When designing a playground to include children with autism, you must understand that there is a spectrum of severity and every child is different. Some children have a more moderate type of autism, while others will have more severe symptoms. There are other diagnoses on the spectrum, most commonly Asperger's Disorder and Pervasive Developmental Disorder. Some researchers even put ADHD and ADD on the spectrum. Despite the differences along the spectrum, there are common symptoms between people with autism and one of those is that 95% of people diagnosed on the spectrum have Sensory Processing Disorders.
Dr. A. Jean Ayres is generally credited with developing both a theory of sensory integration dysfunction, now called Sensory Processing Disorder, and the therapeutic interventions for children who have it. Her work emphasizes the importance of three of the senses: tactile (the sense of touch), vestibular (the sense of movement and gravity), and proprioceptive (the sense of how our body works (muscle and joint information).
People with Sensory Processing Disorders maybe hyper-responsive to sensory input meaning they overreact. While other people maybe hypo-responsive to sensory input meaning they under-react. In many people it is a combination of both. This leads us to the fact that every child is an individual. Therefore, just like every other child, children with autism react differently and enjoy different activities on the playground. However, we can take some information about the three senses talked about above and make some general observations of what should go into a playground that actively welcomes children with autism.
1. The playground should be fenced so that when a child feels the need to flee from over-stimulation, he isn't able to leave the area.
2. The playground should include nature: gardens, grassy areas, trees, etc. Recent studies from University of Illinois found that a walk in nature helps children with ADHD stay attentive.
3. The safety surfacing must meet or exceed all guidelines. Children, who do not feel their senses strongly, may want to climb as high as they can go and jump off. The intense fall enables them to feel the impact. They may not recognize the danger so it is important that the safety surfacing material is maintained on a regular basis.
4. There should be quiet areas where a child may go to regroup when she is over stimulated. This quiet area can be made through landscaping or the use of playground equipment, such as a playhouse.
5. The playground equipment should be spaced a little further apart enabling the child to play without touching or being touched by another child.
6. There should be playground equipment that swings, goes around in circles, and enables children to climb and jump. These activities help children with both their vestibular and proprioceptive systems.
7. There should be equipment such as monkey bars where a child can hang. This puts pressure on their muscles and joints and helps to develop the proprioceptive system.
8. Parents who are raising children with autism often talk about how much their children like to slide, so it is important to keep slides in your playground. You might want to include different types of slides since different types of slides often provide different sensory input.
9. For tactile input, sand and water activities work well. You might want to include a very large sandbox, where a child could cover himself with sand. The weight of the sand will calm some children.
10. There should be play activities that the child can do by himself, while keeping out of the major line of traffic. Play panels such as tic-tac -toe, or a marble maze, often can meet this need.
11. Children with autism often need to work on where their body is in space. Crawling through tunnels is a good activity for this. It may be important to have windows in the tunnels for the caregiver to watch and provide assistance if needed.
These are some beginning thoughts for designing a playground for children with autism. But as always when planning a playground it is important to have members of your community involved in the planning. Some people you might want to include on your planning team to ensure you get good feedback on the needs of children with autism are parents (especially parents), Occupational Therapists who specialist in Sensory Processing Disorders, and Physical Therapists. You may also want to find a few children with autism that are willing to give you their input as they are the ones who will be using the playground.
When the needs of children with disabilities are taken into account at the beginning of the design process, you end up with a playground that can be enjoyed by everyone in your community.
Mara Kaplan is a play expert with 15 years experience in play space design and operations. She is currently conducting research on what parents who are raising children with autism want in a playground. Give your input by completing a short survey
Click Here to read more about Mara's thoughts about playground design guidelines for children with disabilities.