Every gardener knows, but few can put into words, the incredible magic of working the soil. Under the sun, dirty hands, watching the miracle of a seed become a new life, following in step with Mother Nature’s timeline and reaping the benefits of a season of labor.
According to the American Horticultural Therapy Association, “Horticultural therapy (HT) is a time-proven practice. The therapeutic benefits of garden environments have been documented since ancient times. As a therapeutic option for people with autism, horticulture creates a nonthreatening environment, similar to the effect of music therapy.”
In Staatsburg, NY, one organization is embracing the remedial qualities of horticulture for the betterment of children and adults on the autism spectrum. The result? Lots of joy, smiles and full bellies.
Serving over 500 children and adults on the autism spectrum, the Anderson Center for Autism’s Organic Outcomes program houses three main gar- dens—one on their Staatsburg campus and two at their Rhine- beck and Saugerties IRAs—along with seven others throughout their various LifeLong Learning Centers.
Anderson Center’s chief clinical officer, Dr. Sudi Kash, explains how the organization’s three-year seedling program combines the health benefits of growing, harvesting and preparing fresh produce with a unique and therapeutic sensory experience for individuals with autism.
“Children and adults with autism, as well as those with other developmental disabilities, may have a deficit in their sensory processing systems. Often, one or more senses are either over- or under-reactive to stimulation. At times, such sensory problems may be the underlying explanation for such behaviors as spinning, rocking and hand-flapping,” explains Dr. Kash.
The process affords a calming sensory experience in which participants can see, feel, smell and taste the plants around them, gently stimulating the senses in a safe and comfortable environment and aiding in the exploration of those senses. “Some individuals really enjoy being outdoors, getting involved in the planting and harvesting processes and reaping the benefits of their hard work. They experience a genuine sense of pride in their accomplishments,” adds Division Director of Program Services Kathleen Marshall.
Additionally, the program provides immense health benefits to a population that traditionally suffers from weight gain due to specific medicine regimes. “Some individuals have lost weight with healthy food choices and an increase in physical activity,” says Marshall about Organic Outcomes. The five-day-per-week program runs annually from May to October, beginning with seed germination at Poughkeepsie’s LifeLong Learning Center greenhouse on Violet Avenue. This year’s crop includes sunflower, zucchini, kale, beets, tomato, yellow squash, pumpkin, herbs and cut flowers. Fan favorites are zucchini bread, prepped and baked to share with friends and family, and a haunted trail lined with home-grown pumpkins come Halloween time.
Started with a grant and a vision for healthy opportunity, there is still much to be done, even three years later. “We are considering additional areas individuals can be involved in, using gardening as the ‘vehicle,’ such as packaging herbs, selling fresh herbs to local restaurants and possibly selling products at local farmers’ markets,” concludes Marshall.
Gardening is a chance to notice change; to observe life at its own pace; to learn, explore and discover; and to smile inside, knowing that your own hands bring food to your table and feed friends and loved ones in turn. This is Organic Outcomes.
Anderson Center for Autism is New York’s premier autism treatment and care center. It is a not-for-profit organization located in picturesque Staatsburg, NY, dedicated to providing the highest-quality programs possible for both children and adults with autism. It employs 800 specialists who are expertly trained to diagnose, treat and care for adults and children on the autism spectrum.
For more information about this program, visit their website atwww.andersoncenterforautism.org.