Wilmot Gardens receives grant for therapeutic horticulture program aimed at individuals with autism spectrum disorder

The Wilmot Gardens therapeutic horticulture program received a $25,000 grant from the Walmart Foundation in September to fund new programming for individuals with autism spectrum disorder.

This initiative creates job readiness for those with autism spectrum disorder by using the therapeutic horticulture model as its training vehicle. Participants of the program learn communication skills, working within a schedule and completing tasks like preparing soil, planting seeds and using plants to create arts and crafts.

Leah Diehl, director of the Wilmot Gardens therapeutic horticulture program, said participants of the program, who are 22 years of age and older, meet twice a week for 90-minute sessions.

“The goal is that every participant has a sense of ownership over this space. The more they’re involved with every step of the process, the more they’re going to feel they belong,” she said. “This is an important part of self-efficacy. Their work is meaningful, and it’s something society values.”

Horticultural therapy - UF Wilmot GardensAnn-Marie Orlando, Ph.D., a research assistant professor with the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities, recruits participants and student volunteers alike for this program, as well as educates the volunteer master gardeners on the most effective means of communication with individuals with autism spectrum disorder. She says the greenhouse at Wilmot Gardens provides the ideal working environment for her constituents.

“Individuals with autism experience sensory reactivity. They can have a reaction to sensory stimuli, like noise,” she said. “The greenhouse is a place where it’s quiet, and it feels a little protected.”

C. Craig Tisher, M.D., professor emeritus and former dean of the UF College of Medicine, said this $25,000 grant, along with a similarly sized donation from the B.J. and Eve Wilder Family Foundation, provides great support for this program.

“We were very pleased to get funding from this organization specifically directed toward working with young people with autism. This provides salary support and funds to purchase gardening supplies,” he said. “Between these two gifts, we have close to $50,000. We can get serious about putting on a first-rate program.”

Diehl said this grant from the Walmart Foundation edges the program closer toward its goal of creating specific job-placement programming for young adults with autism spectrum disorder.

“Right now, we do not receive financial support from the university for the autism initiative. Everything has been made possible through private donation or grant. This grant gives us a nice foundation to move forward with this job readiness program. We hope that it will also lead to additional grants,” she said.

For more information about the program, to volunteer or to sign up a participant, contact Leah Diehl at elizabeth.diehl@medicine.ufl.edu or 352-294-5003.