sensory gardens for autism

My cousin’s daughter was first diagnosed with autism last fall at the age of 2 and a half. Two weeks ago they found out that her autism is on the severe side. They are unable to determine at this point if she will attend a regular school/what kind of help she will need throughout her life. Myself, not knowing very much about this awful condition is heartbroken for my cousin and his fiance [they are both in their early 20’s so I think they are having a difficult time coming to terms with this issue] and for little Sylvia.

Their doctor made the suggestion of creating a sensory garden where she can be stimulated by feel, smell, taste and sight, and adding in wind chimes for sound. I thought that was an amazing idea; for any child or adult with special needs. The family lives in an apartment so my aunt has vowed to start a sensory garden in her backyard this summer.

My mum and I were talking with her over the weekend and we came up with a few plants that she thinks would be good for the garden. For taste: basil, sage, mint, and oregano which would also be for smell. Strawberries, blueberries, blackcurrents. Smell: various roses, asiatic lilies, clethra, honeysuckle and lavender. Feel: she wasn’t too sure on this so I came up with stachys, phlomis [not hardy here, though], salvia, yarrow, heather, calamagrostis [I love this grass] and the possibility of adding in textured stones for a path or border and moss seats. Sight: the possibilities are endless with this. As I think all plants are beautiful, this is what my aunt was most comfortable with growing and having Sylvia around – zinnias, wildflowers, marigolds, begonias and poppies for annuals. Russian sage, coneflowers of all colours, amsonia blue ice, hardy geraniums and astilbe. Hibiscus shrubs would probably look great in there, too, with their big bright blooms. Sound: in addition to the wind chimes we thought of a bird bath to encourage birds to stop by and sing in the bath.

I’m not sure what plants she will end up using as her yard isn’t very big. She was thinking of hiring a landscaper and plant more mature plants so she doesn’t have to wait a few years before the garden is established. She wants to have each section [smell, feel, taste..] separated since there is a concern that too much at once might overwhelm her. It’s been upsetting watching her grow up around children and her not interact with them, not being able to communicate with you and not even acknowledge you when you talk to her. Now that we all know she has autism we are trying to better understand her world and how to help. I did some looking around on the internet about the sensory idea and it seems fairly common to create a garden that stimulates the senses for autistic children. I even discovered sensory garden schools and parks specially designed for autistic children in the UK and Australia. I’m trying to look for some in our area right now. This is such a great thing for people with sensory perceptual issues associated with autism that really needs more attention in our country and others.

I will keep this blog updated with the process of the sensory garden and how it turns out.


25 thoughts on “sensory gardens for autism

  1. Erin, my heart goes out to them. I’m so glad your family is rallying around to provide support. My children love stachys (Lamb’s Ears) when they were little, and we all enjoy peppermint geraniums for touch also. You might also consider textural plants like ornamental grass or rhododendron, magnolia, etc for touch.

    • Thank you very much. Calamagrostis [hope I spelled that correctly] is one ornamental grass that we came up with, but yes definitely, all types of grasses are great for texture. I’ll see what she thinks about planting several different kinds.

  2. My grandson is on the autism spectrum. He had started to speak and had a great vocabulary, but then he lost the language he had and was hardly speaking at all. He was helped tremendously by Applied Behavioural Therapy. Now he is nine years old, doing well in school and gets along with other children. It was a horrible shock when he was first diagnosed, but a couple of days ago, we had a delightful conversation about what comes first in the garden (chives, then asparagus, then lettuce, etc.). It may not be as bad as you think.

  3. hi Erin,
    Some time ago I did a talk at a seminar re sensitive children..I will haul the notes out as soon as I can and do a blog…I was thinking it’s time I did HT one for children anyway
    Glad you like my Blog

  4. I love this idea. The first time I read about a Sensory Garden was in a book called “Almost Eden” by Landscape Designer Kim Burgsma. ( She’s an Ontario-based Designer and has some great ideas, although it sounds like you already have some great ones of your own! Check her out if you’re interested. I should mention that the whole book is not about Sensory Gardens. There’s just a section in there on them.

  5. Erin, I’m so sorry to hear about your cousin’s daughter. That has got to be hard news to hear and tough for them to deal with. My twin nephews (now 18 years old!) have a fairly severe autism that certainly puts them at a disadvantage in the world, and yet they have made it through school and have even progressed a bit socially.

    Bravo to you and to your aunt for getting to work on this sensory garden idea – it’s fantastic. Stachys was top of the list as soon as you mentioned the garden. To the “smell” section consider adding lemon verbena. I grew it last year and it was quite hardy here, and it was hands-down the most incredible aroma EVER. Brushing those leaves as you walk by or tearing one off to rub…amazing. Pruning it helps, and leaves can be used for a delicious tea as well.

    Also for “smell,” have you considered scented jasmine? Or datura? The night-blooming moon-flower vines could be fun…a “night garden” feature perhaps? Mirabilis (four o’clocks) bloom in the afternoon and evening and also smell divine on top of being gorgeous. I have seeds if you want some.

    My sister (other sister, not the mother of my nephews) works for a non-profit assisting children/adults/families with all kinds of developmental disabilites…she spends a lot of time researching autism and working with families of kids who have it. I’ll ask her if she has any suggestions for you in terms of resources, books, articles, etc. If you haven’t already read about or anything by author Temple Grandin, I highly recommend her. She is an amazing writer, and speaker who also suffers from autism, and has a terrific website:

    • Thank you for your kind words and suggestions for the garden. I will pass these along to my aunt. I love jasmine, such a wonderful scent and mirabilis, too. I almost feel tempted to start this in my own backyard since we have 2 acres and could plant everything imaginable. Though we have an insanely hyper dog in the back and my cousin lives too far away [or I live too far from my family] to bring his daughter even every weekend.

      • Well, you could always share bouquets with her…and have plenty for yourself too.

        I had another thought last night – celosia. Either the kind that looks like coral or the type that looks like individual little candle flames could be fun to touch.

  6. I love this idea. What a beautiful way to provide sensory stimulation and allow a child to connect with the natural world. There is a book I have been reading called “Last child in the Woods” by Richard Louv. This book speaks more to how children in general are starved for nature, and I can’t remember if it covers this topic specifically but it might have something to further inspire or instruct you. Just wanted to pass that along. I would love to read more about the sensory garden as it progresses.

  7. I plan on reading some of these books mentioned ! Thank you everyone for being so wonderful and posting your experience and advice. It really means a lot to me, I truly appreciate the kind words.

  8. Erin, what a great way to expose Sylvia to various senses. I am an Occupational Therapist that is certified in sensory integration….I would suggest in addition to a landscaper, an Occupational Therapist to help determine what is best for her senses, as some children can be hypersensitive to some things and hyposensitive to others. You are doing wonderful things….it is a long road, but with the love and support of your family good things will happen.

  9. very good idea – my husband is guardian of his autistic brother – age 56; He really enjoys doing woodworking. Glad you said the sensory garden is for any age because lots of times the autism info is mostly for children. I love my herbs and veggies and flowers. I will try to show Chuck (hubby’s brother) how different ones smell, etc. Also, thanks for liking my blog post.

  10. Thanks for stopping by my gardeningnirvana blog. My son, now 14, is on the Autism spectrum. He enjoyed the garden a lot when he was small, but less so as he aged. I agree that nature of any kind can be wonderfully therapeutic. My son has lots of sensory issues, so I would like to echo oldworldgarden’s comments that some children have difficulty with certain smells and textures. Perhaps you could visit some botantical gardens or nursery centers first to see what appeals to him.

    A few other books to recommend:

  11. Erin, have you considered scented geraniums? They come in so many varieties – chocolate, mint, apple, lemon and the list goes on. I love the idea of a sensory garden. My best for your family.

  12. A garden with sensory stimulators sounds like a fantastic idea. I have ASD myself, not nearly as severe as autism, but I get completely overwhelmed when around lots of other people and in crowds and I find gardens a soothing place where my mind can find stability.
    It’s a good idea to separate the sensory areas as well I think, because sometimes when surrounded by sight, smell and touch it can become too much. Lovely, lovely idea!!!

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