How to Create a Garden for People With Intellectual Disabilities

By Brenda Stuart, Special Olympics Colorado Parent

“Mom, when can we go swimming again?”
“Can we go to a movie?”
“When can I play basketball again with my friends?”

These are all questions my son, Jack, has asked repeatedly over the past year. Like everyone else, he’s tired of social distancing and eager to get outdoors.

We found our respite in the garden. But as any parent of a child with a disability knows, we had to make some modifications. Thanks to my son’s help, I learned how to create the perfect garden for people with special needs.

Sensory Needs


With so many sights and sounds, the backyard can sometimes be overwhelming for people on the autism spectrum. It’s tough enough to teach them to be safe in the garden, without the distractions of surrounding traffic and neighborhood noise. A fountain or whirling birdbath is perfect for drowning out background noise. The sound of rushing water also has a calming effect.


A sensory-friendly garden and yard also includes colorful plants that keep his attention. When choosing flowers, we stay away from roses because of the thorns (one mishap, and gardening would lose its appeal).
Some favorites that attract butterflies include the Colorado Blue Columbine and the Giant Goldenrod.

Patterns are another attraction in a sensory garden. When planting vegetables, I let my son line up the radishes, carrots, and peppers in rows. His world seems to make more sense when everything is structured just right.


The garden is full of different textures such as bark, mulch, dirt, and soft flowers. Often, these textures have a soothing effect. This is one of the few places we encourage people to get dirty. Research shows digging in the dirt can lift your mood. The soil contains microbes, which, when inhaled, can stimulate serotonin production, which is the hormone that makes you relaxed and happy.


While aromas such as peppermint and lemon balm can enhance the gardening experience, I caution against planting anything too pungent. We learned the hard way that skunk cabbage and Shasta daisies are a no-no. The strong scents turn Jack away from the garden.


Choose fruits and vegetables that are appealing. Maybe it’s the pride of planting vegetables himself, but before gardening, I could never get my son to try some of the healthier veggies. Now Jack will offer everyone a fresh salad every night.

The Benefits of Gardening

Digging in the dirt, lining up vegetables, seeing the colors, and hearing the sounds of water — the garden is Jack’s happy place.

Sure, it’s easier to buy more video games and movies to keep Jack active, but too much screen time is bad for any kid, let alone one with special needs. People on the autism spectrum have a higher risk of obesity if not encouraged to get outdoors. While we wait for Jack’s favorite sports to resume, he can still burn calories, and get a healthy dose of sunshine and vitamin D in the backyard.

Jack may have an intellectual disability, but he’s ready, willing, and able to garden.

Brenda Stuart is a Denver journalist and frequent volunteer with Special Olympics Colorado. Her son’s favorite activities are swimming, basketball and special events like Tip-a-Cop and the Polar Plunge…and of course, gardening.

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