Autism Hope: Autism Nature Trail planned for Letchworth State Park

April 26, 2017 05:32 PM

It’s not always easy for families with a member on the Autism Spectrum to do outdoor activities or enjoy nature. Individuals with autism often have difficulties with sensory processing and so stay indoors where the environment is controlled, quiet and predictable.

There is a grassroots effort underway to bring an Autism Nature Trail within 50 miles of Rochester — to the "#1 State Park in America," as voted by readers of USA Today.

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Although it will look very similar to nature trails developed in parks for the general public, this trail will have a very specific design, tailored by experts who understand the needs of people on the spectrum.

“You can have kids that love the outdoors but hate touching yucky things. Also, kids that hate open spaces but love playing on hills. There’s a wide range of needs and I think from the designs that I've seen, this trail will touch upon a lot of them”, says Gordon Penniston of Brighton. Penniston’s son Owen is eight years old and falls on the spectrum. Luckily for Gordon and his wife Kate who love the outdoors, Owen is willing to venture into the woods.

However, if there are unexpected changes in weather or surprises along the path, Owen can have a meltdown which might ruin an outdoor adventure.

The Pennistons are anxious to have the Autism Nature Center, or ANT, as it will be called so close to their hometown. The plans have the trail emerging from the woods right near the brand new Humphrey Nature Center near Letchworth’s Castile Entrance.

This will give families an option to explore displays already created inside the building or let them take a walk outside on a one and quarter-mile trail.

There will be eight stops, with learning stations to explore sounds, and smells. People with autism often have trouble processing the different senses, so there will be activities focusing on touch. According to one of the co-founders, Loren Penman of Batavia, a pine cone can become a learning experience.

“It won't hurt you. It is an interesting shape, and it has patterns that may be attached to it that may not be observable to you or to me but maybe to someone with a hyper focus. The teaching may actually come for those of us who are neuro typical and I think we will find out a lot about what our visitors are seeing that we take for granted.”

There will be places just to sit and listen for birds, or wander a path where you take off your shoes to “feel” nature.

“It may have gravel or pine needles or moss or bark and will be very different in terms of its feel under foot.”

Families like the Pennistons are already counting on “The Ant” to be a destination activity within the autism community.

“And once the regular community knows about it and that it’s just a fun place to go play--just like a science museum they'll come out too!

No state tax dollars can be used to create or maintain the ANT -- already about a million dollars has been pledged privately but that means another $3.5 million still needs to be collected. The group hopes to have it ready to open in fall of 2018.

If you’d like to find out more about the Autism Nature Trail and how to donate to the cause, click here.


Rebecca Leclair

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