The forest and trails have always felt like a safe space for my family to explore and learn.  I can still recall the list of birds as we would walk the tree-lined pens at Mountsberg.   My son could remember them all: peregrine falcon, kestrel, snowy owl, and the bald eagle.  I would follow behind while he ran ahead.  He knew the routine of the path and we both enjoyed the sounds of the birds and the freedom of the wide trail.

Speech therapy, occupational therapy and physiotherapy have certainly been a part of our life as well. When my son was three years old and in the process of his Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnosis, the part of the week we looked forward to was hiking. He is almost twelve today, the oldest of my three children, and I credit his love of animals and the planet, to his time outdoors.

As a Program Instructor at Crawford Lake and Mountsberg, I have been given a wonderful opportunity to take kids outside. Unfortunately, not all programs geared to getting children outdoors are accessible to children of all abilities.  Most environmental education programs are designed for neurotypical children and this can be frustrating for ASD families. As a parent of a child with ASD, and as an outdoor educator, I have always wanted to provide a program that is specifically geared to children with Autism.

Creating Space

Last year, in partnership with Autism Ontario, we were able to create a nature club program at Crawford Lake and Mountsberg. The goal of the Autism Nature Club program is to provide an accessible space for children with ASD and their families to enjoy the benefits of time outside, make social connections, and encourage stewardship of our planet.

What does an accessible outdoor space look like? There is a saying that is known in the Autism community, that goes something like, “if you have met one child with Autism, you have met one child with Autism”. Flexibility is important, so with this in mind we have attempted to design a program that would feel welcoming to children with ASD, and their families.

As a first step, we assign staff that are familiar with, and accepting of, children with ASD. We also provide a visual schedule of the day, a flexible transition for arrival time and a complementary parent support person for the program. Finally, we chose times for the program that works for families, who often juggle weekend therapy appointments.

The main goal of the Autism Nature Club program is to get kids moving outside. Most of us are aware of the enormous health impact on children who spend too much time inside, and not enough active time outside. Unfortunately, many competitive outdoor programs can limit participation of children with ASD due to the extreme social expectations of certain sports.  A group hike, on the other hand can open up opportunities for active play, in a non-competitive environment.  In environmental programs, you can challenge both fine and gross motor skills and provide opportunity to expand proprioception and vestibular vocabulary.   For example, during our club meetings we have hiked, climbed over rocks, lay on our bellies for dip netting and shot a bow and arrow.

The Benefits of Nature for ASD

One benefit of outdoor time for a child with ASD is sensory relief. As a parent of an ASD child, I know that the sensory expectations of a day in a classroom (sitting still, eye contact) or a trip to the grocery store (noise, waiting in line, fluorescent lights) can be overwhelming.  When you replace the jostling of mall line-ups with the flutter of leaves in the wind, or the feel of a gravel path beneath your feet, it provides both sensory seeking and sensory avoiding relief.  In our program we have carved pumpkins and made clay figures, roasted marshmallows and simply walked a quiet trail in an effort to provide both sensory calming and stimulating experiences.

Social connections can be challenging for a child with ASD. In our family we have encountered bullying in various forms, such as teasing, or exclusion. Temple Grandin informs us that “Being with people who share your interests, makes socializing easier”. Thus, another goal of the Autism Nature Club is to provide opportunities for social connections. The outdoor environment can encourage growth in language as a child encounters new experiences and objects. In our club I have observed children connecting over dip net discoveries and parents walking in easy conversation. I watched two boys learn how to use a flint stone together, and my own son talking about his favourite animals with a fellow club member.

As someone who has worked in the field of conservation and education for 20 years, I believe that a significant outcome of outdoor education is that it will inspire children to want to participate in the protection of our planet. The environmental challenges we face require the thought and dedication of diverse minds and abilities. Children with ASD, like all children, have the potential to become leaders in our fight against climate change, or to protect species at risk.

A Place & Time Together

Today the forest remains a place where my son and I find time together. We still visit the birds at Mountsberg, but, now he can also tell you about sharks, cetaceans and polar bears.  We hike, swim, canoe and explore forests, meadows and beaches. Recently, we were lucky enough to visit a polar bear or two in Churchill, Manitoba. In fact, my son has transformed his love of animals into a nation-wide campaign to protect our planet against climate change.

As I was writing this article I asked my son what he thought about the Autism Nature Club. I wanted to include his voice in the article, as I try to include him in planning of the Nature Club activities. He told me, “I think it’s good because it helps kids with Autism get to be outside and kids need to be outside”. All kids do need to get outside, and it is up to those that work in the conservation field to ensure that our outdoor spaces include children of all abilities.

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Last modified: September 5, 2017

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