The Letchworth State Park Autism Nature Trail is the nation’s first nature trail specifically designed to address the sensory needs of those on the autism spectrum and their families. Officially opening on October 1, 2021 in Letchworth State Park, the Autism Nature Trail is a one-mile hiking loop that includes eight sensory stations designed to address a different sensory experience in a safe and supportive environment.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 in 44 school-aged children are on the autism spectrum1. Statistics show that 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. According to Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods2, many young people in today’s world are experiencing a “nature deficit disorder,” and this is especially true for those on the autism spectrum.
Designed as a series of accessible and safe outdoor spaces in nature, yet far from the distractions and often overwhelming stimuli of everyday outside life, the Autism Nature trail welcomes to the park a community that has been historically under-served in terms of recreational space and engagement with nature.
A Local Initiative
Conceived and by local advocates Loren Penman, Susan Herrnstein and Gail Serventi, a private-public partnership was pulled together to raise $4 million to fund the construction of the Autism Nature Trail. An operating endowment was included in the fundraising to help maintain and operate the Trail, and provided specialized programming for park visitors and training for Park staff.
The Public-Private Partnership that supported the Campaign to Build the Autism Nature Trail at Letchworth State Park included the Natural Heritage Trust, Camp Puzzle Peace, Perry Central School District, Letchworth State Park and the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation, all of whom are committed to the success of the Trail as both a way to engage the local community and local schools in providing access to nature for an underserved audience and to serve as an engine for regional economic growth, development, and tourism.
About the Autism Nature Trail
Considered by leading experts to be an original and model approach in engaging the ASD community, the Autism Nature Trail features a series of independent stations designed by a nature play specialist and landscape architects in consultation with academics, practitioners, and family members. The trail stations offer a range of experiences from quiet engagement to active exploration and adventure. Stations include the Sunshine Slope; a gentle sloping maze in a natural clearing, the Music Circle; a circular grove of pine featuring nature-inspired instruments, and the Meadow Run & Climb; a dedicated space for running, jumping, climbing, and balancing to cultivate strength, coordination and confidence. Specialized elements like cuddle swings, gliders, and “alone zones” are also found on the trail, each created with the intent of providing a more inclusive environment for visitors of many different needs and abilities.
Originating adjacent to the park’s Humphrey Nature Center, the trail further enhances the Nature Center’s mission to encourage deeper exploration and appreciation for the natural environment.
Results & Impact
From May through October, staff at Camp Puzzle Peace record numbers of visitors by using hand counters, which can be difficult during busy times. However, their best estimate is an average of 115 visitors each weekend day for these months. Actual attendance is very weather-dependent with more hikers arriving in good weather, fewer in inclement weather. A paper-and-pencil log is available at the start of the Trail as an option for people to sign and share where they are coming from. Over a five-week period in the summer of 2022, visitors were recorded from 5 foreign countries, 27 states and District of Columbia, and nine different counties in New York State.
The Autism Nature Trail at Letchworth State Park Facebook page has over 4,500 followers, and they are kept informed on a very regular basis. And in the first month of operation, website traffic increased from 685 users to 5,233!
One heartwarming message received through social media and email read:
“I just wanted to reach out and say how wonderful the Autism Nature Trail was from the Music Circle to the Playful Path. All of it was thought out and absolutely beautiful. Thank you so much for creating such a welcoming environment for all of us. I will be back again very soon. We LOVED it. It brought us all such JOY. My daughter Hadley is 4 with autism, and she felt so comfortable and had such an amazing time. I also went with 3 other children in their teens who do not have autism and they loved it just the same. Thank you so much again.” ~ Amber Seifert
Looking to the Future
ANT Alliance Inc., a 501(c)(3) corporation, was formed to ensure that the Trail’s mission of making outdoor recreation safe, enjoyable, and accessible for all is maintained in perpetuity. Fundraising continues to support an endowment for ongoing staffing, maintenance, and promotion of this first-of-its-kind experience in nature.
The Sensory Destination Coordinator at Perry Central Schools has developed an “ANT-friendly business” program, which serves the local and visiting neurodiverse population by providing business owners/managers/staff with training, resources, and accommodations to provide a more enjoyable experience for all.
Businesses which complete the program receive a window cling to alert customers to their commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility.Additions to the original plans for The ANT, based on feedback from visitors, include:
- A TTY (teletypewriter) machine connected to a landline in the Humphrey Nature Center
- Station markers which include each station’s name in braille
- Clear-panel face masks to promote lip reading (when the use of masks for staff or visitors is needed)
Furthermore, the founders have met with New York State Parks personnel from Long Island and Syracuse about replicating The ANT in other State Parks and have advised students from Allegheny College in their researched presentation to Pennsylvania Parks officials about an autism nature trail in Pymatuming State Park near Erie.
1Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, March 2). Data & statistics on autism spectrum disorder. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved November 22, 2022, from https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.html
2Louv, R. (2005). Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. London: Atlantic Books.