Letchworth State Park in Castile, New York has taken a leap forward in making the outdoors more accessible to everyone. The park's Autism Nature Trail or “ANT,” is a one mile long loop with eight stations designed especially for visitors on the autism spectrum. Each station offers a variety of experiences for children and adults alike. The trail has already seen thousands of visitors since its opening and has sparked a lot of attention from other parks around the country, interested in replicating the accessibility and popularity of the trail. 

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How the ANT began

The concept for the ANT was the brainchild of three women, Loren Lamy Penman, Susan Hernstein and Gail Serventi, affectionately referred to as the “ANT Aunts” by park staff, who came up with the idea after noting that several young people of their acquaintance, including one of the trio’s grandsons who were on the spectrum were particularly enamored with Letchworth and calmed by their time there. 

“We thought that was more than a coincidence,” Penman said. 

After some further research confirmed that the unique attributes of the park, which include the combination of moving water, deep nature and pine trees, might be having a positive effect, the three women set about figuring out how to make a more formal space for children on the spectrum and any others who might want to spend time in this special environment. 

The Autism Nature Trail at Letchworth State Park includes a number of carefully designed "sensory stations" for visitors. ©Letchworth State Park

What’s on the Autism Nature Trail 

Working with legendary scientist and autism spokesperson, Dr. Temple Grandin, as well as park officials, eight distinct areas were developed along a more secluded area of the park, with activities aimed at encouraging sensory perceptions through a series of fun and safe activities for all ages and accessibility levels. 

For example, some activities along the trail include a Sensory Station, where a collection of natural objects are available to be handled and smelled; a gentle maze with a viewing platform, three cuddle swings, an "Alone Zone” where guests can sit quietly in solitude, an obstacle course and plenty of space to run, in addition to other activities and specialized sections. 

Who can visit The Autism Nature Trail 

Though designed specifically for those on the autism spectrum, anyone is welcome to use the ANT. Since opening in October of 2021, the park estimates that there have been well over 4,000 visitors, many of them adults. 

“The most common user of the trail is senior citizen couples,” Penman explained, speaking of the trail’s wider appeal. 

Though designed for people on the autism spectrum, the ANT, as it's known, is open to everyone. ©Letchworth State Park

Future plans for the ANT

Though there’s no immediate plans to expand the Letchworth State Park Autism Nature Trail, there are several other parks across the country that are considering following suit to create their own. 

“There’s…another park in New York State that’s very serious about trying to replicate this, as well as one in British Columbia, one in Virginia and one in Pennsylvania,” Penman says with pride “But what we’ve been saying is don’t copy ours exactly…take some of the parameters and apply them to your own situation.”

Both Penman and Letchworth State Park hope that the success of the Autism Nature Trail will help to encourage more accessibility for children on the spectrum and people with disabilities, not just in other parks, but in the wider world. 

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