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Autism Nature Trail at Letchworth State Park honors Autism Awareness Month by formalizing programming partnerships

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Mon, Apr 5th 2021 11:55 am

Camp Puzzle Peace and Perry Central School District to collaboratively develop and offer programming and activities for Autism Nature Trail

In recognition of Autism Awareness Month, New York State Parks and the Campaign to Build The Autism Nature Trail (The ANT) announced the signing of formal program agreements with Camp Puzzle Peace (CPP) of Rochester and Perry Central School District (PCSD) in Wyoming County. CPP and PCSD have been active partners since the inception of The ANT, an outdoor recreation experience conceived, designed and now being built specifically for those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities. These contracts will now allow both groups to create, develop and operate programs for both the target population and all visitors to the trail, which is located in Letchworth State Park.

“It is fitting for the park to officially formalize these partnerships in this month of April, and we are looking forward to The ANT becoming the newest attraction in Letchworth State Park with the trail welcoming its first visitors with a full slate of programming in place later this year,” State Parks Commissioner Erik Kulleseid said.

A press release stated, “April, which is Autism Awareness Month, is an appropriate time to acknowledge the prevalence of autism and related disorders. New data indicates that about 1 in 54 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. ASD is reported to occur in all racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups and often has a tremendous impact on parents, siblings and members of the extended family.”

Jennifer Hackett, who is the executive director of CPP, served on the advisory panel for The ANT in its earliest stages of development. Like the work that CPP does with families living with autism and other disabilities in preparing them for an Adirondack camping experience, Hackett and her staff will offer instruction to those who are unfamiliar with hiking in the woods and who likely have never visited a state park. Through in-person and virtual training, parents and caregivers, school and agency personnel will know what to expect before they ever arrive at The ANT.

“For those with disabilities, our staff will be available to help navigate the unknown and provide activities that reduce anxiety and stress and to help plan a successful experience. Teaching for transfer is a significant part of the curriculum in learning about being outdoors,” Hackett said. “Eventually, I want our visitors to feel confident in going beyond The ANT, to walk any trail and enjoy any park.” 

PCSD, located in close proximity to the park, will execute operating and maintenance plans for the trail and will serve as the communications hub for The ANT,” Perry Schools Superintendent Daryl McLaughlin said. “A grant to develop an interactive website, which will facilitate the visitor experience, will be managed by a coordinator who will be a PCSD staff member. Opportunities for outdoor education, curriculum integration, professional development and service learning all will enrich ongoing educational initiatives. We are excited to be such an integral part of this unique and innovative project. We look forward to developing community-focused programs, which will benefit our students, staff and district residents as well as businesses and organizations in Perry and the surrounding area as The ANT brings visitors throughout the region, around the state and across the country.”

Susan Herrnstein, co-chair for The ANT, said, "Camp Puzzle Peace and the Perry Central School District were chosen as our partners for their demonstrated commitment to inclusion as a mindset and not merely a program. Their expertise in teaching and learning and their passion for outdoor education and making nature accessible to all will shape The ANT experience into something special for every visitor. They are the perfect partners for The ANT and we are so very fortunate to have them as members of our ANT team."

The press release stated, “Statistics show young people with autism spend disproportionate amounts of time indoors, often finding comfort in digital activities, which results in social isolation. This disconnectedness not only affects individuals with ASD, but also can affect caregivers and entire families. Because of our current and necessary sequestering due to COVID-19, many people can relate to this isolation with everyone now having a clearer understanding of feeling cut off from the world outside. The ANT is designed as a series of accessible, safe and inclusive outdoor spaces in nature, yet far from the distractions and often overwhelming stimuli of everyday outside life. Currently under construction, the Autism Nature Trail is part of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's 2021 State of the State agenda to reimagine, rebuild and renew New York state, including enhancing New York State Parks.

“Activities along the trail support and encourage sensory perception and integration, while also providing enjoyable activities for visitors of all abilities and ages. Eight stations engage each individual’s auditory, visual, tactile, vestibular and proprioceptive processing, using nature and natural materials as the tools for skill-building. The ANT’s natural setting allows for safe social distancing and planned interaction throughout the experience of the trail.

“The COVID pandemic is teaching us that being in nature is a saving grace, and New York State Parks have remained open throughout the crisis. As we envision and plan for a COVID-era world and beyond, The ANT will allow for outdoor recreation and promote programming that can be responsibly and safely enjoyed by all who visit, employing staff members who are trained to help every visitor enjoy the natural world and the entire parks system in a safe and meaningful way. We now have observed first-hand that people can feel uncomfortable, unwelcome and even unsafe in environments where certain behaviors are not understood and special needs cannot be met. The Autism Nature Trail will be a safe and inclusive space outdoors where everyone can experience the physical, emotional and social benefits of being more fully engaged with nature and with each other.

“There is now a responsibility – and an urgency – to offer a new model for outdoor recreation for all individuals, families, school groups and agencies. The ANT is completely ADA-compliant, situated adjacent to the Humphrey Nature Center with full access to a large parking area, modern restrooms and Wi-Fi.”

The Campaign To Build the Autism Nature Trail at Letchworth State Park is supported by several organizational partners within New York state, including the Natural Heritage TrustCamp Puzzle PeaceLetchworth State ParkPerry Central School District and the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation. For more information or to contribute to ongoing work to fund quality programming at the site, visit https://autismnaturetrail.com/

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