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How Horticultural Therapy Can Help Kids With Autism (And Everyone)

A blue sky, green leaves, rich soil – they aren’t just life’s simplest pleasures.

Horticultural therapy is a type of therapeutic treatment focused around caring for and nourishing plants. Under a trained therapist, it can be done anywhere: in a home garden or at a window sill with potted plants. It dates back to the 19th century, when Dr Benjamin Rush observed and documented the progress of individuals with mental illness who worked in close proximity to plants, in fields or in farms.

Today, horticultural therapy is used to treat a variety of conditions, from everyday stress, to dementia, to post-traumatic stress disorder. The act of tending to plants — sowing seeds, watering, pulling weeds, digging in soil — is thought to nourish both mind and body.

The application of gardening to medical treatment is not without medical support: In 2007, a study found a link between exposure to healthy bacteria in soil and healthy production of the brain chemical serotonin, low levels of which cause depression.

Bangalore, with its lush gardens, space and temperate climate, is the ideal home for horticulture therapy. And it is here that horticulture therapy is being used in a novel way. At the ASHA Centre of Autism, children are asked to dig in the soil, fill pots with mud, write or draw on a flower bed, plant seeds, water plants, make patterns from dried leaves, create bouquets and participate in other activities that engage touch, vision and smell. These activities have been carefully designed, says Shaila Hegde, a psychologist and horticultural therapist at the Centre, to enhance the sensory perception of the children, who often struggle to process sights, sounds, and smells.

“Any holistic therapy that engages an autistic child in one-one interaction and enhances their sensory stimulation aids in their progress,” says Dr Dheep, child and adolescent psychiatrist and the Founder of Top Kids, a holistic personality development and counselling centre in Madurai. “Horticultural therapy has been effective in achieving this.”

Parents of the children agree.

When Aditya Menon, 7, first began therapy last year, he seemed completely uninterested, remembers his mother, Divya Menon. He also seemed overwhelmed: When given 32 seeds and asked to plant them precisely across four rows of eight pots Aditya had trouble.

“At first, he found it difficult to plant even one row,” Divya says.

Her son had always had a very limited attention span. It wasn’t something she expected to change. But, over time, it did.

“He can now plant three rows at a stretch,” she says.

Aditya’s development isn’t limited to the garden. Divya has also noticed her son now concentrates for longer stretches during non-gardening activities as well and responds better to verbal cues – a drastic improvement, she says.

Hegde says this kind of development is just what the Centre’s programme aims for. But it isn’t its only benefit.

“The therapy offers many physical benefits as well,” Hegde says. “I have noticed marked improvements in body balance, fine motor and gross motor skills, bending, grip, eye-hand coordination, stretching.”

These physical benefits are what make horticulture therapy helpful to people without special needs, too.

Karthikeyan, a horticultural therapist at Arty Plantz, a Bangalore-based company that offers landscaping services and garden construction for homes, schools and companies, says regardless of age, horticultural therapy has the potential to enhance people’s quality of life.

“Working with plants helps us release pent-up anger and frustration,” says Karthikeyan. “You learn to re-channel anxiety and stress in a more positive way.”

While horticulture therapy should be undertaken under the supervision of a trained therapist, says Karthikeyan, tending plants on your own – whether in a home garden or in pots on a terrace — can be a quick mood lifter. Karthikeyan recommends planting local varieties of seeds that grow quickly — such as chilli, cucumbers, mustard and eggplant – because it is motivating to see the fruits of labour without much ado.

“The emotional benefits of horticultural therapy have much to do with it being a tactile experience as well,” he says. “Touching the soil, pruning the weeds, appreciating the fragrance and brilliant colours of flowers, all this can transform a bad mood instantly.”

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