A sense of place in garden of delights

Southern Highlands resident Nathan Breen has a form of autism known as Fragile X syndrome, a genetic condition causing intellectual disability and sensory overload.

A group of enthusiastic Diploma and Certificate III in Horticulture students and teachers from TAFE NSW Goulburn, Moss Vale and Yass banded together to create a sensory safe place for 19-year-old Nathan, planning and project-managing the building of a playground and garden.

The dedication of the students has inspired Nathan’s mother, Di Gooch, who acknowledges they gave their skills freely and travelled in their own time, often for more than an hour.

“Nathan’s biggest hurdles are his high levels of anxiety and hypersensitivity,” Ms Gooch said.

“He has heightened senses to the point that touching something soft can feel like razor blades while other forms of touch may give the same sensation as scraping fingernails down a chalkboard.

“The TAFE NSW students have incorporated a variety of different textures in the playground to help lessen the severity of Nathan’s sensory overload.

“When we moved out to the farm five-and-a-half years ago, Nathan couldn’t pick up a chicken because of his sensitivity issues.

“Now he is able to look after the chooks as well as collect their eggs every morning and afternoon. He is a lot calmer, has increased hand-eye coordination, improved posture, as well as developed muscle tone and balance.

“It’s great that Nathan has taken on the responsibility of looking after his sensory playground and gained independence, which are useful life skills for him.”

The students used sand as the soft fall and a combination of other materials including round pebbles, garden mix, leaf litter, grass, soft metal on the fence and wood for the steps.

The plants were chosen to incorporate different fragrances, textures and visual effects, such as movement, to introduce the use of calming colours. This is to ensure Nathan is not over-stimulated.

“Nathan spends a couple of hours in the garden throughout the day and it’s wonderful,” Ms Gooch said.

“I love watching him pick up his smartphone and headphones. Nathan goes outside and sits on his swing, singing at the top of his voice to his tunes. Thank goodness we don’t have close neighbours.”

Sharon Furner, Diploma of Horticulture student at TAFE NSW Goulburn, really enjoyed working on Nathan’s playground as part of her studies.

“The project really took us through all the steps of project management from planning, choosing appropriate materials and plants, the project process, budget considerations and logistics, as well as the legal requirements,” Ms Furner said.

“I learned a lot about planting a garden where the vegetation doesn’t naturally grow.

“It was difficult choosing plants that were suitable for Nathan. Certain colours like red would set him off and we learned which plants we should avoid. Every last detail was important.”