The Campaign To Build the Autism Nature Trail (The ANT) at Letchworth State Park is a public-private partnership to provide a recreational Trail within the park that allows visitors with autism and other developmental disabilities to push boundaries, explore new activities and develop skills. To date, the Campaign has raised $2 million of the projected $3.9 million needed to construct the Trail and aid in ongoing maintenance, operations and programming. The public phase of the Campaign now is active, with plans to raise the additional $1.9 million.
This exquisite schematic design is the work of the amazing team at in.site: architecture, Perry, NY.
The Trailhead Pavilion will serve a dual purpose, marking both the entry and exit for the ANT. Orientation materials will be available at the start of the Trail to provide an optimum experience during every visit. On the entrance side, a waterfall feature will attract the visitor’s attention, while offering a soothing and inviting gateway to the Trail.
The Sensory Station will captivate all of a visitor's senses in a quiet and individualized way. Collections of leaves, moss, acorns, pinecones, bark, vines, seed pods, even animal fur and fossils will be available for up-close inspection, handling and smelling. Visitors will be reminded to listen for the sounds of the forest -- the wind in the trees, singing birds, chattering squirrels.
The Sunshine Slope, a gentle maze in a sun-filled, natural opening in the woods, weaves a wide walkway through mounds of various woodland plantings of different heights. A viewing platform at the pinnacle provides a vantage point from which visitors can peer deeply into the woods or look backward from where they have come, perhaps gaining a new understanding of spatial relationships before choosing a route back to the main trail.
The Music Circle is named for its location within a circular grove of pines some distance apart from the trail. Visitors can experiment with nature-inspired instruments while being in control of sound creation and volume. An observation deck occupies the center of the space where instruments ring the area, positioned so that collaboration among individuals is possible and encouraged.
The Curiosity Corner is a space open to interpretation. Ant forms composed of boulder arrangements invite visitors to touch (or even hug), and smaller stones offer opportunities for stacking or sorting or ordering. The full story of the Corner is not yet told and depends on the imagination of all who enjoy it!
The Reflection Point offers a quiet place under a canopy of trees to listen to nature and to reflect about the natural world. Cuddle swings, gliders and alone zones will further encourage a sense of well-being, security and safety. At this half-way point on the Trail, visitors may regroup, move on or end the exploration by taking the bypass back to the Trailhead Pavilion.
The Meadow Run & Climb is a dedicated space for running, jumping, climbing, balancing, and testing strength, coordination, flexibility and confidence. New earthworks rise into serpentine berms while a running/walking path playfully follows the rising and falling contours of the landscape before emptying into an open field. Native plantings grow and change the scene throughout the seasons, and an obstacle course, made primarily of logs and boulders, follows in a tight, zig-zag formation.
The Design Area taps into visitors’ ability to manipulate materials from the Trail site. This hands-on space encourages imagination and critical thinking, using natural items to create patterns, structures and “whole worlds!”
The Playful Path honors the joy of just being in the woods. Along this last stretch of the Trail is a series of twisting paths covered in different surface materials (pea gravel, mowed grass, natural soil, pine needles). Each path can be navigated in a novel way, using a variety of motor skills.
The Celebration Station, located on the exit side of the Trailhead Pavilion, marks the end of the Trail journey that has provided challenges, new experiences and -- perhaps -- a new sense of confidence. Visitors will be encouraged to express their thoughts and feelings about the Trail by writing or drawing. The message "I was here and I have a voice" allows each individual to "own" the experience of the ANT.
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.
We feel very fortunate to be supported by such respected individuals as autism advocate Dr. Temple Grandin, actor and activist Joe Mantegna, researcher and autism expert Dr. Amy Laurent, AutismUp Director Sarah Milko, and Head of New York City's LearningSpring School Margaret Poggi.
"I’m glad that my suggestions for the Autism Nature Trail have been integrated into the final design and overall plan. The Trailhead Pavilion as a pre-walk station is important since many autistic children need to know what they’re getting into before they will engage. Cuddle swings and gliders are good choices for movement. I understand the cost involved in providing trained staff for the Trail, but its success depends on people who are passionate about nature who will get the children engaged."
~ Dr. Temple Grandin, Colorado State University
"We sometimes forget that children with autism become adults with autism — and they are adults a lot longer than they are children. The Autism Nature Trail will provide a welcoming environment for visitors of all ages to experience the excitement, joy and comfort found in the wonders of our natural world. This unique form of direct and accepting engagement with nature in a world-class park adds a new dimension of exposure, with the potential of providing a lifetime of meaningful and fulfilling experiences. "
~ Joe Mantegna, actor and autism activist Honorary Board member for The ANT
"As the parent of one neurotypical daughter and two sons on the spectrum who are at different levels of functioning, it was always challenging to find activities we could do together as a family. When I was first consulted about the Autism Nature Trail at Letchworth State Park in New York State, I envisioned a place where one of my boys could be captivated by the water feature while the other studied the patterns of the Sunshine Slope while my daughter explored the adjoining Nature Center independently — all in a safe haven where a sudden outburst or meltdown did not mean that we would feel the need to pack up and leave. To have a park space intentionally designed for the enjoyment of individuals on the autism spectrum along with their families and friends is unprecedented — and long overdue."
~ Ellen Bry, actress, mother, autism advocate
Joe Mantegna in support of The ANT!