Archive for the ‘Special Interests’ Category

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 XV: Pulling this together

Tuesday, April 26th, 2011

As I look more at the topic of Special Interests and go through my data on the places and activities that my child collaborators enjoy, I start to see certain patterns. While this information is based on 13 different children, I am reluctant to say that this represents all children with autism. With that said, however, I feel it starts to raise issues that can be researched further. Here goes…

I combined the special interests of my 13 child collaborators with the places that they particularly enjoyed. Here’s the breakdown as to the combinations:

1) Mastery (games, sports, things of interest including art, music, learning about something): 10 children out of 13. I use the term mastery because the children tend to do these things on a regular basis and do these out of choice rather than through coercion. This is the type of activity that we usually associate with athletes or artists or intense hobbyists. The places where these activities take place are quite varied.

2) Discovery (looking for creatures or things): 10 children out of 13. Interestingly, many of these activities are performed by the child alone, without supervision, in places such as the child’s backyard. Many of these are situated in natural or garden settings. Some take place on sidewalks, parking lots, and in-between places (between home and school, etc).

3) Nature (searching for animals, plants, digging, collecting, discovering, reading about, being in, touching water, etc.): 9 out of 13 children. Most of these places have a variety of affordances, including sun/shade, many types of plants and habitats for animals, and often contain water.

4) Sensory Engagement: 7 out of 13 children. These include a variety of active engagements such as riding on scooters and bikes, sand play, swinging, and walking/hiking. They take place in a variety of settings such as amusement parks, backyards, beaches, driveways or local streets, hammocks, inside the home, parks, playgrounds, and trampolines.

5) The other combinations tend to be more personal, dependent upon the individual’s interests and experience.

I now invite you to think about these five categories and how the special interests and qualities of engagement can be combined to create more meaningful public places that will include these kids. What are your thoughts?

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!

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

Thursday, April 21st, 2011

I want to write more on the topic of special interests because it keeps coming up in autism literature AND seems to present itself, in my own research as a link that connects people, activities and places.

Special interests are represented differently to different people. On face value, these appear to take the form of hobbies. In medical/psychological literature, there is an emphasis on how the children prevaricate, or obsess, over things, especially odd things. Frequently, the children are reported as doing little more than clutching an object, spinning it or lining objects up in some orderly fashion. Most of these studies are conducted through observing children who have little or no verbal abilities, or are very young and may not understand questions asked of them.

Parents of autistic children tend to see these as extreme hobbies, where their children want to do these all the time, to the absence of everything else (including eating, sleeping and other necessary functions). While all parents of young children (of all abilities) tend to see this happen, parents of autistic children observe that many of these special interests may involve strange things, such as interests in washing machines, trash trucks, thunderstorms, etc. Indeed, many of these special interests may come from things that provoke fear in the children; it is almost as if they try to work out the fear by making it their friend. Where the medical professionals tend to see the child in timed sessions in empty rooms, parents are the ones who spend large amounts of time with the children. Even if they are perplexed regarding their children’s interests, parents tend to understand patterns of behavior and what circumstances trigger problems such as melt-downs. As their child gets older, parents frequently rely on their child’s special interest(s) as a way to introduce the child to new places and activities.

Temple Grandin, an Animal Science professor at Colorado State University who also writes about being an autistic person, discusses the importance of recognizing and using special interests to involve autistics in the real world, including education, jobs and life. In her book (co-authored with Kate Duffy), Developing Talents: Careers for Individuals with Asperger Syndrome and High-functioning Autism – Updated, Expanded Edition, the role of special interests is remarkably important. Many young adults have maintained their special interest(s) throughout childhood and have not only learned a great deal about this topic (they may, in fact, be experts on the subject), but also derive a great deal of enjoyment and comfort from it.

I had to get this out on paper for those of you who might not understand the importance of special interests. Tomorrow, I’d like to discuss more about how this plays an important role in the design of places.

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.