Gardening Goes Well with Autism
I’m not an outdoorsy person, but I love gardening so much! There’s something wonderful about digging in the dirt and pruning plants. Granted, at the moment I only have a very shaded balcony to work with, but I keep several pots and a window box or two full of green things that appreciate the dappled sunlight they can get. Gardening can be a great form of therapy – it’s been used as such for years – and it’s especially beneficial for autistic people. If you’re looking for a hobby that’s calming and gives you a sense of accomplishment, I highly recommend getting your hands in the dirt.
*Disclaimer: I understand that some autistic people really really hate getting dirt or other things on their skin. If you can’t stand it, even with gloves, maybe gardening isn’t for you. That’s ok.
Gardening, or horticulture therapy, if you want to be pretentious, has been proven to improve mood by increasing the levels of serotonin and dopamine in the brain. There have even been hospital studies that show patients recover faster when they have a view of some plants – just a view of green growing things! In the grand scheme of things, I think being around plants helps us feel more connected to nature, more secure in our place in the world. But that’s a little esoteric, I guess, and there are plenty of concrete benefits for me to talk about.
Maintaining a garden, or even just a couple of house plants, gives a sense of responsibility and achievement. It’s rather like having a pet, but with a bit less pressure – if a plant dies, you can just get another one, plus you don’t have to clean up after it. The longer you keep a plant alive, the more confident you become. Then you add another plant and keep both of them alive, and then you add another, etc.
With my first couple of house plants, I counted all the new leaves as they sprang up. I get a rush of excitement every spring when my lilies and hostas first break through the soil. And when my peace lily decides to die back and re-sprout (which happens every couple of years), I panic and tend to it by the day as if it were sick. As I write that now, it sounds a little silly, but I love my little green leaf babies!
Specific benefits for autism
Gardening is great practice for motor skills and dexterity, which a lot of us have some trouble with. Digging the holes, placing the plants, and filling in the soil around them all help us refine and control our movements. Even better, planting a large area can get us into a great flow state – dig, add plant, fill in, water, repeat – that can be really calming and enjoyable.
A garden can provide plenty of sensory stimulation, too. The first thing that comes to my mind is the smell of good potting soil – there’s nothing like sticking my nose into a fresh bag of good soil! It’s a rich, thick smell that just makes me really happy. Flowers are good for both smells and visuals. My favorites are jasmine, azaleas, and lilies for scent; impatiens, lobelia, and pansies for color. Other flowers like fuschias and irises have interesting shapes. Some herbs smell very strongly and some don’t, but they all offer interesting texture, as do ferns and other greenery. Adding a water feature or gravel walkway can add some sounds into the mix as well.
If you have the space and the sunlight available, you can grow berries, fruits, and vegetables. Here in the south, tomatoes are a favorite, since smaller varieties can do well even in pots. Strawberries and blackberries are great because you can eat them right off the vine if you want to – just be aware that they’ll try to take over your whole garden if they’re not contained. Cucumbers, peppers, and garlic are also pretty easy to grow. Growing your own food is a major confidence boost and might even help with some picky eating issues in children. Plus, you can learn other skills like canning, preserving, pickling, or making jam from your harvest.
Gardening can translate into real-world skills. If you can grow produce and create preserves, pickles, or jam from it, you can sell your harvest and creations at farmer’s markets. For those who might not be able to hold a job, that real money, earned by their own work, can be a huge measure of independence. In a group living situation, gardening and canning might be a useful way for residents to earn some pocket money.
Community gardens are becoming more common, and for an autistic gardener, they offer an opportunity to build social skills. Besides working alongside other people, you can ask other gardeners for help or share your own advice. Many gardeners tend to be a bit obsessive, even if they’re NTs, so if you happen to know everything about growing roses or raising orchids, people are likely to appreciate your depth of knowledge. And when people validate our special interests, we feel like we really belong!
Gardening can even be a career path if you’re good at it. Landscaping businesses, plant farms, and garden centers all employ people who are knowledgeable about plants. Many office buildings have potted plants that need tending, as well. Most of these jobs don’t require much training and they involve limited social interaction, so they’re well-suited to autistic people who’d prefer to just focus on the job.
Bonus hint: Superthrive
If you’ve read all this and thought “that’s great, but I kill every plant I touch”, I offer you this hint which I received from a lady who cared for the plants in my old office building: Superthrive. It’s basically plant vitamins, and it changed me from a chronically brown-thumbed amateur to a half-decent gardener who gets blooming flowers every year. It’s a game changer.
If you’d like to try gardening, I suggest going to a garden center or plant farm and asking about plants that are hardy and good for beginners. They’ll be able to recommend flowers or greenery to get you started.
Do you enjoy gardening or keeping house plants? Is there anything you especially like or dislike about plants or gardens? What else do you do that gives you that sense of accomplishment?