Chelsea and Tatton Park to feature autism-friendly gardens

The RHS Flower Shows at Chelsea and Tatton Park will show ways to optimise parks and gardens to make them more "friendly" for people with autism.

‘The Pro Corda Garden: A Suffolk Retreat' contains a balance of colours. Image: Supplied
‘The Pro Corda Garden: A Suffolk Retreat' contains a balance of colours. Image: Supplied

A Suffolk Retreat

Sutton designer Frederic Whyte aims to showcase autism-friendly gardening at RHS Chelsea next month, with 'The Pro Corda Garden: A Suffolk Retreat', to be built by Living Landscapes.

The garden offers a secluded space with a small summerhouse where children and young people can engage with music. The elements of the garden are made from local materials and by local masters in the age-old crafts of flint work, and pargetting.

 The planting palette of pastel yellows with blue and hints of burgundy is calming, warm and visually stimulating.

The garden will be relocated to Leiston Abbey in Suffolk to benefit children with autism.

Whyte said: "Gardens can be wonderful places for people with autism, either providing a calm and safe retreat or an open, free area for running around and relieving stress – ideally both. Making simple adjustments to your outdoor space and creating a low arousal environment that supports their needs, can greatly benefit their wellbeing."

Spectrum of Genius

Inspired by her 11-year-old autistic son, landscape designer Shea O'Neill, from Cheshire, has similar aims for RHS Tatton in July. O'Neill has designed 'ACE kids: Spectrum of Genius' (pictured below) to demonstrate simple ways to adapt gardens and parks to suit people with autism.

O'Neill has been on a "journey of discovery" since her son Eoghan was diagnosed with high-functioning autism and has found gardening to be one of the simplest but effective ways of helping him.

She said: "For my boy, gardening has been life-changing and I can't recommend it enough to anybody who lives or works with people with autism. Eoghan wasn't a happy little boy, but being in the garden brings him peace, he is happiest in the garden and has been transformed as a result of it."

'Spectrum of Genius' (below) will be a highly-coloured school garden that will provide a calm space for children with additional emotional needs to learn to read. Key features are the pergolas and timber reading room with brightly coloured LED light mood walls, which will create a space to inspire, calm and excite.

Shea O'Neill's Spectrum of Genius garden. Image: Supplied
Quotes from inspiring individuals who may have been on the autism spectrum, such as Yeats and Einstein, will offer inspiration on the walls and within reading spaces.

The sensory space will be inclusive for all children with autism, social and emotional additional needs, and will feature reading pods suspended from the pergolas with space for the children to read to their therapy dog called Mabel. An adaptive, stimulating and calming LED lighting installation will be used as a sensory mood wall within the reading room, moving along a warm to cool light spectrum.

O'Neill's garden will be relocated to Barnton Primary School in Northwich. It is intended to be a quiet, relaxing space, away from the noise and stress of a busy classroom.

Jane Harris, director of external affairs at the National Autistic Society, said: "There are over 700,000 autistic people in the UK, and we know that gardens and gardening can play a very important part in their lives and the lives of their families. Gardens are beautiful, peaceful spaces, which can have a calming effect on children and adults struggling to cope with an overload of information from the hectic and noisy urban environment.

"They are also places of inspiration. Our cultural ambassador, the landscape gardener Alan Gardner, has proved that gardens offer autistic people a chance not just to work but to harness their creativity and to thrive."

Tips for gardens that suit people with autism

Both designers want to raise awareness of the benefits of horticultural therapy for people with autism and show how to incorporate autism-friendly gardening in outdoor spaces. Their tips include:

· Calming scents – people with autism can have acute senses so delicate fragrances from plants like roses, elderflower and jasmine are highly beneficial

· Create a calm zone – people with autism can be sensitive to noise, light, heat or smells. It's important therefore to define an area of the garden as a calm zone

· Add an action-packed area – an area for exercise and letting off steam will provide a positive place to focus energy, if space permits

· Colours and shade – colour is important. Strong bold colours like red and yellow in sunny areas help to stimulate, soft whites and purples in the shaded areas are calming

· All non-toxic – people with autism have a habit of putting things in their mouths so ensure you have no toxic paints, creosote or weed-killers for a safe environment

· Edible flowers – as well as fruit and salad, pretty flowers that can be eaten such as begonias, dahlias and cannas are a must, and no poisonous plants

· Lighting – fluorescent lights are disturbing, use LED lighting – a sensory light wall that changes colour depending on your child's need and mood at the time

· Safe spaces – enclosed, private 'hiding spaces' like pods to read, relax and rock back and forth in comfort help a child with autismfeel safe

· Spark interest – children with autism like logic and reason, so use a variety of planting, with different purposes (e.g. wildflowers for wildlife) so they can make lists

· Herbs to soothe – chamomile, thyme, mint, lemon verbena can be turned into tea which is highly calming for a child with autism

· Introduce structure – think about physical structure of any space that a person with autism occupies: walls, furniture and flooring can all be used to create a calm, structured environment

· Kinetic energy – plants, such as soft grasses, that sway and blow in the wind, can be soothing to people with autism

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