By: Issy Lovett
One in every 160 children has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Research has found that autistic children are up to five times more likely to have food-related issues, which in turn, can lead to an unhealthy diet and lifestyle. But by encouraging kids with ASD to get out into the garden and grow their own food, their meal-related problems could improve, and they’ll flourish in multiple other ways too.
Great for the Senses
Multiple studies have concluded that between 78 and 90% of children with ASD have sensory processing problems. Sensory sensitivity is connected to food selectivity in children, with many of them having difficulties getting to grips with the texture, taste, smell and the appearance of unfamiliar foods. Getting children with ASD to grow their own produce in the garden is an effective way to overcome these food aversions, as it provides so many opportunities for kids to explore their senses in a calming environment. The smell of freshly-grown tomatoes, for example, will tickle your child’s nose, while leafy vegetables that rustle in the wind are great at stimulating the hearing senses. Fruits and vegetables in varying colors are also an effective way to excite the eyes, so consider growing bell papers, zucchinis, beans and blackberries.
Better Social Skills
Children with autism tend to display socially different behaviors, such as repetitive actions, poor communication, inflexibility, lack of engagement and language difficulties. These behaviors tend to become more noticeable when a child starts school and they don’t show the same interests as other kids. One of the biggest benefits of gardening and growing food is the communication skills that it promotes. As a parent or caregiver teaches a child with ASD how to garden successfully, it encourages the child to ask questions and listen, which will ultimately benefit the child in the greater world. Being giving plants to nurture also helps children to understand the importance of responsibility, which will help them get to grips with what’s expected of them in society and will bolster their relationships with others.
Improves Motor Skills
Research has revealed that the fine motor skills of children with autism are typically one year behind their peers without autism. Meanwhile, their gross motor skills are around six months behind. Both of these sets of skills are crucial for a child’s physical, educational and emotional development, and gardening can help to bolster them. Digging, planting, watering and picking fruit and vegetables all help to fine-tune the motor skills that children use daily, and the more they practice these movements, the better their motor skills will become. These skills can be enhanced further by allowing kids to help wash, peel and chop the food produce they’ve grown themselves.
Encourages Healthy Eating
Sixty-nine percent of parents with an autistic child say that texture plays a role in their child’s food sensitivities. As a result of a texture aversion, autistic children tend to shy away from all mushy foods or all crunchy foods, for example. Getting children with ASD to grow their own food in the garden is an excellent way of helping children to overcome these texture fears while encouraging healthy eating, as many fruit and vegetables have different textures depending on whether they’re eaten raw or cooked. So while an autistic child might shy away from soft, boiled carrots at the dinner table, a crunchy carrot plucked fresh from the ground may be more their thing. Plus, studies have shown that kids who grow their own fruit and vegetables are five times more likely to eat it.
There are many benefits of children with ASD getting out into the garden, getting their hands dirty and growing their own food. This simple activity has the ability to improve a child’s skills, behavior and the way they eat, while providing them with a fun and enjoyable hobby that will interest them for years to come.
Issy Lovett is a full time mom to two girls and a busy writer. She is trying to instill a love of gardening and growing your own produce into her children, and often has them in the kitchen with her to help prep meals and learn about the joys of cooking.