She said it’s worth the extra effort: “For autistic kids, wild nature is a place where they can be themselves without having to conform to the expectations of others — in this world that can be a rare commodity.”
For some people with autism, having quiet time alone in nature can be spiritually transformative, said Gonzalo Bénard, an art-photographer and therapist from Cascais, Portugal. Mr. Bénard did not speak until he was 7. “Autism brought me a wonderful world of silence and introspection,” he said.
As a young man, Mr. Bénard studied the ancient religion of Bon with a shamanic teacher from Tibet. In some traditional cultures, autism has been referred to as “the shaman’s disease,” Mr. Bénard explained, because people on the spectrum were believed to have a heightened access to the inner world and to be natural healers.
He trained himself in yoga and meditation, and spent hours at a time “lying in the woods listening to the Earth,” he said.
“It gave me a deeper connection with nature and also with other people.”
How to help children connect with nature
Dongying Li, an assistant professor at Texas A&M University who studies landscape and health, suggested being flexible and letting children enjoy unstructured play in nature in their own way. “Take advantage of a puddle, a tree, a pocket park or even a photo of a garden, and plan for incremental steps, starting from where you feel most comfortable,” she said.
Other suggestions, which may be adapted as needed:
Allow children to find their safe place in nature, Mr. Bénard suggested. If parents have a backyard or land, build them a wooden house, a safe shelter, where they can go and be silent.
Look around and observe different species, Ms. Laraway said. Families can make a game of it by counting the number of birds or butterflies they see each day.
Let children play freely without being directed, Ms. Galbraith suggested. Allow them to spend ages staring at a tree trunk if that’s what they want to do. Let them have the space and time to experience nature in their own way. If they live far from nature, set up a bird-feeder or windowsill garden.
Plan a trip to a local ranch to pick apples, strawberries, pumpkins or fresh vegetables, Ms. Torres said. They may enjoy scavenger hunts or stargazing. Keep exposing your child to new things so they can find the things that really excite them.