Can Urban Forest Settings Influence How Well Children with Autism Manage?

U.S. Forest Service researchers collaborate on unique grant program

Grant Park in Atlanta. Photo by Scott Ehardt, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Grant Park in Atlanta. Photo by Scott Ehardt, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In late July, USDA Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the four recipients of the 2016 USDA Forest Service’s National Urban and Community Forestry Challenge grants. One of the four, the winning proposal from Georgia State University (GSU), investigates the impact of natural environments such as urban and community forests on symptom expression in children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

Brian Barger, research assistant professor at GSU, is principal investigator for the grant, with collaborators from other universities, nongovernmental agencies, and the Forest Service Southern Research Station (SRS). Cassandra Johnson Gaither, project leader of the SRS Integrating Human and Natural Systems unit based in Athens, Georgia, and Annie Hermansen-Baez, SRS science delivery and Kids in the Wood coordinator in the same unit, will provide their expertise in assessment and technology transfer.

“Research results showing the positive effects of managed natural environments such as urban parks and forests on human general and mental health have grown exponentially over the last decade,” said Barger. “Yet no studies to date have explored the effects of these environments on the expression of core and associated symptoms in children with autism spectrum disorders.”

In a unique experimental design, the researchers will combine census block-level data on tree canopy cover from the National Land Cover Database with comparable data from the National Survey of Children’s Health, which includes questions of parents of children with ASD about the severity of ASD symptoms associated with anxiety, intellectual functioning, learning, and attention. Researchers will conduct multiple analyses to explore the association between canopy cover from managed natural environments and the severity of the symptoms of children with ASD reported by parents.

Project researchers will also conduct experimental studies at sites in four different states – Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, and Nebraska – where children with ASD will participate in activities designed to induce cognitive fatigue followed by walks in canopied forests or parks. Cortisol will be measured from the participants’ saliva to provide data on the anxiety and stress levels in the children, and an executive functioning test will follow each full session. Results will be compared with those from the same exercises conducted in non-canopied conditions.

In addition to these exercises, SRS scientist Johnson Gaither will conduct qualitative interviews with parents at the Georgia sites to add data about the participants’ social and physical environment. “We’re particularly interested in the family structure of participating children and their parents’ attitudes towards nature and the managed natural environments we’re studying,” said Johnson Gaither. “We’d like to know if and how parental attitudes influence stress responses in their children.”

The data from the project will be used to provide insights for groups who want to work with children with ASD in managed natural environments. SRS science delivery expert Hermansen-Baez will help develop a “Lessons Learned” document for nature centers, camps and other groups seeking to develop programming for children with autism. The core “Lessons Learned” document and related materials will build on the project’s studies with added insights from nature site staff, research psychologists, special education specialists, and forestry experts towards creating and maintaining the best urban forest and park environments for managing symptoms in ASD children.

“We plan to design a printed booklet with tips for working with children with autism,” said Hermansen-Baez. “These will be distributed at professional meetings, to boards of education and other community-based nature and disability groups, and to local, state, and federal parks. We will also share key findings and recommendations from the study through other youth-friendly outlets such as the Forest Service’s Natural Inquirer, as well as through the partners’ respective communication outlets.”

For more information, email Cassandra Johnson Gaither at cjohnson09@fs.fed.us or Annie Hermansen-Baez at ahermansen@fs.fed.us.

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