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New Teaching Gardens Inspire Students and Adults at Anderson Center For Autism

Date June 22, 2015

Staatsburg, NY – Getting our fingers in the dirt and smelling fresh herbs that we have grown ourselves is exciting for most of us. For students and adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), gardening is a safe way to experience new sensations, improve motor coordination, achieve specific goals and feel a sense of satisfaction.

Exposing students and adults with ASD to innovative work opportunities is one goal of several new horticulture based initiatives at Anderson Center for Autism. Principal Robert Thomann sees it as something more, “it’s a nice feeling watching all of our 23 classes experience planting, watering and other gardening activities at some point in their day.” Thomann says that Anderson wants “to present students with multiple opportunities to find an occupation or activity that suits their needs.” The Anderson philosophy of LIFELONG LEARNINGSM means that all individuals “have a major say in their self determination.”

Research in occupational therapy supports Thomann’s comments. A recent report states: “Gardening is a therapeutic approach that…incorporates cognitive, physical, and social processes. The American Dietetic Association reports that children who garden eat more fruits and vegetables. Gardening is an activity that also encourages participation in a wide variety of physical exercise, which will improve children’s overall health and wellbeing. In addition, gardening provides an opportunity for children with ASD to develop an occupation that they can participate in throughout their lives.”

Anderson has a small greenhouse and garden area attached to the school on their 100-acre Staatsburg, NY campus. In 2015 their horticulture programs are expanding to include a 27’ x 40’ hoop house on campus that will be covered in plastic this fall. Horticultural Consultant, Stephanie Hertel is helping initiate the project. ACA began researching an expansion of the gardening program by meeting with representatives of the Cornell Cooperative Extension. They have been providing extensive expertise and will continue as a valued Anderson partner.

Stephanie Hertel is a certified herbalist who sees the herb garden as an opportunity to develop a teaching aid for students, “we will keep one bed empty at all times, so that everyone can have the experience of planting.” In addition to herbs, the plan is to grow cut flowers as well, says Hertel. “When students have their family visit, they can enjoy picking flowers together.”

Both “Principal Bob” Thomann and Stephanie Hertel envision using herbs for cooking on campus and Anderson’s cooking demonstrations off campus. ACA will also develop products to sell that will financially support Anderson programs. Initial product will include sauces, dressings and pesto using Anderson-grown basil. Anderson will also sell herbs to restaurants and community Farmers Markets.

Robert Thomann says, “As we move towards day habs without walls, this will be another facet of LIFELONG LEARNINGSM. The Teaching Garden will integrate our individuals into the community, help them with life skills, and develop vocational expertise. Eventually it will create revenue that will help our sustainability. That provides a great outcome for everyone who is involved.”