We have noticed how much autistic children can benefit from spending time outside in The Children’s Wood and Meadow and how this impacts on their thoughts, feelings and behaviour. This is one of the reasons why we wanted to support the National Theatre for Scotland’s performance of The Reason I Jump this June. We hope it will raise awareness about the value of the outdoors to the life of children and young people with autism.
There is an ever increasing number of restrictions being placed on children’s opportunities to play outside in nature and, as a consequence, they are suffering. This disconnect with the natural world can be linked to higher levels of anxiety, obesity and can impact on children’s learning process as well as their social and emotional development. We believe this same disconnect is happening for children with autism.
During the last decade or more the research has been developing to highlight the impact of nature on the healthy development of children and young people. This research has shown us that symptoms associated with childhood challenges such as ADHD can be reduced through spending time in nature; for example, less anxiety and improved concentration. One area that is less well researched is the impact of nature on children with autism, despite autism being the fastest growing neurodevelopment disorder facing children. However, this is slowly changing and we are now seeing studies emerging which demonstrate the impact of greenspace on children with autism.
This research builds on a previous body of work which demonstrated that autistic children who have interactions with animals have more focused attention, social interaction, positive emotion and speech (O’Haire, 2013). This has led researchers to focus on the benefits of the outdoors more generally and we are seeing that nature is relevant for children with special educational needs (SEN)
For example, Wu and Jackson ,2017, found that children who live in areas with less greenspace show a higher prevalence of autism. The authors say that having access to greenspace may influence autism rates, saying that
“Our study suggests that green space, specifically tree cover in areas with high road density, may influence autism prevalence in elementary school children beneficially.”
Another study (Chang &Chang, 2018) found that outdoor activities provide 7 main benefits to children with autism, including promoting communication, emotion, cognition, interaction, physical activity, and decreasing autistic sensitivity. This is a small but encouraging study and supports anecdotal observations of the impact of nature on children and young people with autism. This also fits with our observations at the Children’s Wood where we notice quite obvious positive changes in behaviour, stress levels, communication and sociability of children with autism.
Taking learning outdoors is very important for children with autism who, along with other groups, can struggle with classroom-based learning (Rickinson et al., 2012). It can help to make learning meaningful and enjoyable for the learner and we notice this in the wood, children are happy and engaged when they come to use the land for outdoor learning.
Natural England Report (2013) has studied school perceptions of access to and the benefit of nature. What they found was that there are three main benefits of outdoor learning: supporting the curriculum (bringing the curriculum to life); skill development (social skills and well-being); and personal, social and health education. The report provides “strong recognition of the importance of varied learning environments and the need for more creativity in the curriculum.” and the outdoors can play a vital role.
When the Children’s Wood first began we noticed the impact of nature on children with autism, in fact the change was so noticeable and motivating that we have continued to support these groups coming to the land for outdoor learning since the first sessions in 2012. Having spaces nearby is vitally important to families, and can encourage people who live locally to return to the land with their child out with school. We’ve had positive feedback from parents and families that the land has been very important to their family life. For example, one local parent (who has more than one child with autism) told us that this is the only place her children like to come where they feel happy and relaxed.
We hope that the upcoming National Theatre for Scotland production of The Reason I Jump will raise awareness of the benefit of being outdoors in nature for children and adults with autism and will encourage people outside more. It is an important issue which needs more public awareness and so we were delighted to be the venue for this performance.