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April is Autism Acceptance Month!

As passionate advocates for accessibility and inclusion for all kids, we see Autism Acceptance Month as a time to celebrate the autism community and champion their inclusion on playgrounds and in outdoor recreation spaces.

A child plays with a musical play panel and speaks into a microphone. Playgrounds play an essential role in childhood development, helping kids learn important social, emotional, and physical skills. Let’s dig into the best ways to build playgrounds so they are havens of joyful exploration for children on the autism spectrum.

Understanding Autism: A Spectrum of Experiences

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a a complex, lifelong developmental condition that typically appears during early childhood and can impact a person’s social skills, communication, relationships, and self-regulation. This condition is on a spectrum, so each person experiences autism differently. Some autistic children may be nonverbal, while others may be highly articulate. Social interaction can be a challenge for some, while others crave interpersonal connection. Sensory processing differences are also common, with many children experiencing sensitivities to sound, touch, light, and taste.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around 1 in every 36 children has autism spectrum disorder. ASD occurs in all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups. ASD is nearly four times more common among boys than girls, according to the CDC.

Unique Needs at Play

We know that play is crucial for a child’s development. Play helps foster social skills, promotes emotional regulation, and supports physical well-being. However, traditional playgrounds can sometimes present challenges for children with ASD (while keeping in mind, again, that autism is a spectrum — not all autistic kids will have the same challenges and unique needs!)

  • Sensory Overload: Many autistic children experience sensory differences. Some studies have found that between 69% and 95% of children with ASD have sensory processing issues. Bright colors, loud noises, and crowded spaces on playgrounds are examples of elements that can overwhelm a child’s senses and cause them to feel stressed, agitated, or upset.
  • Social Interaction: Navigating social cues and the unwritten rules of play can sometimes be hard for autistic children. This can lead to feelings of isolation or frustration.
  • Physical Development: Gross and fine motor skill development may differ for autistic children, affecting things like balance and coordination. This can impact their ability to use certain playground equipment.
  • Elopement Behaviors: Some studies have found that as many as 1 in every 2 autistic children exhibit “elopement behaviors,” or a tendency to wander off. Eloping can create stressful situations for parents and caregivers, and of course, children themselves if they encounter any harm.

5 Ways to Build Inclusive Playgrounds for Kids with ASD

At Pelican Playgrounds, we incorporate several design strategies when working with our customers to ensure playground and outdoor play spaces are accessible, safe, and inclusive for kids with ASD. Of course, playground design isn’t ‘one-size-fits-all.’ That’s why we work 1:1 with our customers to consider their community’s unique needs, so we can create a welcoming play space for everyone.

1. Create Calming Retreats

A young child sits in a Cozy Cocoon with his legs crossed. The Cozy Cocoon is orange and yellow. An adult sits to the child's right, out of frame.

Since sensory processing issues are a common experience for autistic kids, it’s important to offer designated areas that are calm and a little secluded. This will help limit the amount of sensory overload and give autistic children a respite from loud noises, the bright sun, and other kids.

The Cozy Cocoon by Playworld is one of our favorite pieces of playground equipment that fits this need exactly. The Cozy Cocoon is designed for children who need a cozy space to escape to when overstimulated, and the spinning motion and interior tactile experiences can help them relax. The windows on both sides still allow for supervision while the child feels enclosed in the space.

2. Offer Play Areas that Engage Children’s Senses

It’s not only important to create spaces that help reduce sensory overload for kids — we also need to design play spaces that engage children’s different senses. Examples of sensory play elements include water features that provide a gentle flow of water that kids can touch, or musical playground features. We also love incorporating playground pieces that have varied textures to provide different tactile play experiences. The Music Center is one example of a piece of playground equipment that engages a child’s auditory senses.

3. Define Playground Boundaries

Children play on a playground with a blue ground surface. The playground area has a perimeter fence.

Using fencing or landscaping to create a clear play area can provide a sense of security for children who may be prone to wandering off. With our customers, we ensure a playground boundary fence isn’t overly imposing so everyone still feels welcome to come inside the play area.

4. Consider Playground Layout and Color Scheme

When entering a playground space, kids need to feel confident and comfortable enough to explore. That’s why it’s so important to design a playground layout that is easy and intuitive to navigate. One way we do this with our customers is by creating distinct areas that group similar activities together, such as an area dedicated to swinging. You can also consider using the footprint of a playground to create an easy-to-follow path with poured-in-place rubber. This will create a path that children can walk on before they start playing so they can anticipate their surroundings.

Another factor to consider is color: too many bright or clashing colors can cause sensory overload for autistic children. Our in-house design team can help advise you on a color scheme for your playground that avoids excessively busy patterns or decorations.

5. Offer Variety in Play Spaces

Again, playgrounds aren’t one-size-fits-all, and not every piece of play equipment will be interesting for every child. When we design playgrounds, we incorporate a range of activities that cater to different skill levels and abilities to ensure there’s something fun for every kid. From swing sets to slides, to climbing or spinning structures, to balance beams and walking paths, there are so many ways to design playgrounds that offer variety and promote inclusivity, accessibility, and safety.

Two children play together in a sand pit uncovering a play fossil.

Beyond Equipment: Fostering Social Inclusion

While play equipment is important, inclusivity for children on the autism spectrum goes beyond the physical space. Here are some additional ways to promote social interaction at the playground:

  • Inclusive Signage: Use social stories or picture icons to explain playground rules and equipment in an easy-to-understand way.
  • Training for Staff: Educate park staff and volunteers about autism and sensory processing disorders. This will help them recognize signs of overwhelm in children and respond appropriately.

Celebrating Differences Through Play

By creating inclusive playgrounds, we can celebrate the rich diversity of our communities and send a powerful message of acceptance. Imagine a playground where all children, regardless of their abilities, can swing high, climb tall, and experience the pure joy of play. This Autism Acceptance Month, let’s commit to making that vision a reality!

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