Archive for the ‘social skill development’ 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 XVIII: The Last Day of April

Saturday, April 30th, 2011

I’ve been researching environments for children since 1999 when I designed a series of sensory gardens for children with special needs at St. Edmond’s Home for Children in Rosemont, PA. But my experience with autistic children and the physical environment went back much earlier.

When our family moved into our present house, my son was barely two years old. We had some idea that he was different from other children his age, but no one could put their finger on what it was. It wasn’t until he entered Kindergarten that the school psychologist suggested we have him observed and diagnosed by a psychiatrist. We agreed and learned that the diagnosis was Asperger’s syndrome, considered to be on the higher functioning range of Autism Spectrum Disorder. His speech was delayed and he tended to walk around all day, holding two small animals from Fisher-Price’s Farm in his fists. He graduated to small dinosaur toys at around the age of two and would cry when parted from them. The rest of the world seemed foreign to him.

As a landscape architect, I knew how important nature and the local landscape meant to me and my husband (who had studied ecology in college). I wanted to create our garden as a place where our son could learn to engage with nature. My husband agreed. So, I planted to attract wildlife: berried shrubs as well as caterpillar and nectar plants that attracted birds and insects. This tactic was pretty successful. We found our son hiding in a thicket of shrubs one day, watching the neighbor’s cat prowl for rodents. Another day, he found a praying mantis egg case. Still another time, he brought an “egg” for me to identify. It was a small, capsule-shaped object which he cut open to reveal something that looked like a grub inside. I told him I didn’t know what it was and he went back outside. A month or so later, we were sitting at the dining room table when his eyes got big and wide. “Oh! Oh!” he exclaimed and ran to the buffet. Tucked into the back of the buffet surface was a plastic cookie container, filled with sand. I noticed that holes had been poked into the plastic top to let in air. And, flying around the container was a digger wasp! He explained that he had found the “eggs” in my sand pile (left over from working on garden paths) and put them in this makeshift terrarium to hatch. And hatch they did!
Later, when I had the opportunity to put in a pond, I first asked him whether he wanted one and, if so, where would he like it to be. He pointed to the place where the grass grew the best in the front yard. So the digging began! He watched the workmen dig the pond and install the liner, and he even helped fill the liner with water from the garden hose. While I carefully selected aquatic plants at local nurseries, he started wandering off into the area where they kept fish and tadpoles and begged me to get some for the pond as well.

He would go out to the pond each morning before we walked to school, and visited every afternoon when we got home. He’d drag me down to see each new creature. When the weather got warm, he’d change into swim trunks and wade in…until he started finding dragonfly larvae and snakes in the pond. After that, he was content to lie on the big, flat stones that lined the pond and dip his water in to touch tadpoles or pet the fish.

We used the garden and pond as a draw to attract children to us as well. Whenever we invited children over for play dates, they all inevitably ended up outside by the pond or up in the big Japanese maple. Recently, one of the boys told my son that he liked coming over to our house because we actually had trees that they could play in!

Back in 2004, I noticed our son behaving differently in nature settings when we were vacationing in the Adirondacks. I was teaching at the University of Delaware at the time and decided to do an observational study of children in nature camps – to see if children behaved differently in the various places. There was little research being done on the physical environment and the role the environment played for autistic children, so I decided to go on for my doctorate to study this and to be able to apply it as a landscape architect. The blog essays this month relate to my ongoing research. Thank you for posting your comments and, at the very least, accompanying me on this month’s exploration! I hope you enjoyed it!

Yesterday, I wrote that there are very few outdoor environments that have been built for autistic children. One way to help increase the database of knowledge in design is to evaluate such places and discuss their merits. I have been performing post occupancy evaluations of this type with different forms of children’s environments, but not specifically for autistic children (outside of my own garden). If you know of one, please comment on this blog!

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 XII: The Role of Special Interests

Wednesday, April 20th, 2011

Sometimes when we design social environments, we are actually designing stages that provide settings for action and activities. Last week, I had mentioned that when a place has many affordances – when it affords many opportunities – it not only provides more places to play but also provides children with ways to think about how the environment becomes a catalyst for activities that might not be spelled out. By this, I mean the activities in the place may not be obvious. We look at a see-saw and think that it provides only one activity that requires two people to play. But a tower on a pre-fabricated playground can provide both a lookout as well as the stern of a ship, a place to give directions, launch water balloons, sing songs, etc., depending upon the person, time of day and circumstances surrounding the occurrence.

As a note to those of you reading this who do not have autistic children, many of these children rarely have time of their own to play spontaneously. Much of their time is spent in therapies or planned activities that are meant to encourage or teach social skills. Frequently, parents, teachers and therapists plan social events or play dates for their children to get them to “practice” such skills. In many ways, it’s a wonder these children actually play at all because many of them exist in such “artificial” worlds. One thing I have observed that serves as a link between their realities and the bigger world may be their special interests.

Special interests – things or activities that are of major interest –frequently play an important role in the lives of autistic children. While most of my child collaborators were willing to play on just about any playground or interesting place, they also preferred places that accommodated games and activities of their own choosing (rather than someone else’s) that involved their special interests. These places do not always need to be programmed for certain activities. Sometimes they can be open space near programmed activities so that children who are not as interested in the primary activity can initiate their own games.

For example, Josh, who I featured in Part 6 of this blog, enjoys being current with football player statistics. He spends a good amount of time at home on his computer checking on favorite teams and players. At school, he discusses this with a group of friends who are also “in the know” on the subject. His parents indicated that in the fall, the school has a varsity football team that plays on Friday nights. During the home games, Josh and his statistic-loving friends get together to not only discuss football statistics but also play their own game of touch football on the sidelines. The simple provision of extra space along the sidelines that would not interfere with monitoring the football game or seating created an opportunity for these boys to do something more than talking about their special interest. The football game – a social event — coupled with the availability of the vacant space of the sideline, helped to provide an opportunity for this special activity for Josh and his friends.

Autism and Landscape Architecture Month, Part XI: Affordances meets social skill development

Tuesday, April 19th, 2011

Physical environments that provide a range of affordances for children also provide opportunities for children to gather together in search of common activities and, possibly, common engagement and friendship.

Awhile back, I installed a small pond at my home to engage my son in the natural environment. I had observed that he enjoyed watching wildlife and I was keen on attracting frogs and other aquatic life into our garden. The pond soon became the place for the annual mating ritual of American toads each spring. Matthew reported on the amount of toads in the pond each day, and later how many tadpoles took residence there as well. Later that spring, we invited other children over for various play dates. Instead of doing indoor things, however, Matthew and the other children were found playing by the pond, dipping their hands into the water to touch the tadpoles. Matthew and the tadpoles became pretty popular with the other kids that spring and summer, but even as the tadpoles grew into toads and left the pond, the children still came over to play with Matthew and spend time by the pond. The children marveled when they dropped water onto the lotus leaves and the droplets turned into silver beads. Tiny, multicolored goldfish darted under the profusion of water lilies and duck potato – inviting the kids to search more intently for them. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that, despite their attention problems, many of the children stayed by the pond for at least an hour, talking, sharing stories, and investigating the depths of the pond.

It’s been over four years since the toads moved in, and Matthew is now a teenager. Yet, when his friends still come over, they get Matthew and the first place they all head for is the pond.