First of its kind Autism Nature Trail proposed for Letchworth State Park

    The idea of an autism nature trail at Letchworth was created alongside a volunteer team of speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists, a physical therapist, families, teachers, parks officials and architects. (WHAM photo)

    Mt. Morris, N.Y. (WHAM) - In 2015, Letchworth State Park was named USA TODAY's Readers' Choice for Best State Park. A small group has quietly been trying to make "best" even better.

    It began when Loren Penman of Batavia had a conversation with a friend about the effect the park had on her grandson who lives near Albany. Her grandson is on the autism spectrum.

    "He has no language and is in a constant state of agitation," Loren said. "But when his mother brings him to see his grandmother and they go to Letchworth State Park, he is at peace."

    Penman has 40 years in education as a teacher and administrator. Over the past few years she, Susan Herrnstein and Gail Serventi have helped grow the idea of an autism nature trail at Letchworth alongside a volunteer team of speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists, a physical therapist, families, teachers, parks officials and architects. They even received input from world-renowned autism spokesperson and professor Temple Grandin.

    What they've come up with is a proposed one and a quarter mile trail just behind the new Humphrey Nature Center. That makes it close to parking lots, bathrooms and, if needed, park police.

    The trail is a loop with a cut down the middle in case you need a shortcut.

    "The woods around the nature center are laced with trails already so really by and large we are following the trajectory of existing pathways," explained Erik Kulleseid, Senior Vice President at Open Space Institute in Albany and Executive Director of the Alliance for New York State Parks.

    The trail would be open to everyone. Cross country skiers would be still be able to use it in the winter.

    "We've never seen this kind of project where it's a combination of appealing to a specialized population but also being attractive to the general population," Kulleseid said.

    Here are some of the ways it's designed with people on the autism spectrum in mind.

    There are stone markers throughout the trail that are somewhat modeled after the stone chimneys on the buildings in the park.

    Penman explained the purpose. "Most persons on the spectrum need the consistency and predictability of what's to come so each of the stations along the trail has a marker that will be visible at some distance that says up ahead there's something else to see."

    Gordon Penniston of Brighton likes that aspect. His 8-year-old son Owen is on the spectrum.

    "If it's Owen it's, 'What's the map say? What's the map say?' And it just gives it that familiarity of okay, there is a new adventure coming up," Penniston said after we showed him the nature trail plans.

    Another example: the sensory station, one of the first stops on the trail. It will have a collection of leaves, acorns, pinecones or whatever is in season. The station will be stocked by the park naturalists, already employed by the park.

    "The idea of having something new to feel, to touch, to immerse yourself in was part of our planning from the very beginning," Penman said. "So many persons who don't get a chance to get outside don't get a chance to see these items up close."

    A third example is a station called the Meadow Run and Climb. Penman described it as " a chance to roll and tumble and climb and balance and be free." Penniston said he likes that idea for his son.

    "I could picture him there, saying to me, 'I have to balance on this.' And at the same time knowing he's practicing falling off sometimes... he seems to show an interest in taking some more hikes. Some more climbing. And that just helps his body, helps his mind, get focused on things better."

    Penniston said some of the nature trails he's been on closer to home are near a highway or aren't marked clearly which leads to confusion. That's why he likes the proposed trail at Letchworth.

    "It also provides a little bit of a destination," Penniston said. "'Hey, let's go away for the day' and it gets them out of the house 'cause sometimes there is the 'I don't want to go anywhere today.' This could give him something to look forward to."

    Penniston summarized what all involved told us when he said of the proposed trail.

    "Word like that gets around," he said. "If there is something that is good for kids on the spectrum, people on the spectrum to be able to explore and other people go, it would be great for those two populations to meet in a normal environment and get to know that they are all the same."

    Penman and the steering committee has quietly raised about a million dollars for the proposed Autism Nature Trail at Letchworth State Park. They now kick off their public campaign to raise another $3.4 million from the public and corporations.

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