Nature, autism, and COVID: Exploring perceptions of nature’s relationship with wellbeing in diverse groups

Change log

The benefits of time in nature for wellbeing are numerous and well-documented. However, most of this research has focused on neurotypical individuals and was conducted prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. This thesis is comprised of three UK-based studies and has three main aims: to examine the role that nature played in supporting young children’s wellbeing during the Covid-19 pandemic; to capture the perspectives of autistic adults regarding how their relationships with nature changed during the Covid-19 pandemic and, more generally, how nature supports wellbeing across the life course; and to understand how autistic children experience nature-based learning when led by experienced practitioners amongst autistic peers.

The first study, published in People and Nature, adopts a mixed-methods design to examine open-text responses gathered from 376 UK families who participated in a survey of families with young children conducted in response to the first Covid-19 lockdown in 2020. While psychological connection to nature is known to be associated with both pro-environmental behaviours and wellbeing, there is an urgent need to extend this research to consider impacts from the Covid-19 lockdown period. The aim of this study is to examine whether and how children’s connection to nature changed during this period, to identify the drivers of these changes, and to determine the links between connection to nature and child wellbeing. Qualitative content analysis and quantitative analysis yielded three main findings. First, nearly two thirds of parents reported a change (most typical, an increase) in their child’s connection to nature. Explanations for this increase included having more time, increased enjoyment of nature, and increased awareness or interest in nature. Second, the third of children whose connection to nature decreased during the pandemic displayed increased problems of wellbeing – manifest as either ‘acting out’ or sadness/anxiety. Third, an increase in connection to nature during the pandemic was more evident for children from affluent families than for their less affluent peers. While connecting to nature may be an effective means of promoting child wellbeing, the divergent findings for children from different family backgrounds indicate that efforts to enhance connection to nature should focus on the barriers experienced by children from less affluent families.

Taking advantage of the unique context provided by the Covid-19 pandemic, the second study in the thesis is a qualitative survey study of 127 autistic adults in the UK. Participants were asked to report, through open-text responses, about how nature is related to their wellbeing, how the Covid-19 pandemic changed their relationship with nature, and about their childhood nature experiences. Using reflexive thematic analysis and influenced by both stress reduction theory (Ulrich, 1981) and self-determination theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000), I developed three thematic findings that were pervasive across the life course: nature doesn’t judge, nature to connect, and nature to escape. These themes illustrate the cyclical relationship that many of the autistic participants had with nature: nature was used in childhood to connect with family and friends and in adulthood for social interaction and to relate to the environment; it was also used to escape from unpleasant situations and from the frenzy of modern life. Nature might be an easier space through which to build connection because it is a less judgemental environment – that is, while other people might make nature feel inhospitable through their misunderstandings of autism, nature itself is accepting of autistic people as they are. Two of these themes, nature to connect and nature to escape, were also relevant during the Covid-19 pandemic as people connected with nature during a time of widespread disconnection and used nature to find respite from crowded homes. These results have implications for local governments designing inclusive green spaces, for practitioners who work with autistic people, and for autistic people and their families and carers who may want to seek out nature-based activities to support wellbeing.

One theme from the survey study with autistic adults indicated that a lack of understanding about autism made nature experiences difficult, something that many respondents wished had been different in their childhoods. The third study, published in the Journal of Adventure Education & Outdoor Learning, expands on this and adopts a case study design to investigate the experiences of autistic children participating in Forest School at an autism specialist provision with practitioners trained in working with autistic children. Triangulating data from three months of participant observation, interviews with 10 parents, and interviews with nine autistic children and deductively guided by the framework of self-determination theory, I used reflexive thematic analysis to develop findings to reflect the experiences of these children at Forest School. I found that Forest School provided an exciting opportunity to experience freedom and autonomy while at school. Additionally, children developed relationships with others and with their physical space, used practical skills like fire-building and wood chopping, and engaged with nature, something that was not possible for some of the children at home. Despite these benefits, children’s feelings about Forest School varied with factors like mood and weather. The attitude of adults and the adherence to weekly rituals related to fire, food, and play showed a strong influence over how smoothly sessions ran. These findings should inform the training required of Forest School practitioners to ensure they are able to provide autonomy, competence, and relatedness-supportive environments for autistic learners.

Taken together, these three studies provide a clearer picture of how nature can be used to support wellbeing in diverse groups. Theoretically, the findings of this thesis provide support for the extension of stress reduction theory to help explain how nature might be related to young children’s and autistic adults’ wellbeing. Additionally, the findings lend support for the application of self-determination theory to the Forest School ethos, particularly when working with autistic children. This thesis has implications for practice as well, illustrating a clear need to provide updated training about autism to nature-based practitioners who may interact with autistic children and to address the inequalities in opportunities available to connect to nature for less affluent children. Empirically, this thesis contributes much-needed evidence around the understanding of autistic experiences in nature and addresses the gap that exists at the intersection of these topics. It also capitalises on the novel context of the Covid-19 pandemic to demonstrate the beneficial relationship that nature has with child wellbeing while illustrating the decreased likelihood that children from less affluent families will experience these benefits.

Hughes, Claire
Gibson, Jenny
autism, nature, self-determination theory, forest school, wellbeing
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge