LETCHWORTH STATE PARK — Construction has started on a first-of-its kind nature trail at Letchworth State Park designed for people with autism and other developmental disabilities.

“New York State is committed to making sure New York’s State Parks and the great outdoors belong to all New Yorkers,” said Governor Cuomo in a news release. “The Autism Nature Trail is an exciting, innovative project that will offer strategically-designed outdoor recreation to people with autism and their families. The public-private partnership behind this effort reflects the generosity and compassion that New Yorkers are all about to help ensure equal opportunities and recreational offerings for all.”

The Campaign to Build the Autism Nature Trail, with support from the sate State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, has raised $3 million toward a full $3.7 million goal. Fundraising will continue to establish an endowment for long-term maintenance and programming on the mile-long trail, which is designed to address the sensory needs of people with autism or related disabilities.

The Autism Nature Trail is part of the Governor’s 2021 State of the State agenda to reimagine, rebuild and renew New York State, including enhancing New York State Parks.

“The overwhelming response to the fundraising campaign for this important new destination at Letchworth State Park is impressive and exciting,” said State Parks Commissioner Erik Kulleseid in the release. “Designed by experts, the Autism Nature Trail will be a safe and inclusive space outdoors where all are welcome to experience the physical, emotional and social benefits of outdoor recreation. I am tremendously grateful to the many donors and partners who have joined this effort to overcome some of the barriers to outdoor recreation.”

The fundraising campaign was managed by the Natural Heritage Trust on behalf of State Parks. The trust is a not-for-profit corporation that receives and administers gifts, grants and contributions to further public programs for parks, recreation, cultural, land and water conservation and historic preservation purposes.

“Isolation due to the coronavirus has taught us that being in nature is our saving grace, and New York State parks have remained opened throughout the pandemic,” said Campaign for ANT Co-chair and co-founder Loren Penman. “But for those who feel uncomfortable, unwelcome or even unsafe in environments where certain behaviors are not understood and special needs cannot be met, the ADA-compliant and inclusive Autism Nature Trail at Letchworth State Park encourages all visitors to experience the benefits of being more fully engaged with nature and with each other.”

Activities along the Autism Nature Trail will support and encourage sensory perception, while also providing enjoyable activities for visitors of all abilities and ages. The trail loop will feature eight stations offering a range of experiences from quiet engagement to active exploration and adventure.

Planned stations include the Sunshine Slope — a gentle sloping maze in a natural clearing.

It will also include the Music Circle — a circular grove of pine featuring nature-inspired instruments — along with the Meadow Run & Climb, which is a dedicated space for running, jumping, climbing, balancing and testing strength, coordination and confidence.

Specialized elements like cuddle swings, gliders, and “alone zones” are also planned for the trail, each created with the intent of providing a more inclusive environment for visitors of many different needs and abilities.

Adjacent to the Humphrey Nature Center at Letchworth State Park, the trail and stations will be marked with signage telling visitors what to expect as they approach each curve of the trail and station — an important addition creating purposeful consistency and predictability for visitors.

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. The ANT is 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 Campaign to Build the Autism Nature Trail at Letchworth State Park is supported by several organizational partners within New York State, including the Natural Heritage Trust, Camp Puzzle Peace, Letchworth State Park, Perry Central School District and the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation. For more information or to contribute to ongoing work to fund quality programming at the site, visit: https://autismnaturetrail.com/.

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