How can nature help the mental health of children with autism?

How can nature help the mental health of children with autism?

Nature is like a breath of fresh air for our well-being, both for kids and adults. Studies have shown that spending time in nature can lead to more positive emotions and improved mental health. But when it comes to autistic children, not many researchers have looked into the impact of nature on their well-being.

This case study dwells in the importance of studying the use of nature therapies to improve mental health of children with autism.

Mental health and autism

Autism is a complex neurodevelopmental condition, characterized by difficulties with social communication, social interaction, and repetitive behaviors and interests. Recently, researchers have suggested that instead of viewing these difficulties as deficits, it's better to see them as differences.

Autistic individuals often have additional sensory needs and a desire for consistency. They may also have co-occurring conditions such as ADHD.

Unfortunately, autistic individuals are more likely to experience mental health problems and receive less support for them. Improving well-being in this community is a crucial priority for research.

Nature connection in education

Nature-based learning, which involves educational activities in natural spaces, offers numerous benefits.

Studies have shown that instruction in outdoor settings improves academic performance in subjects like science and math, and reduces disruptive behavior. Research on Turkish 5-year-olds who participated in a 10-week outdoor education program showed significant improvements in cognitive, linguistic, social-emotional, and motor skills. However, barriers such as cost, limited space, and adult attitudes can make it difficult to incorporate nature-based activities in schools. Implementing a formal nature-based program with trained professionals may help overcome these obstacles and provide children with an alternative to the traditional classroom environment.

Forest School (FS)

FS is a holistic, child-centered approach that uses the natural world as a tool for constructivist learning. Activities such as fire building, tree climbing, den building, and play are used to engage children and promote learning. FS aims to empower children and level the power dynamic between adults and children in educational settings by providing formally trained leaders who tailor sessions to children's interests. The training process typically takes one year and includes hands-on skills assessment, a written portfolio, and observation of FS sessions. In the UK, the Forest School Association sets standards for the frequency, duration, and location of FS sessions.

Studies have shown that FS offers children a break from traditional indoor instruction, opportunities to build relationships with nature and peers, and opportunities to develop social and physical skills. However, more research is needed to fully understand the benefits of FS, particularly in diverse groups and over longer time periods.

Nature connection for autism

There are several reasons to consider using nature-based learning methods, such as Forest school, to promote well-being in autistic children. Autistic students often face challenges at school, including mental health problems, unmet needs, misunderstandings from staff and peers, and distressing sensory environments. They are also at a higher risk of bullying due to social differences from their peers. School-based interventions aimed at shaping autistic children's social interactions may not always be successful. Research has shown that positive relationships with teachers can have a significant impact on academic outcomes and social-behavioral skills, but autistic students tend to have weaker relationships with their teachers compared to their non-autistic peers. By incorporating nature-based learning methods, such as FS, we can provide a different and more beneficial learning experience for autistic children, which can help to alleviate some of the challenges they face in a traditional school setting.

Specialist schools may provide a positive alternative for some autistic students, as they may be more equipped to incorporate flexible strategies and nature-based programs like FS that align with the students' interests and intrinsic motivation. The Self-Determination Theory (SDT) emphasizes the importance of social and environmental contexts in influencing psychological outcomes, and suggests that factors such as autonomy, relatedness, and competence play a crucial role in an individual's ability to thrive psychologically and motivate themselves. Research has shown that SDT aligns well with various nature-based learning philosophies, and has been proposed to align with the FS approach as well. This is promising as it suggests that when FS is carried out in its true form, it can provide a social context that supports autonomy, competence, and relatedness and thus promotes psychological well-being and intrinsic motivation in autistic children. As SDT is commonly applied to research with autistic individuals, it makes sense to apply it when considering the impact of nature-based learning techniques on autistic children.


Getting back to nature can do wonders for children's well-being, but little is known about how it affects autistic kids. This case study, using self-determination theory, aimed to fill that gap by studying 25 autistic children at a Forest School in England. It found that the Forest School experience offered opportunities for play, autonomy, and skill development. However, it also presented challenges like children running off and peer conflicts. The success of the sessions seemed to depend on sticking to routines and the presence of adults. These findings suggest that self-determination theory can be applied to Forest School to promote well-being in autistic children through autonomy, competence, and social connections.

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