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The Green Spectrum: Nurturing Neurodiversity Through Nature Informed Therapy

Young individual relaxing in a hammock amidst tall trees, symbolizing the harmony of Nature Informed Therapy for neurodiverse individuals.
Embracing tranquility: A moment of connection between nature and neurodiversity, showcasing the therapeutic essence of Nature Informed Therapy. Photo by Payton Pan.

Nature Informed Therapy (NIT) can be especially beneficial for neurodiverse clients by unveiling the beauty of nature as a soothing canvas that fosters healing, acceptance, and well-being. In this guide, discover how nature becomes a gentle harbor where diverse minds, including those with autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and other neurological differences, can flourish and connect. Here are some strategies and activities to tailor NIT for neurodiverse populations:

1. Sensory Gardens:

  • Develop sensory gardens with a variety of plants to touch, smell, and see, allowing clients to interact with nature in a multisensory way.

  • Ensure that sensory experiences aren’t overwhelming and are suitable for each individual’s sensitivities.

  • An example of a sensory garden may include aromatic herbs in a box planter. One may even brew herbal tea and place mint or lavender into the tea for the client to taste.

2. Structured Nature Walks:

  • Organize structured nature walks, where each walk has a theme or focus, providing a sense of routine and predictability. Creating a game out of a walk can help the client stay engaged. For example, earning points for each time the client walks across a bridge, knows the name of a plant, sees water, or discovers a patch of moss.

  • Allowing the client to plan and choose the walk including length, direction, and agenda. Perhaps even drawing a map.

3. Mindfulness and Breathing:

  • Implement mindfulness practices focusing on natural elements, helping individuals to ground themselves and manage sensory overload. Here it may be helpful to have the client hold a natural item like a rock to “feel the grounding” sensation.

  • Utilize breathing exercises paired with natural rhythms, like the sound of waves or rustling leaves.

  • Sit-spot: assisting the client in finding a spot outside that they are committed to visiting each day and giving undivided attention and time to nature for at least 10 minutes observing the more-than-human world.

4. Animal-Assisted Activities:

  • Incorporate interactions with animals, which can improve social interaction and reduce stress.

  • Facilitate gentle encounters with animals in natural settings, ensuring the comfort and safety of both the animal and the client.

  • Birdwatching is a great way to start connecting to wildlife. Binoculars and a bird identification guide can make this even more engaging.

6. Music in Nature:

  • Integrate music into the therapy, using natural sounds or simple instruments outdoors. Creating self-made percussion instruments or hand drums can allow the client to add their own sounds. Think tin cans and rice shakers.

  • Explore soundscapes and rhythms that resonate with the natural surroundings.

8. Tailored Nature Exercises:

  • Design physical activities in nature, like yoga or tai chi, modified to be accessible and engaging for neurodiverse clients.

  • Use nature settings to make exercises visually and sensually stimulating but not overwhelming. Keeping in mind that neurodiverse individuals at times struggle with task switching. Therefore, choosing one physical activity that has clear rules and boundaries is preferable.

9. Gardening Activities:

  • Engage in gardening, allowing clients to connect with living things and participate in nurturing activities. An indoor planter box may be a good way to start. Neurodiverse clients often appreciate simplicity and a more controllable environment.

  • Customize gardening tasks to match the abilities and interests of each participant.

10. Technological Integration:

  • Utilize apps or technologies that enhance the nature experience, such as apps for identifying plants or stars.

  • Consider VR nature experiences for those who may find direct nature interaction challenging.

Leveraging these strategies can help to create a therapeutic experience that honors neurodiversity, fosters a connection with nature, and facilitates holistic well-being. No matter your ability level or physical or psychological challenges, there are ways to engage with nature.

Julie Ayers provides tips for family members who are navigating neurodiverse family members:

  • Start small and set reasonable expectations so you and/or your family members can build confidence about being outdoors.

  • Stop fighting truths. Some people hate being outside because of bugs. We needed to stop trying to get them outside and instead figure out ways to help them comfortably access nature in other ways, like on a screened porch.

  • Focus on your and your family member's abilities and strengths and explore how those abilities can translate into experiences in nature, for example:

    • Use a tandem bike or kayak

    • Purchase a screen gazebo tent or build a screened porch so even people with outdoor aversions can benefit from being outside while safe from bugs and sun.

  • Even when it is impossible to get outside, you can bring nature, and its associated joy and wonder, inside. Create and attach paper flowers to a string and tuck them up in the ceiling to create a floating garden.

Planning is key: When you are headed out on an outdoor adventure while dealing with mental challenges. But do not fool yourself that you can plan your way to perfection. Good enough is good enough. Some things to consider are:

  • hydration and nutrition needs

  • cooling aids like cooling cloths or vests

  • sunscreen and bug spray

  • medication doses that may be needed while out

  • selecting parks, sites, and trails to visit that have bathrooms and/or accessible bathrooms. We even purchased a camp toilet to bring along on our adventures.

  • bringing along a hammock to string between trees to take breaks and rest if needed

Tips for Families and Supporters: Navigating the realms of neurodiversity thrives on a foundation of understanding, adjustment, and compassionate support. Tips from Julie Ayers illuminate pathways that cherish abilities, preferences, and the joy of shared experiences.

Embark on a journey through Nature Informed Therapy where diversity flourishes, and the embrace of nature whispers the soft melodies of healing, support, and holistic wellness.

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