Yesterday, I wrote about some of the benefits of using plants on playgrounds: as a noise buffer, a way to attract wildlife, creating shade, and as a way to create a small area or niche. Today, I’d like to call attention to this idea of niche for autistic children as well as for all people.
The Dictionary defines niche as 1) an ornamental recess in a wall or the like, usually semicircular in plan and arched, as for a statue or other decorative object. 2) a place or position suitable or appropriate for a person or thing: to find one’s niche in the business world. 3) a distinct segment of a market; and 4) Ecology . the position or function of an organism in a community of plants and animals. The word comes from the French (17th century), referring to nest. My idea of niche comes closest to this original idea of nest.
Over the past two years, I’ve been visiting children’s environments. One of the things I’ve been able to do is measure those places that have successfully engaged children (of all abilities). One of these types of places is the niche — a small, enclosed area that can fit one to three people snugly. Many of the autistic children I’ve interviewed have such niches in their houses or gardens. One boy sleeps in a small tent on his bed — says he feels better when he can see the edges of the tent. The same boy enjoyed small cut-out areas in vegetation when we visited public gardens: in rhododendron thickets at Tyler Arboretum, in the Bamboo Grove in the Indoor Children’s Garden at Longwood Gardens, and along the edge of his garden at home where he can fit his body into the niches of the big trees there.
He’s not the only one. The Please Touch Museum has recognized the need for pull-away places and has made small areas within the museum, including special quiet rooms, as retreats for children and their families when things get too stimulating. Noise, glare, bright colors, insistent aromas and textures, not to mention crowding are the some of the things that cause autistic children to “melt down” in public places. Providing quiet pull-away places, or niches, is a way to help people (yes, this happens to adults, too!) to calm down.