One of the most interesting things about Letchworth State Park in western New York is the Autism Nature Trail (ANT), designed to give autistic kids time and space to experience nature in the ways most comfortable to them. I visited the trail one quiet Sunday morning and was pretty impressed by the design and implementation.
As I walked the trail, I was specifically thinking how one of my favorite people, now 16, would have liked this trail as a 6-year-old or 10-year-old. I’d spent enough time with him at those ages to imagine how he would interacted with the different stations. Every kid is different, though, and every autistic kid has their own set of needs and likes, so every kid’s experience with this trail will be diffferent. But hopefully, each kid’s time on the ANT will be enjoyable, and make them want to spend more time outside in natural settings like this.
The Sensory Station has a variety of branches, leaves, and skeletons for kids to touch and feel, along with some coloring books if they want to do that activity. If they’re already overwhelmed or overexcited, the trail features a quiet reading area with books and cushions a short distance away. The Music Circle has a bunch of acoustic instruments, like wooden xylephones and pipes, where kids can bang out tunes or just bang out noise, it all sounded pretty good as I walked by and watched three kids playing on three different instruments. Kudos to the designers for figuring out how to make all those creations sound good together rather than producing painful dissonance.
Of all the stations, my favorite was the Playful Path, where there are three different sections: a series of flat wood stepping stones, a series of big rocks, and a set of logs. Yes, I did the paths and I definitely had fun stepping from wood to wood, stone to stone. The six-year-old version of my friend would have loved path, too, since it mimicked some PT exercises he did at a younger age to improve his walking gait. I could almost hear his gleeful laugh at the end as he yelled “I did it!”
The rock path was a bit more challenging, kind of like crossing a river by rocks only there was no water, so no big deal if you slipped or stepped off the rocks onto the path. Each path is just long enough to be challenging without being too much work.
Halfway through the trail, there is a cut-through path, so if your kid is just done, you can just take this quick way back to the start/finish shed. Or, maybe you’ll try out this wonderful wooden swing. I could imagine it calming a kid down, letting them get back to their center before continuing on the trail. It was completely quiet right here and the swing is surrounded by trees, so it’s a lovely spot to spend some time.
Every kid of the dozen or so that I saw on this trail was having a ball at the stations. It’s hard to know who is autistic and who isn’t just by looking at a kid, and I think that’s kind of the point of this trail. If you’re a neurotypical kid, you’ll have fun like it’s just another park; if you’re an autistic kid, you’ll enjoy it because it’s designed to work with your needs and give you lots of places to chill out between explorations without being overstimulated.
I’d love to see more of these trails in other places, like in cities or in national parks. Providing different experiences that reach more people is what accessibility is all about. The ANT at Letchworth is a great start to including everyone in the “get outdoors” movement.
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Outside, quiet children start to talk more and children who find it hard to be constrained begin to relax. Children need to be outside long enough to feel at home there.