. While the noise was a problem, the experience was worth it.

Another type of special interest place that proves popular includes anything dinosaurs – mostly for boys under the age of 12. However, what happens to older children, especially teenagers? Two autistic preteens, who attended paleontology talks at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, asked questions that kept the lecturers on their toes. After the talk, the lecturers engaged the youths in a discussion and recommended, in earshot of their parents, that they continue their studies – it’s hard to find kids who are that interested and knowledgeable about dinosaurs when they get into their teens and young adults. The paleontologists have been there, too, they told me. They continued with their dinosaur love fests into high school, college and graduate school. Places such as the Academy have started programs where such teens can volunteer as guides or help out behind the scenes while staying in touch with their special interests.

Other programs/places for teens are found in art centers and nature preserves/centers where they help assist camp instructors and staff. The Center for Creative Arts in Yorklyn, Delaware, swaps volunteer hours in classes and summer camps for admission into teen/adult courses. The Delaware Nature Society and Winterthur Museum, Gardens and Library also attract teens to be junior naturalists, to encourage their interests in nature in order to help them grow their interests into their adulthood. In all these programs, youth of all abilities are able to immerse themselves in their special interests – both in the form of activities and physical setting – and meet others who share their interests. What a win-win situation!

Autism and Landscape Architecture Month, Part X: Affordances in the Physical Environment

Thursday, April 14th, 2011

In my discussions with autistic children (child collaborators), together with their parents, I’ve learned that the more opportunities a place has for people, the greater the chance people will visit it. Duh! (This is a researcher’s term! We say it to ourselves all the time when reading journal articles.) And, yet, with regard to children’s environments, we still design places that are single-type uses. For example, there is a big push for storybook exhibits for children’s museums. While the sculpted settings are fun to look at, you can’t crawl on them. There are also too few opportunities to read the actual books. Even at Philadelphia’s Please Touch Museum, their Alice and Wonderland maze has children crawling all over the walls while signs say, “Do not climb”. Or playgrounds that provide only play equipment but no places to hide or passively watch the world.

Two of the children in my group of child collaborators are brother and sister, both autistics. However, this is where the family similarities stop. The brother has hypo-sensitivities towards noise, glare, lateral movements and heights; the sister is more of a “sensory seeker” who loves to be challenged by sensations. The brother loves everything dinosaur and could spend the day (and overnight) in a dinosaur museum. The sister, who has spent her entire life in dinosaur museums (because of her brother), vastly prefers any place else; she especially enjoys places with live animals. After her divorce, their mother found that it was difficult, if not impossible, to accommodate both children’s needs in typical children’s environments. If only we could have both (environments) in one place!

Here’s where the theory of affordances comes into play! Fifty or so years ago, Dr. James Jerome Gibson wrote about how creatures perceived of their physical environment. Using their senses, each creature does a quick study of the environment to determine its affordances – what the environment can afford, or offer. If I am thirsty, and looking for water, I will look for features that suggest the presence of water: vegetation associated with rivers, streams or ponds, etc.; certain geological features for waterfalls or low-lying areas that suggest lakes or ponds. If I were in the city, I would look for signs that would direct me to a water fountain, soda machine, restaurant or bar.

Perhaps a better example is this: the brother and sister, who I had previously mentioned, walk into a public garden and look around. The sister spies a pond with fish and then spends time watching the fish, touching the water, gazing at the clouds reflected in the water. The brother spots a rock wall (which happens to be supporting a terraced garden) with bits of fossils in them and spends his time identifying the fossils. The walk further into the garden and see a large tree. To one of the children, the tree provides a shady refuge from the glaring sun; to the other child, it is a veritable monkey-bar-like climbing paradise! Other creatures have also gravitated towards the tree as well: a bird makes its nest in the protection of its clustered branches; a beetle crawls into a broken piece of bark, looking for shelter and food; a sapsucker notices the break in the bark as well and pecks away at it in search of a meal (the beetle). The one thing – the tree – affords a multitude of uses for different creatures. The more affordances that a single thing provides make it more popular as a place or activity! Perhaps, by grouping things, that each has their own cluster of affordances, we create a place of diversity that can be enjoyed by a diverse group of individuals. In my interviews with my 15 child collaborators, the majority of their favorite environments had, in addition to the children’s preferred activities, so many more uses as well.

Next: Affordances meets social skill development

Autism and Landscape Architecture Month, Part IX: Play for All

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011

While I have been describing sensory issues and links to the physical environment, there are people out there who have actually been doing things about these issues. Ingrid M. Kanics, OTR/L, an Occupational Therapist and play advocate, has been speaking at conferences about inclusive play. I first learned about her at the Annual Meeting of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) in Washington, DC, last September when she presented “A Higher Level of Inclusion: Trends in Playground Design.” There she showed examples of play equipment that was not only directed towards the main population of children but, finally, towards those children whose sensitivities ranged from hypo (too sensitive) to hyper (not sensitive enough). Kanics pointed out that this latter group, while small in size compared to the entire population of children, had sensitivities that prevented them from playing on typical playgrounds, never mind playing with other children. By providing equipment that supported children of all abilities, Kanics maintained, we support play for children of all abilities.

Interestingly, members of the audience began to ask whether such play equipment could support therapies for older children and adults, especially older people with developmental delays who need different forms of physical exercise from their peers. While playground manufacturers have not been marketing in this area, representatives from Landscape Structures, the company that has been sponsoring research in play structures for disabled people, indicated that they are looking at this issue as well.


Ingrid M. Kanic’s powerpoint handout (accessed April 13, 2011 from the Internet):

Other Kanic articles:

Landscape Structures’ Advisory Committee:

Blogs that discuss Kanic’s work and sensory issues:

Next: Affordances in the Physical Environment

Autism and Landscape Architecture Month, Part VIII: Crowding

Tuesday, April 12th, 2011

Jared, 4 years of age, wasn’t your typical child, his mother told me. “He was never found playing with blocks, or sitting down, painting or the other quiet stuff he could never get through because he didn’t have his fill of the physical stuff.”

For kids like Jared, growing up in Brooklyn, the place to play was a neighborhood park 20 minutes walking distance from his mother’s NYC apartment. This was also his very favorite place, according to his mother. “Here’s what has always been the rub: It’s his favorite place where he could get his energy out. But it’s also where the noise, and definitely the proximity of kids – a New York City playground on a May afternoon, for a kid with sensory issues – it’s a nightmare!”

Jared loved playing in the sandbox, especially the sensory nature of its texture and feel. He’d roll around in the sand as well as play with it. But, according to his mother, he could not handle the sensory overload of too many kids bumping into him or the noise of their shrieks and giggles. Fortunately for Jared, he was enrolled in a pre-school that provided various forms of therapies: sensory integration, art, music and horticulture. There, he was able to get his fill of physical activity in a quiet setting. His mother was also befriended by other mothers who were looking for less crowded and noisy settings such as the trails in Prospect Park. There, Jared took opportunities to lead the small group of children off the path to explore some of the wooded places, under the careful supervision of the parents.

Jared’s mother indicated that the neighborhood playground was being redesigned. She wished there was a way to change places like the sandbox so that it wouldn’t be so crowded. Teardrop Park, in Battery Park City, broke the tradition of having small, controllable areas for sandboxes. Sand tends to attract animals, especially cats that use the sand as a litter box. At Teardrop Park, however, the sand is placed in a long, linear area that tends to do away with the congestion of small, noisy bodies. This configuration might be just the thing to stop the clash of the tiny titans on public playgrounds!

Next: Finding just the right form of sensory play

April is Autism and Landscape Architecture Month, Part VII: Sensory Needs

Monday, April 11th, 2011

This past June, my son competed at Junior Nationals for Trampoline in Virginia Beach, VA. On one of our days off, we visited the Virginia Beach Aquarium. Some of their displays near the entrance were of unusual land creatures that spent much of their day in water. They had just installed a room for the Komodo dragon. Possibly, to keep the dragon from feeling too much on display, our area for viewing was cavelike, with festoons of vines hanging from the ceiling and spilling around the edges of the window, shielding us from the dragon’s sight.

I was about to move to the next exhibit space when I heard a voice behind me say, “Afraid. I’m afraid…” I turned around to see a young woman standing in the center of the room. Her head was bent towards the floor and her arms hugged her body as if to try to comfort herself. I went up to her and asked her if she was okay and she repeated “I’m afraid.”

“Is there anyone here with you?” I asked.

“Yes. My grandmother.” Her eyes never lifted their gaze up from the floor.

“Is this place the problem?” The words popped out of my mouth.

She nodded vigorously. “They changed it. It was different before and they changed it.”

“What did they change?” I asked.

“They made it darker. There are vines – It’s scary.”

I explained that the Aquarium probably wanted to make the new lizard feel more at home and put us in the dark so the animal wouldn’t feel on display. She nodded her head.

“Would you like me to walk with you for awhile? Maybe if we leave this room, you’ll feel better?” I asked. Again, she nodded and took my arm. As we left the room, she sighed and seemed to gather her energy in the hallway. We met up with her grandmother down the hall.

“You need to act your age!” the older woman exclaimed when she saw her granddaughter. The young woman said nothing. I tried to explain that I researched places like this to find out how people responded to them and suggested that her granddaughter was uncomfortable with the darkness in the previous room. “Oh, she’s always like this. She just needs to grow up!” the woman responded again. “She’ll be alright,” and she motioned for me to go. Before I left, I commented that different people reacted in different ways to places.

I had encountered a similar situation with an autistic boy who suddenly panicked when going through the Plexiglas tunnel in the shark tank at the Camden Aquarium. The curved glass in the tunnel warped the view. Even a few of the parents commented that they felt claustrophobic in the tunnel. The boy, however, would not go through it even for the short distance. Instead, we walked back around the way we had come. Where the Camden Aquarium succeeded, and the Virginia Beach Aquarium did not, was in providing at least one alternate path for people who could not tolerate more extreme or unusual environments. Here, the importance of signage and other way finding devices are not only helpful but critical in providing choices. Museums are discovering that if they want to attract larger audiences, they have to provide such alternatives for the population of people with sensory issues. Other places, such as aquariums, zoos and even children’s gardens, have not come to this realization… yet.

Next: Crowding

Autism and Landscape Architecture Month, VI: Balance and Nature

Friday, April 8th, 2011

When I sent out my call for participants for my research project, parents with autistic children contacted me by email, first locally, then throughout the country, thanks to Jenifer Westphal’s posting on her Kyle’s Treehouse website. My first non-local contact was a couple from Ohio. They were particularly interested in my study on autism and the outdoor environment because they were discovering that their son, Josh, seemed to change his behavior when he was in natural settings.

Josh’s parents discussed their son’s daily schedule, his difficulty focusing on homework, and his inability to be focused and calm when inside, at home. They also noted that he wasn’t a particularly coordinated child but, despite this, he loved to go hiking in the parks near their home. As we discussed the character of the different places where Josh liked to go hiking – from the wild rocky gorges in southern Ohio to hills with desert flora outside of Phoenix, Arizona, to Butterfly World and wetland preserves in Florida – what they all had in common was nature.

What did he do in these natural settings? Well, before he would go hiking, his mother told me, he would read up on the place, learning what he could about its features, history, and anything else of interest. He’d spend hours pouring over maps, looking at trails and where they would go on contour maps. His father, who would go hiking with him, indicated that despite his less than athletic build, Josh was an amazing hiker. He would walk for three hours up a hill, rest for a bit, then continue up to the pinnacle without wanting to turn back. All along the way, he’d comment on the features of the trail, animals he’d see, interesting plants, etc. His special interest, of reading the tour books and maps, fueled his interest in places. Even more importantly, the natural environment became the bridge or setting where he could discuss these things he read about with his fellow hikers. The combination of research and seeing the place first-hand gave Josh confidence to discuss his discoveries with his parents, other family members and, finally, school friends. Furthermore, the environment fueled his stamina, motivating him to hike for hours. He built up his muscles and strength in pursuit of what was around the corner.

Yes, this is just one example of one autistic child whose parents saw how nature made a difference in his life. For families with autistic children, however, this example could be used to motivate them to form walking or hiking groups, or special scouting troops, as a way to encourage physical fitness and engagement in nature. Josh’s father commented on the importance of interpretive signs in the parks and trails. I have observed similar cases where autistic children, walking in botanic gardens during summer camp, have stopped to read the signs without guidance from their camp counselors. Designers of parks and trails should try, whenever possible, to include such signage in their designs. Further, with new phone applications becoming available every day, placing these where they do not detract from the natural experience will still add to the interpretive experience!

Autism and Landscape Architecture Month — Part V: Balance

Thursday, April 7th, 2011

Today, I’d like to discuss balance.

In Sensory Integration Dysfunction literature, such things as physical balance are referred to under the vestibular system. Things like being able to walk on a curb, skip, jump, turn a cartwheel, ride a bike, etc. , all require some balance and physical coordination. The American Psychiatric Association, who publishes the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) used by doctors for diagnoses (and is the bible, of sorts, for American insurance companies to determine what they will cover on policies) indicates that a lack of coordination may be one of the symptoms for diagnosing autistic children. Occupational therapists, however, would include it as Sensory Integration Dysfunction, which they argue is a separate issue from autism. It may, like attention deficit disorder (ADD) and other conditions, be “co-morbid. ” This sounds pretty grim, but this term is used by the medical profession to mean that multiple disorders can be present in one person. Currently, the DSM doesn’t recognize Sensory Integration Dysfunction as a “true” disorder until sufficient scientific testing has proven this to be the case.

What does balance, then, have to do with autism and landscape architecture, you are probably wondering? (Why doesn’t she just get to the point???) Well, as the DSM notes, the lack of physical coordination – or balance, to some degree – is sometimes experienced by autistic people. Early in the lives of autistic children, they are recognized by their peers as having coordination problems and are frequently teased about it. Further, autistic children (as well as children who have vestibular problems, but are not autistic) may shy away from play equipment on the school playground.

What do they do during their recess if they aren’t playing on the equipment?

In my playground observations, I’ve seen some children (who aren’t playing on the equipment) usually sitting by themselves, walking around the playground, or sitting with the teachers. If there are natural features on the site, I’ve seen children collecting leaves, touching plants, digging in mulch and otherwise exploring the natural environment. These are not as “physical” activities as climbing, swinging, etc., but they are forms of engagement and connection to both the imaginary, as well as physical, world. This form of play is actually more highly developed, cognitively, than the exercise of big muscles used on the traditional playground!

I’d like to discuss the role of the natural environment, but think I should do this tomorrow when I have more time and space. I’d like to hear from those of you reading this – and I’ll bet so would other readers! If you have children, what have your observations been regarding how your children play outdoors? If your children have coordination, or balance problems, what do they do?

If the comment box isn’t visible, click on the words: No Comments and a comment box will open. Let’s start talking about this together!

Autism and Landscape Architecture Month, Part IV

Wednesday, April 6th, 2011

I have not learned which sensory issues are the most prevalent in autistic children — the research in the field of Occupational Therapy is still on-going — but from those children I’ve spoken with, noise is the first they speak about. Light, or glare from light, however, is one issue that their parents comment about.

As we watched her son play on a neighbor’s covered porch, a mother from Philly commented that she had to go to bat with the local school system because of her son’s problems with bright lights and colors. His desk sat on a brightly-colored carpet near the sunny windows. He would refuse to sit at the desk, even when the blinds were drawn. At home, his mother discovered that her son’s issues with bright lights and colors made him miserable, so she kept the lights dimmed. Together, she and her son decorated his bedroom with camouflage colors and put up heavy curtains to cut down on the light. When she spoke with her son’s teacher about the glare issue, they were able to move his school desk off of the rug and out of the bright light. Without this distraction/barrier, he became an attentive student.

Shirley Cohen, Ph.D., one of the creators of the ASD (Austism Spectrum Disorders) NEST Program in NYC, develops programs in the curriculum for autistic students with the team of professionals. Occupational therapists working on the NEST modify the classroom environment to accommodate the sensory needs of the children, as they’ve found that the children learn more easily and successfully when sensory barriers are removed. This tactic is not reserved to just the NEST program. Cohen confided, in a journal article, that they had implemented this aspect from other programs that demonstrated success, such as TEACHH (Treatment and Education of Autistic and Related Communication Handicapped Children).

It is interesting, however, that schools (and even these successful programs) take into consideration the classroom environment but NOT the outdoors, such as the playground. Playgrounds are still constructed in full sunlight, and outfitted with hardly any shade. One boy, from Levittown, told me that even though he wanted to play on the neighborhood playground, it was just too hot. “I feel bad,” he said, after we had been crawling through the hot, plastic tubes to the sliding boards. His mother added that, in the summer, she kept her son inside most of the time because of the heat and glare. “He gets so red in the face after just a few minutes.” The playground had a wooded lot next to it, so that later in the day, there was some shade. However, this occurred at the heat of the day when the play equipment got too hot to play on.

In an effort to help a local PTO install a small raised garden next to the school playground, I observed how children moved around in the area. The school board had dismissed an idea for putting the garden closer to the school, near the basketball court, because the basketball court was heavily used and the children might damage it during play. During my observations, I noticed that the only tree on the playground was located next to the basketball court. Children did, indeed, run out of the school to that area, but they didn’t play basketball. They were all standing in the shade of the lone tree. Other children lined up against the hot building, but under the overhanging roof. “Why are you standing here?” I asked them. “To be in the shade,” was their reply. “It’s too hot to play out there,” one boy added, pointing to the vacant playground.

So, we’ve come a long way. We spend thousands of dollars to erect bright, colorful playgrounds in what used to be vacant lots, old asphalt parking lots, or former cornfields. Despite this, the playgrounds are not as well used as they could — or should — be because of the glare and lack of shade.

Next: Balance.