First trail in US designed specifically for autism spectrum disorder communities & families
√ Project supported by more than $3.3 million in private funds
Gov. Kathy Hochul recently announced the nation's first nature trail specifically designed to address the sensory needs of those with autism spectrum disorder and other developmental disabilities is open at Letchworth State Park. Supported by more than $3.3 million in private fundraising, the new Autism Nature Trail is a one-mile hiking loop that includes eight marked sensory stations – each designed to address a different sensory experience in a safe and supportive environment.
"New York state is leading the nation in creating this public trail purposefully designed to bring the benefits of the outdoors to those on the autism disorder spectrum and their families," Hochul said. "State parks should be accessible to everyone, and this is a welcoming and inclusive place for an underserved community."
Activities along the Autism Nature Trail support and encourage sensory perception and integration, while also providing activities for visitors of all abilities and ages. The stations engage each visitor's senses, using nature and natural materials as the tools for skill-building. The trail is set up to allow for safe social distancing and planned interaction.
Features of the Autism Nature Trail include:
√ “Sensory Station,” where a collection of leaves, moss, fossils, animal fur, acorns and other objects are to be touched, handled and even smelled;
√ “Sunshine Slope,” a gentle maze in an opening that includes a viewing platform, three cuddle swings, and an "Alone Zone";
√ “Music Circle,” where a variety of nature-inspired musical instruments encourage creativity, either alone or with others;
√ “Curiosity Corner,” an open space with a gliding seat, ant-shaped boulders, and access to a shortcut back to the beginning of the trail;
√ “Reflection Knoll,” a quiet point halfway on the trail under a canopy of trees, with etchings of woodland creatures hidden in the boulders;
√ Meadow run and climb, a place with paths to run, jump and balance along serpentine berms and an obstacle course;
√ “Design Zone,” where visitors can manipulate materials from along the trail into patterns and structures;
√ “Playful Path,” a place of twisting paths with different surfaces including coarse gravel, log rounds, and sand;
√ “The Nook,” an area of carefully spaced seating set under a natural canopy; and
√ “The Celebration Station,” as the final stop on the trail. This area has a place for visitors to express themselves through writing and drawing about their experiences on the trail.
Located near the park's Humphrey Nature Center with parking, restrooms and Wi-Fi, the ADA-compliant trail was designed with input from Dr. Temple Grandin, a cattle industry expert who was diagnosed with autism in 1950 at the age of 2 and is now one of the world's most well-known advocates for the autistic community.
Support and programming for the trail comes from the nearby Perry Central School District in Wyoming County and Rochester's Camp Puzzle Peace, an Adirondack summer camp for families living with developmental disabilities. Fundraising for the trail is being managed on behalf of State Parks by the Natural Heritage Trust. The trust is a not-for-profit charitable corporation that receives and administers gifts, grants and contributions to support public programs for parks, recreation, cultural, land and water conservation and historic preservation purposes.
Last month, Autism Nature Trail supporters marked the sudden loss of one of the project's most devoted early advocates, ANT co-founder Susan Herrnstein. Her family has requested that any donations in her memory be made to the Autism Nature Trail through the Natural Heritage Trust.
Fundraising will continue to support visitor programming for the Autism Nature Trail. So far, more than 650 separate donations have been made to the project, reflecting more than 430 individual donors, 50 corporate donors, 25 community groups and 15 foundations.
Loren Penman, an Autism Nature Trail co-founder and member of the Genesee Regional Park Commission, said, "Our hope is that the Autism Nature Trail will become an exemplar, widely replicated, taking from what we learned in the seven-year process of creating a first-of-its-kind experience in nature. While others retrofit public places to make them accessible, we have created an accessible place and made it public--and that has made all the difference."
Gail Servanti, an Autism Nature Trail co-founder and member of the Genesee Regional Park Commission, said, "This is our dream come true and I eagerly await the positive impact a walk on the Autism Nature Trail will have on individuals and families of all abilities."
Camp Puzzle Peace Executive Director Jen Hackett said, "Camp Puzzle Peace was founded out of a desire to share a love of nature and to allow all families to experience the joy of the outdoors in a meaningful way. We are very proud to partner with New York state to expand our purpose by providing programming on the Autism Nature Trail for all families, regardless of ability or diagnosis."
Perry School District Superintendent Daryl McLaughlin said, "The eyes of the world are on this project. Everything we are doing has never been done before. This project represents what is possible when individuals, groups and municipalities engage with one another to advance a cause. The Autism Nature Trail will be a powerful instructional space where cutting-edge learning and teaching will occur for all individuals. This project also will be a paradigm shift for economic development."
About 1 in 54 children in the U.S. have 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 impact on parents, siblings and members of the extended family.
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, who can sometimes feel uncomfortable in outside settings.
For more information on the Autism Nature Trail, visit: https://autismnaturetrail.com/.
Visited by nearly 1 million people annually, Letchworth State Park covers more than 14,000 acres. In 2015, readers of USA Today voted it the best state park in the U.S. Surrounded by forests, the Genesee River roars through the gorge over three major waterfalls between cliffs as high as 600 feet in some places. The park features 66 miles of hiking trails, as well as trails for horseback riding, biking, snowmobiling, and cross-country skiing. Letchworth offers nature, history and performing arts programs, as well as guided walks, tours, a summer lecture series, whitewater rafting, kayaking, a pool for swimming and hot air ballooning.