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Autism Awareness In Our Playgrounds

Updated: Sep 10, 2021

Autism awareness month aims to bring awareness to the challenges that people with Autism face every day as well as promoting acceptance and drawing attention to the tens of thousands facing an autism diagnosis each year.  It is a chance for everyone to see how we can help promote inclusion for all and make sure each person diagnosed with Autism has the opportunity to have the highest possible quality of life.

This month Miracle Playsystems would like to highlight ways to design for the needs of children with Autism and their families so they can have a truly inclusive place to play and feel accepted.  Many playgrounds have challenges that make autistic children feel left out, afraid, overwhelmed and worried.  We here at Miracle Playsystems would like to challenge everyone who has a hand in developing play-spaces to make sure “All Inclusive” is a standard, not an after thought.  Playground designers have the chance to help these families have a place to feel welcome, safe and included.  We would like to highlight resources for designers that highlight ways to design for the needs of these children.

Designing for the Senses

We are committed to educating our designers, customers and landscape architects on how to design fully inclusive play environments for schools and communities. Miracle Recreation has produced a brochure that addresses how to design a play environment that stimulates each of the 7 different senses. It is a nice introduction to designing inclusive playgrounds, but much of it focuses on designing for children with Autism.

Autism is very complex.  Some children are non-verbal while others have no problem speaking.  Autistic children often have a hard time socializing and rarely interact successfully with other children in free play situations.  Many autistic children have sensory integration disorders where the noise and commotion at a playground can cause distress and discomfort for the child.  It is important to understand that for children on the Autism spectrum, many have impacts to their vestibular and proprioceptive systems. These are the senses that keep us grounded. Play elements that incorporate movement are critical.  There are ways to make these challenges less noticeable to the Autistic child therefore giving them more freedom to play comfortably and socially interact easier with other children on the playground.  There are many ways to reduce this “Playground Stress” and make a fun environment for all children of all abilities to play happily together.

Principles of Design for Inclusive Play Environments

Inclusive play environments follow seven principles of design to remove the physical and social barriers to all children fully participating in play. Inclusive play environments and equipment are designed for equitable use to (1) Be Fair for all kids; designed for flexibility in use so all kids can (2) Be Included; designed to be simple and intuitive so all kids can (3) Be Smart; designed with perceptible information where all kids can be (4) Be Independent; designed to be tolerant of error to (5) Be Safe for all kids; designed to require low sustained physical effort so all kids can (6) Be Active; and designed with the appropriate size and space for approach and use so all kids can (7) Be Comfortable. (Principles of Inclusive Playground Design. Utah State University. 2010)

We hosted a Design Symposium on “Implementing Sensory Diets and Accessibility in Play Environments” featuring Guest Speaker Chad Kennedy. From that event, we were able to teach our attendees the importance of providing a “well balanced sensory diet” in play environments. What that means, is that a playground should incorporate components that will stimulate each of the seven senses of a child. This helps the development of all children including those on the Autism spectrum. We also learned that a very common danger to children on the Autism spectrum on a playground is that if they often initially feel uncomfortable and need time to acclimate. If there are not spaces within the play environment for them to go until they feel comfortable, they will often hide where they are hard to find or may run into adjacent traffic. Fencing around playgrounds for special needs children is a good idea as well as providing what we refer to as “cozy spaces” for them to go to for comfort and acclimation. These areas should be somewhat enclosed and should be located away from the main path of travel in the play area. Some examples of ideal “cozy spaces” are the cave-like rock structures made by UPC Rocks and Ropes.

The speaker, Chad Kennedy holds a Master’s degree in Landscape Architecture. He is a certified playground safety inspector and is a former employee of the Center for Persons with Disabilities in Logan, Utah and also currently serves as co-chair for ASLA National’s Children’s Outdoor Environments PPN. As an active advocate for socially inclusive and sensory integrated play, he has been involved with award winning socially inclusive playground design as well as with fund raising and educational efforts for many socially inclusive, not just accessible, playground and recreation projects. His articles have been featured in several professional publications and blogs.

For more info on Inclusive Play Environments, the following is an excerpt from Land Connections blog on Inclusive Play Community Series: Socially Inclusive Playgrounds

Touch, Sight and Sound

Sensory stimulation occurs when children explore and discover using touch, sight and sound on the playground.  This exploration uses a child’s cognitive, tactile, visual, auditory, motor, language and social skills.  The tactile system regulates a child’s sense of touch through the receptors of the skin. Touch, visual and auditory senses are closely connected as children play.  Miracle offers touch, sight and sound play components and panels for tactile, auditory and visual stimulation, engaging children with music, sounds, colors, patterns and textures.  Contrasting colors provide visual input while encouraging both cognitive development and imaginative play.  Our sound and music play components allow children to create their own music on the playground, providing sensory stimulation with the different tones produced.

Music Therapy is very effective for individuals with autism and Asperger’s syndrome. Interestingly, many children with autism show a heightened interest in music and while they may be unable to easily communicate verbally, music is an avenue for many autistic people to express themselves and communicate in a non-verbal, non-threatening manner. Playing music puts the individual at ease, allowing for strides in social interactions to follow.

Persussion Play‘s line of instruments called “Duo” is designed with children with autism in mind.  Interestingly, many children with autism show a heightened interest in music. Percussion Play instruments possess qualities of sound and tone irresistible enough to reach a child in a direct, uncomplicated manner.  While many children with autism may be unable to easily communicate verbally with others, music is an avenue for many autistic people to express themselves and communicate in a non-verbal, non-threatening manner. Playing music puts the individual at ease, allowing for strides in social interactions to follow.

The Duo has a curvaceous design that has more meaning than just looking stylish. The wave makes it easier for individuals with limited range of movement, or players in wheelchairs, to reach all of the notes. Eye contact can present difficulty for some people living on the autistic spectrum, with many only able to process one sensory system at a time. The Duo was designed to allow two people to interact and make music together without the need to look directly at each other; allowing them to concentrate entirely on the auditory process, comfortably and in their own space.

Sensory Outdoor Play Equipment

One way to include all children in a playground is through sensory playground equipment. Sensory play equipment takes into account the unique sensory processing needs of children on the autism spectrum or with specific sensory needs, offering them the opportunity to play independently alongside others without getting overwhelmed by the noise and stimulation of a rowdy playground.

Typically, children with sensory processing disorders find it challenging to socialize and play with others, and can often be overwhelmed by sensory inputs such as loud noises. Sensory play equipment is designed specifically for these needs, providing the opportunity to play while still feeling engaged in the playground experience. Miracle Recreation has play panels that are great for sensory play, as they allow these children to explore the fun of the playground on their own – this can provide a soothing play experience for them when they get overwhelmed.  The Sensory Tunnel is a sheltered space for sensory development on the playground.  It’s cozy environment is perfect for some alone time for overstimulated kids or a quiet place to socialize with a friend.  The slides of the Sensory Tunnel include six interactive, manipulative Play Panels that encourage sensory development, problem solving, and cooperation through tactile, proprioceptive, and vestibular input.  The tunnel is open at both ends, allowing children to move through without obstruction and provides visual access for easy supervision.

Miracle Recreation’s sensory playground equipment is designed with the help of Dr. Zoe Mailloux, a pediatric occupational therapist who is highly respected for her knowledge on the importance of play for children, including those on the autism spectrum. Dr. Mailloux helps Miracle design inclusive playgrounds that are exciting and challenging for every child.

Stimulation Through Vestibular Activities

Stimulation through vestibular activities help to develop proper reflexes and can even help to balance a child’s temperament. Play environments should have a variety of moving components that provide different ranges of motion. For example, swings, spinners, and rocking components will each stimulate the vestibular sense in a different way.

SWINGING involves both the vestibular and proprioceptive inputs.  Balance, eye movement, and body position are a big part of the activity.  On the playground, children learn to recognize how their movements affect the speed in which they swing, the timing of the activity, as well as where the body goes as a result of these movements. Miracle offers multiple types of swings to enhance your playground and promote the five elements of play.  The MIRACLE INCLUSIVE SWING SEAT provides a safety harness for children in need of extra security and support.  This snug, supportive seat offers all children a high-flying ride while helping them coordinate head and eye movements, stay upright against gravity, develop balance, equilibrium, and coordinate actions of the right and left sides of the body.

SPINNING involves balance and body positioning while stimulating a child’s sensory and gross motor skills.  The movement experienced in spinning engages the vestibular, proprioceptive and visual senses.  Miracle offers a variety of spinning activities to promote different core movements providing fun and interaction for kids.  The TEN SPIN is built to accommodate up to 10 kids at once, this popular freestanding event allows children of all abilities to join in the fun by either sitting, kneeling, or standing.  The TEN SPIN provides an essential sensory experience that supports child development.  In addition to the benefits of the rotary motion to support balance, the cozy cocoon shaped seats offer postural support providing helpful boundaries for children who need help recognizing and adjusting the position of their bodies.

ROCKING stimulates the vestibular system while also helping to develop muscular tone. The rocking motion helps establish a sense of timing that is stimulating for a child’s sensory system. Miracle offers an assortment of rocking activities for individual and group play for children of all ages.  The inclusive BUDDY ROCKER is powered by super-sturdy springs and kids in motion and is durable enough to accommodate up to 8 children at a time and encourage cooperative play.  The BUDDY ROCKER creates an up-an-down motion, which helps kids learn to balance.  It also encourages cooperative play and helps children develop social skills as they coordinate their actions with other users.

Please click on the links below to find more information that is helpful to individuals and families living with Autism.

We hope this gives you some ideas on how to make your next playground design more inclusive for children with Autism.  We would be happy to help you figure out ways to incorporate these types of play elements into your next “All-Inclusive” playground.  Click on the link below to contact us today!

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