For several years I have been following Karthikeyan’s Vijayakumar, founder of Horticultural Therapy Healing Centre (HTHC) in Bangalore, India, work in India offering horticultural therapy programs for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and children with special needs. As many of us are doing in other parts of the world, Karthikeyan is raising awareness in India on the many benefits horticultural therapy programs have for many population groups.
I want to share with you his valuable experience with children with autism. (Introduction by Daniela Silva-Rodriguez)
When we see a child nurturing a plant we feel moved, and when an extraordinary child (Autistic), nurtures a plant, it is magical! I have been working with special-children since 2010, mainly autistic children. I have experienced this magic many times when I see an autistic child nurturing a plant as if it were another child or a friend, it leaves you speechless! That is another reason why I love plants more and more nowadays.
When working with the elderly, especially those who do not have any nature connection, we need to teach them how to approach a plant. But with children teaching is not necessary, they learn by themselves. Once the bond is created, everything happens automatically. They talk to the plant, share their emotions with them, play with plants, and start considering the plants not as objects but as living creatures, and relate with them as with a friend. Yes, they do all this without any training. Gardening activities restore happiness in their life.
In my horticultural therapy practice I use many tips and tricks with these children, they work great with them. When a child starts showing aggression, soil-related activities such as making “soil truffles” helps me calm them. Sometimes smell can be used to distract the mind, or watering a plant with a diffuser. They learn about empathy by caring for a plant. A very important issue when working with autistic children is to design activities according to their needs.
Most children, disregarding age or ability, likes to play in the mud. But unfortunately, many parents do not allow them to play with mud. Their major concern is that their child could get an infection or a disease. Part of my work with parents is to talk to them about the proven benefits of playing with mud. I find that playing with mud is one of the best exercises for children, especially autistic, to restore their peace of mind and stimulate their senses.
It is easy to train a child, who has a bond with nature, in areas such as communication skills, life skills, cognitive skills, and sensory skills. Children are always curious to know what is happening to their surroundings. Even if they don’t make eye contact with you, their observation skills are pretty sharp. They can observe each and every small change happening in them. This is why they have immediate reactions. Sometimes we can’t figure out why they are getting irritated or aggressive or having tantrums. These are all sensory issues, which can be controlled or reduced by exposing the child to the outdoors on a regular basis. Whenever they are outdoors, all their senses awake, they will start adjusting themselves with an unusual noise, or fragrance, or texture, or taste or any other natural stimulants. In this way they will gradually control their emotions in their day-to-day life.
I would like to share some interesting cases:
CASE 1: One of my children with autism had trouble with his fine-motor skills. His hand-grip was very poor, he could not fold his fingers properly. We started providing sponges for watering the plants (physiotherapy adaptation). He enjoyed the activity so much that he was willing to repeat it in every session. After a few sessions, we noticed that his motor skills were much better than when he started. He started holding things with his hands like a pen, spoon for eating, brush for painting, and a pencil for drawing. Nowadays he is a child with lots of enthusiasm and curiosity.
CASE 2: An eight-year-old boy with autism, who always wanted to be outdoors. He loved to do all kinds of gardening activities. The first time he came to our center, he wanted to run around the garden to do whatever he wanted. He smelled flowers, picked leaves, watered plants, removed weeds, potted plants and many other chores. He showed his love towards animals and was very talented drawing them. His skills were enhanced whenever he was outdoors more than indoors, as well as his behavior.
CASE 3: Another 17 year-old boy with autism, non-verbal, with serious sensory issues and aggressive behavior. We could not predict when he would loose control of his emotions. We started with olfactory stimulation, but it didn’t make much of an impact on him. Then we tried soil-related activities like soil mixing, media preparation, and soil loosening. He loved it. Those activities helped him gain control over his emotions and calmed him. He was very happy doing those activities to the point were he even started to murmur sounds and letters. Nature’s magic works for everyone!
CASE 4: A 16 year-old boy with autism and ADHD, with aggressive behavior. His mother told me that every day, at around 1 pm, he became violent. This happened during prayer time in a nearby mosque. She believed this was happening because of some ghost scourge. I tried to explain to her that those violent episodes were sensory issues related to his Autism Spectrum Disorder. But she was not ready to listen to me. I asked the mother to bring his son at the same time every day and I promised her I would take good care of him. The plan for the first session was as follows: Set a video recorder and provide horticultural therapy activities one after the other, expecting he would have a violent outburst.
Close to our office is a mosque where prayers start at 12.45 pm. When prayers started, the boy was so focused on the HT activities he was engaged in that he did not “hear” the prayers! That was one of the best sessions I had with that boy. When I showed the video to his parents they were shocked to see his engagement in HT activities without experiencing violent outbursts.
After so many years working with this population group it has become clear to me the importance of designing a specific program for each autistic child. Just engaging them in gardening activities does not give you good results. It is a combination of several factors that produce changes like: empathy, attitude, as well as the approach we have towards plants.
My HT program for this population group is the following:
- Initial assessment
- Meeting with parents to explain the scope of the treatment plan
- Goal identification
- Selection of suitable assessment scales and frequency of assessments
- Design a specific program
- Program implementation
Horticultural Therapy can do wonders for these children! We help them connect with plants and nature, create a bond between them, and give them permanent support with the specific activities designed for them.
The three main areas in which horticultural therapists working with this population group should focus are:
All gardening activities should include at least one of these focus areas.
Our horticultural therapy program for children with special needs considers three phases:
- Therapeutic phase: Focused on physical enhancement and mental fitness
- Social Phase: Promotion of social interaction and communication
- Vocational phase: Vocational skills-based training in horticulture
When a special child joins our program, he/she will go through all these phases. After the initial assessment, the child will start the therapeutic phase. In this phase, we address all the physical and mental issues the child is facing. Using various horticultural therapy activities as facilitators, we help the child control his/her physical, social, emotional, psychological and communication difficulties. Once they can handle their issues, they will move to the social phase. In this phase activities mainly focus on improving their social interaction and communication. The child participates in group activities and discussions. Once they feel comfortable with social interaction they move to the vocational phase. In this final phase the child will choose one or two horticultural skills in which they would like to master.
Every autistic child has his/her own areas of interest. It is our role as horticultural therapists to find out which are those areas of interest for each child, nurture them and help them master them, promoting independence and autonomy. If we have a child who does not like gardening or horticulture, we can teach them to use horticulture/gardening or nature-connection as relaxation strategies. So whenever they need support, they will consider plants as their best friends!
- Founder of Horticultural Therapy Healing Centre (HTHC), Bangalore, India.
- BS degree in Biotechnology from M.S. University, Tamil Nadu, India
- Master’s degree in Biostatistics from M. G. University, Kerala India.
- Horticultural Therapy expert. Conducted a Horticultural Therapy project at Kerala Agricultural University as a Research Associate
- In 2010 he started a Horticultural Therapy Program for mentally and physically challenged children in various schools in Kerala, India.
- 2018 –Founded the Horticultural Therapy Healing Center (HTHC) – focused on training professionals in horticultural therapy and serving various population groups through HT
- Book: “Herbal Gardening Heals: A manual for Horticulture Therapists” – 2006 – Foundation for Revitalisation of Local Health Tradition (FRLHT), Bangalore, India
- Research papers:
- Title of Article: “Smell as an Emotional Stimulant in Horticultural Therapy: Lessons from Activities Conducted for Orphanage Children in Bangalore” – 2017 – The International Journal of Indian Psychology
- Title of Article: “Horticultural Therapy Activities Reduce Stress Levels: Lessons from Activities Conducted For Adults in Bangalore“ – 2018 – International Journal of Science and Research (IJSR)