Archive for the ‘Landscape architecture’ Category

The Built Environment and Autism 2013

Monday, 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 …

The importance of touch in engaging children

Wednesday, 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?

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 XVII

Friday, April 29th, 2011

I’ve covered many ways that the physical environment plays a role in the life of autistic children – both beneficial as well as barriers. Parents find that it takes a long time for them to understand what types of places their child will enjoy. Many autistic children are slow to speak and some may never do so. Also, as children age, some become more adaptable to the world and accept places that they would not when they were younger. Parents feel like they’re always playing some lottery when they take their child to a park, zoo or some other type of children’s environment.

One of the difficulties I have writing about the perfect environments for autistic children is that the children are all different and prefer different places. Also, there’s been so little information written about the design of these environments because there just aren’t such places. We’re all waiting for these places to be built so we can evaluate them and point out what works and what doesn’t.

More is being written about the physical environment (not just the toxic environment). Most of these are written as reviews of literature regarding autism and other disabilities.

• Stijn Baumers and Ann Heylander wrote “The eyes of the mind: Architecture and mental disability.” Presented at the Engaging Artifacts Conference, Oslo, Norway, Oslo School of Architecture and Design, This reference provides interesting information regarding architecture and sensory integration.

• Christopher Beaver, “Designing environments for children and adults with ASD.” Cape Town, SA, 2nd World Autism Congress and Exhibition, World Autism Organisation and Autism South Africa, October 2006. Beaver’s architectural firm in the UK specializes in buildings for autistic people. His website provides articles and information as to how they work with autistic people: or

• Bonnie Hebert, (2003). “Design guidelines of a therapeutic garden for autistic children.” M.L.A. Thesis, for Louisiana State University. Available from Before obtaining her Master of Landscape Architecture degree from Louisiana State University, Bonnie was a special education teacher. Her thesis involves observing children in playground and school settings as well as performing a review of the literature on how autistic children play before she wrote her guidelines for therapeutic gardens. This guide is on the reading list for landscape architects who are interested in creating gardens for autistic children.

• Mostafa, M. (2008). “An architecture for autism: Concepts of design intervention for the autistic user.” International Journal of Architectural Research, 2 (1): 189 – 211.This article recommends a process for architects who are interested in working on building designs for autistic children.

• Yuill, N., Strieth, S., Roake, C., Aspden, R., & Todd, B. (2007). “Brief report: Designing a playground for children with autistic spectrum disorders: Effects on playful peer interactions.” Journal of Autism Developmental Disorders, 37 (6), 1192 – 1196. These researchers observed autistic children and children with Down ’s syndrome on the playground. Their observations led them to recommend design interventions on the playground that would better engage them in play.

• Last June, Naomi Sachs interviewed Tara Vincenta regarding her research on autistic children and nature. Tara had put together a literature review that incorporated many of the above articles, together with references on sensory processing dysfunction. Their audio recording, “Prescription for play: Nature-based play and learning for children with special and autistic needs,” may be listened to at

• As a follow-up on this webinar for Kaboom, the playground company, Naomi and Tara were asked to put together a brief set of guidelines for InformeDesign, published by the University of Minnesota. This newsletter came out Thursday and can be accessed on Naomi’s blog:

• One of the most comprehensive study related to physical places,  in this circumstance  residential housing options for autistic people, is “Opening Doors: A discussion of residential options for adults living with autism and related disorders.” The publication is edited by Denise D. Resnik as a collaborative report by the Land Institute, Arizona, the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center, and Arizona State University. The report may be accessed through Two of the study researchers, Kim Steele and Sherry Arentzen, had presented a paper at the Environmental Design Research Assocation (EDRA) Conference in 2009. They physically visited residential housing all over the United States, interviewed the residents and members of their families in order to develop guidelines for residential development for this population.

Tomorrow: Last day of April

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.

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.

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