Morgan’s Wonderland in San Antonio, Texas

August 3rd, 2011

Last month (July), when I was attending the National Trampoline Competition in this lovely city (San Antonio), I also got to visit Morgan’s Wonderland. This is a play environment for children of all abilities and ages (0 – 100+). It has a number of playgrounds, including water tables, sand areas, swings, slides and other play equipment, a carousel, train, off-road vehicles, fishing, model boats and more! Here is the link to my Facebook Page to connect you with a variety of photos.

May is Gardening for Wildlife Month: Aerialist Ground Hogs

May 16th, 2011

Our aerialist ground hog

I’ve been out in the garden, trying to dig up the weeds and plant the vegetable garden. So, I haven’t been writing here in the blog room until now.
The National Wildlife Federation has mentioned that this is gardening for wildlife month and we certainly try to do that. Just the other day, I brought back little jewels of flowers (Phlox divericata) for a niche in the front yard. The following day, when I went to water the potted plant before planting it, I noticed that the flowers had been EATEN by one of my wildlife tenants. Probable lineup of prospects: rabbit or ground hog.

Last year, our resident ground hog gave birth to twin hoglets. Late one morning, the indoor cats were making a fuss at the window that looked out onto our porch. Two small hoglets were running around on the porch, sniffing the seedlings that I put there (to keep away from the rabbit and ground hog). They proceeded to eat most of my brassicas (cabbage family plants), as well as my tomatillos and lettuces last summer. I found that they didn’t seem to bother my Bull’s Blood Beets, tomatoes and red peppers. Other friends, however, have commented that their ground hog eats red things (I was hoping this was a pattern).

So, I had decided to erect a fence around the vegetable garden this spring…that is, until my son spotted one of the ground hogs up in a tree that hangs over the vegetable patch! My thought: why waste the money for a fence when the ground hog can jump over it? I’d not heard of aerialist ground hogs, but I think this must be one of the babies (now grown) who can climb stairs, walls and now trees.

I think this type of ground hog is pretty innovative and sort of like that it lives in my garden. So, this year, I’m planting for my family and the ground hogs. I’ll let you know what mine eats…

If you have ground hog experiences, I’d love some advice!

May Day!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.