Many of us have experienced the transformative powers of nature. The refreshed feeling we get after a walk in the park. The release of stress when breathing in the ocean air. A sense of calm and awe while watching a sunset. The joy of smelling spring flowers.

It turns out the restorative, peaceful, or joyful feelings we get from spending time in nature are not just a coincidence. Whether it’s a walk in the park, gardening, biking, or even looking at nature in photos and videos, nature is good for us. A growing body of research shows that spending time in nature has profound benefits on both mental and physical wellbeing, including decreased stress and anxiety, improved immunity, lower blood pressure, improved focus, and increased experiences of positive emotions. As our friends at The Greater Good Science Center highlight, nature can also make us kinder, happier, and more creative. Spending time in nature is good for our mind, body, and soul. 

Nature’s benefits to wellbeing span all people – including autistic people. For children with ASD, research shows that exposure to nature can provide motor-sensory, emotional, and social benefits (Li et al., 2019). In a New York Times article, Michelle Brans, who directs Counting Butterflies, a therapy center for children, says, “In the natural world, the nervous system has a chance to decompress and restore itself. That’s especially important for autistic kids, because their sensory system can get overloaded a lot quicker.” A 2021 pilot study in the U.K. led by The City of London Corporation’s Nature Learning Programme looked at the impact of immersing children with autism in nature on their education and development. Results of the study demonstrated the profound impact nature can have on children with autism, including significant improvements in happiness and wellbeing, improved communication and social interaction, enhanced ability to do tasks independently, and increased confidence to try new things.

As an outdoor enthusiast and sister to my older brother Tyler, who has autism, I have had the privilege of witnessing the benefits of nature in both of our lives. Tyler has attended summer camp in the Colorado mountains for several years through a program called Ascendigo Autism Services. As the research shows, Ascendigo founder and mom to an autistic son Sallie Bernard believes that exposure to natural environments and recreation in the outdoors can have enormous benefits for those with autism. At Ascendigo, Tyler has learned and participated in adventure sports like rock climbing, hiking, horseback riding, water sports, and more. The outdoors has also been a great avenue for us to connect through common interests: going on hikes together, taking our dog, Kona, on walks outside, shredding the ski slopes together in the winter, and driving through the beautiful Colorado mountains with the windows down. While Tyler might not have the words to share his love of the outdoors, I can see it in his sense of calm and relaxation when he’s doing things in nature. The joy he expresses through a big smile and laugh while tubing behind a boat, the pride he shows after a horseback ride, and the serenity he experiences while skiing down a mountain is contagious – and proof of the importance of nature and spending time outdoors for everyone’s wellbeing. It is clear that nature can promote thriving – for myself, my brother, and people with autism and other disabilities.

Despite the proven benefits of nature, barriers do exist to the outdoors, especially for autistics and those with disabilities. Safety and behavior concerns, lack of accessibility, socioeconomic factors, public perception, and stigma are among several barriers that still exist to access the outdoors and the benefits it provides. There is a need for more funding, systemic and governmental change, and improved infrastructure to increase access to nature so that all individuals can benefit from the great outdoors. 

In today’s fast-paced world, we are more disconnected from nature than ever. We’ve evolved, whether intentionally or by accident, to prioritize indoor activities, our phones and screens, and our careers over outdoor experiences, and our own wellbeing. We are missing out on the mental and physical benefits of the great outdoors. Reconnecting with nature is essential to the wellbeing of both ourselves and the planet. And the benefits of reconnecting with nature extend to people of all backgrounds and abilities, including autistic individuals. 

Today I encourage you to take time – even if just 15 minutes – to spend time in nature. Maybe it’s a quick bike ride around your neighborhood. Maybe it’s asking a coworker to move a meeting to a “walking meeting” outside. Perhaps it’s a quick class brain break to visit the gardens near your school. Little by little you – and your students, family members, and friends with autism –  will start to reap the benefits of the outdoors. 

Everyone – including those with autism – deserves to thrive in the natural world. 

Be well, 

Avery Bell 

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