Letchworth's Autism Nature Trail breaks ground on giving new people a chance to get outdoors
Updated: Mar 31, 2021
Letchworth State Park's upper falls in November. Photo courtesy of Mary Rand.
Construction has begun on a unique nature trail meant to accommodate individuals with autism spectrum disorder and other cognitive disabilities.
The Autism Nature Trail, located in Letchworth State Park of Castile, New York, began six years ago as a conversation between trail co-chair Loren Penman and her neighbor.
Penman’s neighbor was anticipating a visit with her 7-year-old grandson, who is nonverbal and autistic, to the Humphrey Nature Center at Letchworth.
“[She said] It’s really hard to take him anywhere. For some reason, he is completely at peace when we visit Letchworth,” Penman said. Still, Penman’s neighbor was unconvinced that Humphrey Nature Center would be accommodating for her grandson.
Penman happened to mention that conversation later to her friend Susan Herrnstein, now co-chair of the ANT. Herrnstein also had a grandson with autism who adored Letchworth.
“That just seemed somewhat coincidental,” Penman said.
Herrnstein and Penman began researching why those children may have found such value from Letchworth. They found research claiming that natural resources - in particular, pine forests and running water - have a calming effect on the mind. Though that research did not specifically study autistic individuals, it was reason enough for the two to set out on the project.
However, from the beginning, the intention was not to create a medical treatment, but only to provide opportunities, Penman said.
“We really didn’t want to turn this into a research study; we weren’t interested in the cause and cure of autism, just that this was a place in nature that certainly everybody should be able to enjoy,” Penman said.
Over the next six years, in partnership with New York State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, Rochester organization The Family Autism Center, Natural Heritage trust and others, ANT organizers led fundraising efforts, secured sponsors and planned the outline of the trail.
The Autism Nature Trail is designed to be a flat, one mile loop featuring a number of installations, including a gentle maze, a nature-inspired music circle and a quiet area of cuddle swings and “alone zones,” according to the ANT’s website.
These physical installations will be accompanied by online resources and in-person staffing provided by The Family Autism Center, Penman said.
On weekends, a staff member will be present to assist visitors and give scheduled guided walks, Jen Hackett, Executive Director of The Family Autism Center, said.
“My end goal in life is not to have these kids only come to the Autism Nature Trail. I want them to go to any camp and any trail they want to go to,” Hackett said.
The Family Autism Center runs Camp Puzzle Peace, an Adirondack summer camp meant to give autistic children outdoor experiences and skills. The experience of Camp Puzzle Peace was why ANT organizers originally approached her to work on the trail, Hackett said.
In her work at Camp Puzzle Peace, Hackett said the biggest challenge for families entering the outdoors is anticipating the unknown.
“Accessibility doesn’t necessarily mean what it means for other people,” Hackett said. “For people with autism and some cognitive disabilities, it means that you’re pre-teaching them to take out anxiety and stress so that they can be successful.”
Pre-teaching often involves providing families photos of the area and giving them strategies to approach common situations that may arise while outdoors, Hackett said.
Penman said that while Letchworth has many wonderful natural features, a surprising number of families she met with had written it off as a place to visit.
“What they saw was the impediment. The chance of getting lost, the chance of not doing well on the stone steps, all of the water,” Penman said.
The ANT is meant to anticipate what are normally shunned or simply tolerated behaviors in public. Hackett noted that families interested in Camp Puzzle Peace are often fearful of going out and having their child have a meltdown. In a more inclusive space, those events are anticipated and supported.
“At CPP, someone’s having a meltdown all the time,” Hackett said.
Once families become comfortable outdoors, Hackett said she does not want the ANT to be the only trail those families can walk.
“My end goal in life is not to have these kids only come to the Autism Nature Trail. I want them to go to any camp and any trail they want to go to,” Hackett said. “It’s about teaching skills so that they feel comfortable and successful.”
The ANT has so far raised $3 million of a $3.7 million goal, sourced from donations from individuals and local businesses. The money left to be raised is intended to create a permanent endowment for staffing and operation, Penman said. The trail was always planned to be privately funded, a decision that averted disaster following the arrival of COVID-19 last March and cuts to the state budget.
“That turned out to be a blessing,” Penman said.
While the state budget constricted, COVID significantly increased donations to the trail as many other resources were pared or shut down, Penman said. Penman attributed this boost to an increased appreciation for the outdoors as a safe area to recreate during the pandemic.
"...‘that’s what this trail is going to do.’ It will be putting people who don’t usually interact with each other in a safe place," Penman said.
Diane Kuehn, SUNY ESF associate professor of outdoor recreation and environmental education, said that volunteer and community organizations provide the backing for resources like the ANT in times when the state may be unable to allocate the funds or labor itself.
“Having a group of individuals that are very focused on improving that park and providing that experience for diverse users - that is key,” Kuehn said.
Those same partnerships with specialized groups are essential for parks that may not be able to open their own ANT, but still want to be inclusive for a more diverse set of users.
“When you’re open to that, you’re gonna work with other groups that focus on that,” Kuehn said.
While the installations of the ANT are currently being constructed, the physical trail itself has been built, and is already providing value, Penman said.
Penman spoke of a tour she gave of the trail to a children’s author with her 15 year old son and a family from Buffalo, New York with a 9 year old. As they first walked the trail, the two families were mostly separate. A monarch butterfly kept landing and flying from the older child’s foot, something both found very amusing.
“The two of them were giggling like old friends,” Penman said. “Both parents contacted me later and said, ‘that’s what this trail is going to do.’ It will be putting people who don’t usually interact with each other in a safe place.”