Federal Way's community gardens give youth with autism a place to grow.
Four local students planted potatoes, peas and corn on a recent chilly Monday morning. The structured tasks in gardening — such as planting, maintaining and harvesting — teach the students a routine that suits their sensory needs. (SEE PHOTOS)
Autism affects about 1 in 88 children, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The disorder is characterized by social, behavioral and communication impairments. The cause is unknown, and there is no cure.
The severity of autism varies. However, autism is found in all ethnic and socioeconomic groups. Males are four times more likely than females to have autism.
Children with autism may over-react, or under-react, to stimuli involving touch, sight, sound, taste and smell. Therapists focus on structured activities to help children handle sensory stimuli, all while developing their social and communication skills.
Gardening nurtures these skills while connecting the children with nature.
The community garden at Truman High School in Federal Way is a perfect fit for Jennifer Babcock's students. A special education teacher for 20 years, Babcock presently works with four students with severe autism in a program at Thomas Jefferson High School. For two seasons and counting, her students visit the Truman garden every Monday for short work sessions where they rake, plant or clean up.
"It's just so sensory-rich," Babcock said, watching her four students walk in the garden April 16. "You've got color, you've got smell, you've got taste, you've got all the feelings."
One of those students, Aaron Baker, giggled with glee while weeding a pathway at the garden on Truman's campus, chucking clumps of moss into a wheelbarrow. He didn't want to stop until the job was done. Other students searched for multicolored plastic frogs hidden among the garden's blooming flowers in a task aimed at developing their ability to focus on picking the right thing.
"We're really able to set up a structured routine so they can be successful," Babcock said. "This is just a wonderful place to be able to work on some of those needs."
This summer, volunteers will build an area of the Truman garden specifically for disabled students. The wheelchair-accessible section will contain sensory activities, including a fountain where splashing is encouraged. Parents will be welcome to bring their children to the garden for a calming experience.
"We really want to get it set up so that these kids have a place," said Mike Stanley, executive director and master gardener of the non-profit Federal Way Community Gardens foundation.
The foundation formed in the spring of 2010, one year after the city's flagship community garden opened at the Federal Way Senior Center. Planting at the Truman garden began in April 2011 on a 10,000-square-foot lot near Interstate 5 at South 317th Street. Together, these two gardens generated 15,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables to feed needy residents in 2011.
In total, the foundation is responsible for building seven community gardens in Federal Way — including gardens at Camelot, Enterprise, Green Gables and Nautilus elementary schools, with a design started at Olympic View Elementary School.
April is National Autism Awareness Month. To learn more about local resources, visit Autism Awareness Washington at www.autismawarenesswa.org.
To see photos from a recent outing at Truman High School's community garden, click here.