Lancaster-Area Sensory Garden Provides Therapy for Autism

sensory-garden-colorful-flowersGardening and caring for flowers can be a relaxing and even therapeutic hobby. For one Lancaster County school, a specially-designed garden is proving to be a helpful therapy tool for supporting local children on the Autism Spectrum.

New Story – a licensed private school in Mountville, PA – provides personalized educational programs for students on the Autism Spectrum or with emotional and behavioral issues. After moving to a new location Hempland Road, the staff began brainstorming new ways to provide therapy and support for their students. One idea that rose to the top was to create a sensory garden.

What is a Sensory Garden?

A sensory garden is an intentionally-designed garden or outdoor area that stimulates the senses. For individuals on the Autism Spectrum or with sensory integration issues, this provides a controlled atmosphere to develop their senses. For many, it is also a safe space where they can go without feeling overwhelmed, helping them hone coping skills and get through the day.

New Story’s sensory garden is divided into 4 sections, each catering to a specific sense:

  • Touch – Here plants have varying textures, including soft, hard, or stiff.
  • Visual – Brightly colored flowers bloom to create a visually-appealing palette.
  • Smell & Taste – Mint, lavender, and various herbs provide rich smells and tastes.
  • Sound – Tall, mature grasses blow in the wind and provide calming sounds.
sensory garden
New Story’s sensory garden under construction in 2016

Creating the Garden

The creator of the school’s sensory garden is Catherine Wayman, MSW, LSW, BCBA, and Director of Learning and Quality. She lives in Mount Joy and is an avid gardener in her spare time, so this project is a perfect blend of her personal and professional passions.

tall grasses sensory garden
Tall grasses provide tactile and auditory feedback to students

All the materials used in New Story’s sensory garden are from JB Hostetter’s greenhouse and garden section. “I appreciated Hostetter’s selection of native, local plants, which would naturally have the best chance of growing in our climate,” said Wayman.

There have been some challenges to creating the sensory garden. The soil at their Mountville property is poor, so it has required new soil and fertilizer to promote healthy growth of the plants. In 2016, the first year they started the garden, pest control was a serious issue, with groundhogs claiming many of the plants.

The sensory garden will take another 2-3 years to mature. When completed, this garden will provide a quiet place for students to relax and de-escalate, becoming an important tool for New Story’s staff as they help students create new stories for their lives.