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Author's Name: Clare Alexander
Date: Mon 21 Sep 2020

Benefits of Nature for Children with Autism


There is an allure to the ocean that we all feel, the sounds of the waves as they rise and fall, the fresh breeze that fills your lungs, the mystery of the depths that captures your imagination. The melody of the ocean has long been used to calm a restless or anxious mind or to help us fall asleep. Being on the water is to receive full sensory stimulation, sound, sight, touch, smell and taste; all of the senses are activated and it is this sensory activation that is the subject of several studies looking at the benefits of being in nature for children with Autism.

For children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), sensory integration problems may manifest. Sensory integration is the process the brain undertakes to comprehend, and process information received through the senses. Children with ASD, may present as hyposensitive and hypersensitive across any of the five senses. For a child who is hyposensitive, they may have a dullness or numbness of the senses, a hypersensitive child experiences the senses too acutely.

In either case, for a child with ASD their experience of the world and the way they interact with it will be different from that of other children. This difference, and the way others react to it, can be a great cause of harm and frustration. Flashing lights, loud noise and lots of moving parts may cause stress to a hypersensitive child. A hyposensitive child may seek extra stimulation to ignite their senses by spinning or rocking.

Another impact of ASD is the difference in the way children process social and emotional cues. Play is an important part of development for all children where they learn to engage and interact with each other and the physical world. For a child with ASD, not having the same responsiveness to social feedback, not being able to register patterns of behaviour and the inability to relate to other children can be disruptive to development. Having a safe space where the senses are engaged, and they can explore and discover is highly beneficial. We find this in nature and even more so when sailing.

In Term 1 2020, Making Waves Foundation (MWF) sailed with a total of 589 participants of whom 41% had ASD. As the most prevalent disability that accesses our programs, we have seen firsthand the benefits of sailing for these children, and it is fantastic to see an increase in studies that demonstrate the power of nature for children with ASD.

Nature as a healer

Studies have found that the sound of running water has been linked to positive effects for students, [1] and exposure to the outdoors reduces anxiety and restores cognitive function. For children with ASD, emotional regulation and ability to pay attention are improved after time in nature. “Natural outdoor environments have been shown to reduce stress, enhance emotional resilience, facilitate functional and imaginative play, and support cognitive functioning” [2].

In a study of children with autism participating in outdoor activities [3] seven main benefits were recorded: social interaction, promoting communication, behaviour, emotion, cognition, decreasing autistic sensitivity, and physical activity. The study demonstrated that when the children were engaged in outdoor activities, they had more opportunity for observational ability and review of knowledge gained.  Dynamic landscapes were observed to be more calming to the participants. Agitation was reduced with stimulation of the vestibular sensory system which gives a sense of balance. Activities that caused rocking of the body, something sailing provides, allow for this stimulation. Other benefits included “promoting positive behavior, promoting the ability to accept the changing circumstances, decreasing ritualistic behavior, and reducing agitations”.

Children with ASD report problems like anxiety, learning disorders, dementia, and post-traumatic stress disorder at a rate of between 42% to 96% [4]. The consequences of these problems are keenly felt by both child and their family alike. Offering spaces where children can feel safe, calm, and engaged is so important for development and well-being, and it is why MWF exists.

A place for play

In 2017 Coles Supermarkets introduced Quiet Hour to many of their stores. From a statement released by Coles “During Quiet Hour, customers will notice the following changes in participating Coles supermarkets:
· Lighting will be reduced throughout the store
· Coles Radio will be switched off
· Register and scanner volumes will be reduced to the lowest level
· No trolley collections and roll cages will be removed from the shop floor
· No PA announcements *excluding in case of emergencies
· Free fruit will be offered at customer service
· Additional trained team members will be available to support customers during the hour.”

The Quiet Hour program came into effect because of the known difficulties for people with ASD when shopping; bright lights, constant sound, and loud and unexpected noises. What Coles did is try to create a shopping experience that was closer to the experience of being in nature. Looking at the list of changes made you may notice things that had never occurred to you when you visited a supermarket or other store. Things that seem so ordinary and unremarkable for most people can be the cause of tremendous discomfort for those with ASD.

Providing safe places for play and creativity is a necessary part of designing a world where a child with ASD can grow and thrive. Social interaction and play can support the development of language, confidence, self-esteem and offer a sense of accomplishment [5].

When attending our sailing programs children are noticeably calmer, more attentive, less agitated, and more confident. Each child is given a task on the boat that is both challenging and within their capabilities. As quoted by a teacher who has been bringing students with a range of disabilities on our sailing programs for several years, “when any of these students step onto the boat, there is no expectation of failure. That’s what makes the difference. It is tangible and these students feel it from the crew. There is no expectation of failure and what that results in is that these students rise to the occasion.” Children are supported to experiment, to try new things like pulling on sheets (ropes) and tightening the sails, standing at the helm and steering, tying knots or moving around the boat while in motion and feeling the different sensations from the pit to the bow. The interaction between crew members and participants is heightened by the above-mentioned benefits of being in nature. Children are able to fully embrace the experience of sailing because they are calmed by the rocking of the waves, revived by the feeling of the sun and refreshed with each breeze that moves around them.

Access and barriers to being in nature

It is one thing to acknowledge the benefit of being in nature for children with ASD, however, it is also important to understand the obstacles for parents and carers of these children to access nature. The outdoors provides a variable landscape, and this comes with its own risks, ensuring the safety of every child is of absolute priority. For those living in dense cities, access may be limited due to proximity, especially where a child struggles with long road trips. The current restrictions because of Covid19 add even more limitations to time in nature.

While sailing has its risks, it does provide a closed space completely immersed in nature. Once on the boat and out on the water, there is no where for a child to run off to. Guard rails and an ever-watchful crew keep everyone on board safe. The gentle movement and rocking of the boat encourages stillness in the participants and the provision of jobs and tasks for every participant on board keeps the children engaged. Sailing is a fantastic outdoor activity for children with ASD, giving them the full benefits of being immersed in nature while overcoming the barriers that parents and carers need to consider.

With senses immersed and confidence growing, our volunteer crews have seen stress melt away, screams turn to silence and smiles beam across previously anxious faces. There is a magic that occurs for every child who steps onto a MWF boat and it has been our privilege to facilitate the creation of optimism in the lives of so many over the years. 


As we watch the situation around us continue to unfold, we at Making Waves are waiting with anticipation for the opportunity to resume our sailing programs. We know the value of the work we do for children with ASD and across many other types of disability and are excited to continue this important work; giving people with disabilities or disadvantage the opportunity to connect with nature and test their abilities, allowing them to experience life to the fullest.



[1] H Bakarat, A Bakr, Z El-Sayad 2018 -  Nature as a healer for autistic children. Alexandra Engineering Journal

[2] D Li, L Larsen, Y Yang, L Wang, Y Zhai, W Sullivan - Exposure to nature for children with autism spectrum disorder: Benefits, caveats, and barriers. Health and Place 55

[3] Y Chang, C Chang 2010 – The Benefits of Outdoor Activities for Children with Autism. 16th International Symposium on Society and Resource Management (ISSRM)

[4] M Ramshini, H Karimi, S Hassan Zadeh, G Afrooz, H Hashemi Razini, N Shahrokhian 2018 - The Effect of Family-Centered Nature Therapy on the Sensory Processing of Children with Autism Spectrum. International Journal of of Sport Studies for Health

[5] R Mortimer, M Privopoulos, S Kumar 2014 - The effectiveness of hydrotherapy in the treatment of social and behaviour aspects of children with autism spectrum disorders: a systematic review. Journal of Multidisciplinary Healthcare 7: 93-104

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