How to Create a Sensory Garden for People with Autism

Apollo, a butterfly raised from a caterpillar, rests on Kat Kennedy's hand (Kat raised Apollo)

If you’re looking for an environment that’s soothing, skill-building, and stimulating all at once, look no further than sensory gardens. A sensory garden is a calming refuge for anyone, but its sensory stimulation is especially beneficial to people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). 

In this guide to creating a sensory garden for people with autism, we’ll cover:

What is a sensory garden?
What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?
Personalizing your garden design
9 sensory garden ideas

  1. Butterfly garden
  2. Shade structures
  3. Visual cues
  4. Sensory specific zones
  5. Nature trail
  6. Reduced sensory areas
  7. Seating
  8. Music wall
  9. Low-maintenance edible garden

Plants for sensory gardens
Benefits of a sensory garden for people with ASD

What is a sensory garden?

A regular garden may stimulate your senses, but a sensory garden is a carefully designed, immersive space that makes sure to hit sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch. It also can strengthen the sixth and seventh senses: proprioception (your sense of your body in space) and the vestibular sense (your understanding of balance and movement). 

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) manifests in many different ways — hence the “spectrum” part of the title — but is often characterized by sensory sensitivities and different ways of socializing and communicating. People with sensory processing disorders like ASD either fail to respond to sensory input or are quickly overwhelmed by even subtle stimuli. 

Personalizing your garden design

As anyone familiar with ASD knows, not everyone with autism is alike. While our tips are appropriate for most, it’s always good to keep in mind who will be enjoying your particular garden and if they tend to be under-responsive or over-responsive. 

Under-responsive people can benefit from extra stimulation like bright colors, sprinklers to run through, and motion-sensory lights. Over-responsive people can benefit from predictable patterns, soothing textures, and plants arranged by similar size and height. 

9 sensory garden ideas for people with autism

1. Butterfly garden

A butterfly garden is a great opportunity to incorporate gentle wildlife. People can sit on a bench and watch the butterflies move from one flower to another, or more active autistic children may enjoy chasing them around the space. 

Butterfly gardens cover several senses at once — plants that attract winged creatures tend to be showy, colorful, and sometimes fragrant. Native plants are also your best bet for welcoming butterflies and happen to be lower maintenance than non-native plants.

Plants to include in a butterfly garden:

  • Bee balm 
  • New England aster
  • Purple coneflower
  • Tall blazing star
  • Texas lantana
  • Butterfly weed*

*Make sure you’re choosing native butterfly weed. Imported cultivars can actually harm monarch butterflies. 

2. Shade structures

Harsh sunlight can be draining for people with sensory issues. The solution? Include shade structures that provide respite from the sun while still making sure plants get the light they need. 

A canopy or patio with a solid roof is great for providing heavy shade over a seating area. Planting trees with wide spreads like aspens, oaks, and American sweetgum ensures dappled shade for a garden. You also can weave vines atop a pergola to create another area of partial shade. 

3. Visual cues

Visual cues like physical boundaries and signage with pictures are easy ways for people with sensory processing disorders to orient themselves in the space. Visual boundaries signal a change in the environment, allowing visitors to prepare for a shift in sensory experiences.

Ideas for visual boundaries:

  • Semi-circle of bricks set into the ground
  • Trellis or pergola at the entrance to a new space
  • Rain wall for a playful transition between areas
  • Shrubs pruned to create a doorway 

Picture exchange communication system (PECS) is a common technique for people with autism to communicate without talking. Signs with pictures at entry points to play areas or gardens are in the same spirit. 

4. Sensory specific zones

When designing your landscape, section it off into specific sensory “zones.” These are areas that have a designated sense or activity. A butterfly garden, for example, could act as a zone. That way, visitors know what they’re walking into and can focus on one sense or activity at a time instead of being overwhelmed by too many triggers. 

Other zones might include:

  • A water play area with water features like fountains, a rain wall, a pond, or sprinklers to run through.
  • A scent zone with especially fragrant herbs and vines like honeysuckle and jasmine. 
  • An edible garden for a zone to explore taste.
  • A keyhole garden with bird feeders and plants that attract birds as a bird watching area. 

Incorporate the visual cues in Step 3 to let visitors know what they’re walking into and help them identify their favorite spaces.

5. Nature trail

Including a nature trail is a great way to foster a sense of adventure and build skills with small obstacles. A nature trail doesn’t have to be anything special — it’s simply a path that isn’t well manicured. You can place a log somewhere to climb over and pebbles and rocks to gather. 

Not only is a natural pathway good for play, navigating it helps strengthen balancing skills, motor skills, and proprioception (our sense of where we are in physical space), qualities that are sometimes weaker in people with sensory processing issues.

6. Reduced sensory areas

Areas with little stimulation are just as important as areas of extra sensory stimulation. These act as places of refuge for guests; a quiet space to retreat to when things get too intense is key to creating a healthy experience. 

These spaces should be soothing to the eye and offer privacy. A bamboo tunnel is the perfect dark space where someone can be alone. A low-growing tree also offers the opportunity to be shrouded from stimuli. 

7. Seating

Adding sensory stimulating elements is key, but you need places to enjoy them! Don’t forget to add seating to areas where you want to spend time. A bench in a fragrant keyhole garden, for example, is the perfect way to notice the details of the scents. 

You can get creative with seating. Smooth rocks are great tactile objects as well as seats. A swing or rocking chair can be especially calming and help strengthen the vestibular system (balance). 

8. Music wall

A music wall is a fantastic way to have fun with your sense of sound, creativity, and collaboration. It’s a dedicated wall with instruments and sound makers attached, like wind chimes, maracas, drums, bells, and flutes. You also can include pots and pans, buckets, and ridged PVC pipes to run sticks along. 

You can use a wooden slatted fence as the base for a DIY music wall. Incorporate different colors to stimulate sight as well, and make sure to have a dedicated basket for drumsticks, other equipment, and moveable parts. 

9. Low-maintenance edible garden

Being responsible for growing something is extremely therapeutic and fosters new skills, confidence, responsibility, and casual socialization. Install a small raised garden bed for easy access for people with physical disabilities and fill it with easy-to-grow plants. Edible plants offer a tasty reward, and many household herbs are simple to care for. 

Edible plants to try:

  • Mint
  • Basil
  • Chives
  • Tomatoes
  • Peppers
  • Wild strawberries
  • Zucchini  

Tips for keeping your edible garden healthy:

  • Place your garden in direct sunlight
  • Use organic, rich soil to fill your raised beds
  • Keep plants moist as they’re growing
  • Use neem oil or beneficial nematodes to fight pests

Plants for a sensory garden

When creating your sensory garden and choosing your plants, it’s easiest to go through each sense to make sure you’re covering everything. 


  • Trees with bright berries like elderberry and hollies
  • Flowers that attract butterflies like bee balm, native butterfly weed, and purple coneflower
  • Showy blooms like zinnias, yarrow, and phlox
  • Trees with peeling bark like birch, silver maple, and crape-myrtle


  • Vines like jasmine and wisteria
  • Herbs like lavender, sage, and mint
  • Fragrant shrubs like roses and gardenia


  • Plants that produce rustling noises like aspens and ornamental grass
  • Shrubs and trees with berries that attract birds to your yard, including winterberry and inkberry 
  • Shrubs and trees that offer shelter to birds like dogwoods and oaks


  • Fruits like tomatoes, blueberries, and strawberries
  • Edible flowers like nasturtiums and pansies
  • Tasty herbs like chives, parsley, and oregano 


  • Plants with different textures like lamb’s ear and sage
  • Moss for a cool, soothing surface
  • Succulent ground cover like blue stonecrop

Benefits of a sensory garden for people with ASD

Sensory gardens have all kinds of benefits for people with ASD. As noted in reference to the Els Center of Excellence’s sensory garden, they “provide opportunity and choice for everyone to engage with nature on their own terms, in their own way, and at their own pace.”

A few of the benefits of sensory gardens include:

  • Play skills
  • Sensory integration
  • Stress reduction
  • Increased creativity
  • Promoting collaborative skills
  • Vitamin D boost 
  • Increased agility and coordination 

Garden with a pro 

If you like the idea of a sensory garden but aren’t sure how to get started on your own, hire a professional landscaping team. They’ll help bring your vision to life with hardscaping design and plant installation. If you need general lawn maintenance like weekly mowing and edging, a Lawn Love pro can keep your yard green.

Main Photo Credit: Kat Kennedy

Rachel Abrams

Born and raised in Gainesville, Florida, Rachel Abrams studied creative writing at the University of Virginia. She enjoys volunteering at her neighborhood community garden and growing herbs in her New York City apartment.