A mile-long Autism Nature Trail at Letchworth State Park is expected to open to the public later this year. It’s a project that has been over a half-decade in the making.
Back in 2016, the Humphrey Nature Center opened as a year-round facility that focused on providing educational opportunities.
New York State Commissioner of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation Erik Kulleseid said Letchworth’s Autism Nature Trail is, in many ways, an offshoot of their most recent nature center.
“We opened with a lot of private fundraising,” Kulleseid said. “And there was a small group of people from that, who have been impacted by autism spectrum disorder and had always noted that Letchworth had kind of a calming effect on kids with ASD.”
Kulleseid said three women from the Letchworth area started a private initiative to raise money for ANT, which has currently reached $3 million of its $3.7 million goal in collaboration with Letchworth State Park.
“And they have assembled experts in autism to help design this trail,” Kulleseid said. “And we're talking now about the first of its kind, Autism Nature Trail that we really have been able to find. It's a trail devoted to helping and facilitating the experience of nature for people with ASD and other development and developmental disabilities.”
The trail will feature eight different stations, including cuddle stations, alone zones and several spaces for physical activities.
Kulleseid said inclusivity is of the utmost importance.
“We're not trying to segregate people with ASD, right? We really are deliberately calling it a judgment-free zone, where people can come in and neurotypicals are to understand that this is a place where everyone's welcome,” he said.
“You're going to find this wonderful path, it's actually going to be wheelchair-accessible, and then you're gonna have this trunk path that you follow around,” he added. “And then off to the side at different areas are going to be the stations. There'll be a sensory one, one that will be a little bit of light, one that will be dedicated to sound. Another one may be devoted to a little more tunnels and getting your hands and knees.”
Kulleseid said the trail is all flat terrain and self-paced. The current plan is for the trail to open this October.
“We've been dealing with so much during COVID. And we learned about how we had 78 million visitors last year, we have record visitation,” he said. “We need to remove barriers from parks. And anytime we have an opportunity to expand our audience, we should, and (this project) is just very exciting in that regard.”