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Here’s How to Help Your Child with Autism Access Nature

Here’s How to Help Your Child with Autism Access Nature

By Fraser Sensory Inclusion Specialist Gina Gibson and Pam Dewey • autism, ASD, autism spectrum disorder, autism spectrum, ASD and kids, sensory friendly parks, sensory parks, sensory outdoor spaces, National Parks and autism, travelling with kids with autism, vacation and kids with autism • November 11, 2021

Spending time outside is good for you and your kids. Exercise provides multiple health benefits, releasing body chemicals like endorphins, dopamine and serotonin. These chemicals increase good feelings in your body and can help with depression, anxiety and stress. Sunlight also provides vitamin D, which WebMD states “is important for your bones, blood cells and immune system.” Not to mention, being outside forces you to slow down and be present in the moment.

Many kids love spending time outside, but for those with autism, being outdoors can be challenging. Nature is unpredictable, and many people on the spectrum struggle with change. Some also have sensory sensitivities, which means they may experience sensory overload when encountering bright lights, loud noises or new smells. Any of which you may encounter when walking through the woods or a park.

But the good news is some parks and outdoor recreation spaces are working to become more accessible for people with autism.

Accessible Local Parks

Fraser recently partnered with the City of Richfield to open the Augsburg Adventure Park. Fraser Sensory Inclusion Specialist Gina Gibson consulted with the city to create a park for children of all abilities to play safely. The park is sensory certified by Fraser, which means it’s been designed to be inclusive for people with autism.

The playground includes a fence, which prevents children from getting lost or wandering off. This is often a concern for parents of children with autism. The equipment is also wheelchair accessible and includes two transfer stations.

Here are the other ways the playground addresses sensory sensitivities:

  • Musical instruments for sensory play
  • A playhouse to take a break in
  • An abundance of shade for children who have difficulty regulating body temperature

“This playground provides a space where all kids and families can play, burn energy and practice social skills while remaining safe,” says Gibson.

Social Narratives

One way to help your child prepare for a visit to a local park, wildlife reserve or other outdoor setting is by creating a social narrative, so they know what to expect. Social narratives provide a blueprint to explain new experiences and decrease the anxiety around unfamiliar or potentially overwhelming events.

The narratives highlight the parts of an experience that might be the most challenging and provide insight into what strategies kids can use, if they feel overwhelmed. The stories show images of the new experience, so your child can familiarize themselves before and feel prepared for any difficult moments. Here’s a how-to guide for creating a social narrative. If your destination includes a pond or another body of water, include water safety guidelines in your social narrative.

Swimming Lessons

You’ll also want to make sure your child is safe around water, as children with autism are particularly at risk for drowning. Some children with autism may struggle with traditional group swimming lessons. You could try one-on-one lessons, so they won’t feel as overwhelmed by sensory input, and the instructor can work with them on an individualized basis. Ensure your swimming lessons teach water survival skills like floating or treading water. You can also look for lessons in open water, so your child can experience that specific environment.

Accessing Nature Across the U.S.

National Geographic states, “According to one recent study by the IBCCES, 87 percent of autism families never go on vacation at all.” That is likely because families are worried about finding accessible destinations, where their children’s needs will be accommodated. However, a growing number of parks around the country are working to be more inclusive to people with autism. According to National Geographic, Mesa Parks in Mesa Parks, Arizona has created “low-sensory areas that offer relief both from the weather and from too much sensory input,” and Myrtle Beach in South Carolina has been certified as sensory-friendly.

Recently, the Autism Nature Trail (ANT) opened in New York’s Letchworth State Park. The trail was created with guidance from Temple Grandin, a leading autism expert who has written about her own experiences with autism. The ANT “is wheelchair accessible, with discrete stations that address all sorts of sensory and physical needs.”

The National Park System has also created a free, lifetime access pass for people with autism or other disabilities. This pass allows free access to over 2,000 federal recreation sites across the nation, including National Parks, National Wildlife Refuges and many National Forest and other federal recreation lands. You can fill out an online application here and pay $10 for lifetime access or apply for free at a federal recreation site.

Spending time outside presents many health benefits. Though being in nature might present more challenges for children with autism, an increasing number of parks and trails are accessible for those on the spectrum. You can also help your child prepare for a specific experience by creating a social narrative and finding swim lessons that work for them.

For more information on Fraser sensory support, training and certification, contact Gina Gibson at gina.gibson@fraser.org or visit fraser.org.