SOPHIE GRUBB talks to the founder of a garden project that is helping people with autism
SMILING in the sunshine, Floortje van der Ven snips the stalks of a fragrant bunch of wallflowers.
Their petals create a rich carpet of red at her workplace in Wytham, demanding attention in spite of the species’ name.
The word ‘wallflower’ has become synonymous with someone who is shy and sidelined during social activities: traits sometimes related to the autistic spectrum.
Ms van der Ven is familiar with these characteristics, having become something of an expert on autism after her adoptive sons were both diagnosed with the condition.
The 51-year-old, who lives on a narrowboat in North Oxford, co-founded a community interest company in 2015 to help autistic people hop onto the career ladder.
Her venture Into the Garden offers a peaceful place for people with autism, Asperger syndrome and other disabilities to learn life lessons alongside horticulture at their own pace.
The current project sees students – or ‘co-gardeners’ – pay for work experience to prune, plant and generally perk up the garden at FAI Farms.
Ms van der Ven and her business partner Andrea Leen teach them skills from teamwork to trowelling, currently on a voluntary basis, alongside support worker Alison Turner.
Ms van der Ven said: “I like doing activities with people on the spectrum, I don’t like being in the classroom. Whatever the weather, it’s rare that we spend a day inside. We have a big polytunnel with a heater
“Because people with autism find it hard to generalise things, transferring skills to situations outside of the classroom doesn’t transfer to real life.”
Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how people interpret things and interact with others.
It ranges across the autistic ‘spectrum’, with those at the lower-functioning end often also experiencing speech and language difficulties, while those at the higher-functioning end are usually of average or above average intelligence but still struggle to communicate and understand emotion.
Asperger syndrome falls at the high-functioning end of the spectrum, and is sometimes referred to synonymously with high-functioning autism.
It often comes alongside social anxiety and a struggle to understand things that others pick up naturally, such as body language and sarcasm.
Though theories exist, there is no real know cause of autism.
Ms van der Ven said: “Autism often means people are better at spotting and focusing on details but not able to see the whole picture very well, and that has big ramifications for social interaction.
“There is very little for high-functioning people with autism when they finish college. They are deemed to be available for work but because of anxiety issues they often can’t hold down a job. According to the National Autistic Society (the leading autism charity) they are the lowest-employed group of people with disabilities.
“There are still misconceptions about the higher-functioning group – people need to realise how disabling anxiety levels can be.”
Sessions at Into The Garden can last all day or for a half day and co-gardeners can opt to follow a course, accredited by an educational organisation called ASDAN, which they can add to their CVs.
Ms van der Van said: “We spend time teaching them about flowers’ names and insects and how flowers grow. It’s absolutely rewarding.”
Her sons are now 18 and 20-years-old but were diagnosed with high-functioning autism and Asperger’s respectively when they were toddlers.
The Wolvercote resident said: “When they were diagnosed there were only two books about autism. Now it is far easier to get information and people don’t look totally blank when you talk about it, or just think of Rainman [the film about an autistic man played by Dustin Hoffman].
“People with autism are very precise and sometimes quite funny, we have a good laugh. When you say things they can be quite pedantic and take things the wrong way so you have to really think about what you say.”
There are currently two small groups attending Into the Garden, one on a Tuesday and one on a Thursday, and Ms van der Ver said it also provides the chance for them to socialise.
The project runs alongside neighbouring not-for-profit group FarmAbility, based on the same farm, which offers agricultural work for adults with autism and learning disabilities.
Ms van der Van learnt about autism while studying to become a social worker, qualifying in children’s special needs development in her native country of the Netherlands.
She spent the first 27 years of her life in Amsterdam before moving to Wales and then Chipping Norton before settling in Oxford, where she also works at Oxford University mentoring students with autism.
For people struggling to connect with a friend or family member with autism she said: “Find out what they are interested in and that’s your way in. If they are really interested in a certain television programme, watch that programme and you’ve got something to talk about. If they like playing with Lego, play alongside them.”
For more information visit intothegarden.org.uk.