Funded Projects

Research that shapes the future

The Nebraska Center for Research on Children, Youth, Families & Schools is an interdisciplinary research center in the College of Education and Human Sciences at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.

Impact of Natural Environments on Symptom Expression in Children with Autism

Project Information

Principal Investigator: Julia Torquati
Co-Principal Investigator: Anne Schutte
Funding Agency: USDA-Forest Service
Award Date:
Theme: Psychosocial Development & Social-Emotional Learning
Project URL: N/A

For more information please contact Julia Torquati at


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.