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Impact of Natural Environments on Symptom Expression in Children with Autism


Research Team

Name Name

Principal Investigator: Julia Torquati

Co-Principal Investigators: Anne Schutte

Funding Information

Funding Agency: U.S. Department of Agriculture—Forest Service

Subcontract from: Georgia State University

Award Date: Jul 1, 2017

End Date: Oct 31, 2019


This project is funded by a subcontract from Georgia State University.

There is increasing evidence that outdoor natural, or “green,” environments can be restorative for people. Two key mechanisms have been proposed to explain restoration in natural environments.

First, Attention Restoration Theory (ART) proposes that people have two attentional systems: focused attention, which requires effort and is subject to fatigue, and involuntary attention, or “fascination,” which requires less mental effort and is driven largely by things found intrinsically interesting.

Several studies have reported improved attention and other cognitive functioning in adults and children as a function of nature exposure.

A second mechanism underlying restoration in natural environments is described in Stress Reduction Theory (SRT), which focuses on reduction of physiological stress — for example, reduced blood pressure, increased heart rate variability and decreased cortisol response — and more positive emotion.

It is likely both ART and SRT simultaneously play a role in restoration in nature.

This study examines the impact of a nature walk on symptom severity and cognitive functioning in children diagnosed with autism. Researchers compare the effects of 20-minute nature and urban walks on repetitive behaviors (stereotypy), cortisol changes and executive functioning in autistic children, ages 6-12.

Researchers expect that in the nature condition, children will demonstrate fewer repetitive movements, lower cortisol reactivity and better performance on assessments of executive function compared to the urban condition.

Early Childhood Education and Development, Social, Emotional and Behavioral Well-being

A study participant walks the urban route with researchers.
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