Food gardens have mental health benefits for all

The climate crisis is intrinsically linked to social justice issues. From natural disasters to the burning of fossil fuels and extreme weather events, we are seeing how vulnerable, marginalised communities are and continue to be most impacted by the climate crisis. Autistic individuals are one of the groups vulnerable to climate impacts given that they have typically been marginalised, facing significant discrimination and societal barriers in comparison to others. 

World Mental Health Day is an annual event that takes place on 10 October to raise awareness about mental health issues and care around the world. This year’s theme, “Mental Health in an Unequal World”, highlighted the need for mental health care for all given the unequal access to these services between the “haves” and “have nots”. One of the groups who receive less attention are the autistic community and yet, they deserve as much focus when it comes to both the climate crisis and mental health concerns. 

Recent studies show that spending time outdoors and in nature is considered beneficial for autistic people – it helps them relax by allowing the nervous system to unwind. For instance, working in a vegetable garden has numerous learning and therapeutic benefits for people with autism, including:

  • Teaching cooperation and working with others
  • Creating opportunities for socialisation
  • Providing opportunities to follow instructions
  • Stimulating different sensory experiences and input
  • Providing a calm, quiet space for learning
  • Creating an inclusive environment where everyone can contribute to the activity
  • Learning how to grow food and eating what is grown

The African Climate Reality Project (ACRP) team is passionate about both mental health issues and supporting vulnerable groups to adapt to climate impacts. Between World Mental Health Day on 10 October and World Food Day on 16 October, we had a unique opportunity to combine this passion and put it into practice at Action in Autism  – a non-profit organisation that supports autistic youth in Durban, South Africa – who requested support with establishing food gardens. On Wednesday 13 October, the ACRP team joined Food & Trees for Africa’s Durban team and spent an action-packed morning with 10 young adults on the autism spectrum. 

After talking about companion planting as a principle of permaculture, we braved the Durban heat and were divided into groups to plant beetroot, onion, and cabbage seedlings. Once we finished watering and covering the beds with a bit of mulch, we spent time looking at the seed beds that had been set up in the previous workshop and learning how to nurture the strongest seedlings in preparation for planting them in the food garden. Later on, the youth group had an opportunity to use a zig-zag method to plant butternut seedlings and learn more about how to care for their fruit trees.

Over the course of the morning, we saw firsthand how each activity provided a learning opportunity and a chance for every individual, no matter where they sit on the autism spectrum, to have fun, get involved and get their hands dirty in a beautiful and relaxing garden environment. The day reinforced the importance of creating inclusive and relatable spaces for everyone, but especially the most vulnerable, to play a role in adapting to and mitigating the climate crisis.

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