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Autism Friendly Parks and Public Lands

Updated: Apr 1

Parks, whether national parks, state parks, or local parks, are all excellent places to introduce your child to nature. However, if you have an autistic child, you may find a few challenges throughout your visit. Crowded spaces at sites like Old Faithful, bugs, hot weather, freezing cold weather, new smells, unfamiliar noises, and lots of walking can derail even the most perfect plan. Add in the fact that Wi-Fi is practically non-existent, and you could be moments from a meltdown with your autistic child.

I know that some autistic children, and autistic adults, do not do well with surprises either. A snake slithering across the trail may be welcomed by some people in your family. But that same snake could make your autistic child head back to the car and never get out for the rest of your trip. I know I haven’t experienced every scenario yet, but I strive to make sure I am prepared for any challenge that comes my way. Thankfully, more parks and public spaces are working hard to be more inclusive. Back in 2012, the National Park Service created an Accessibility Task Force. At the time, the goal was to make the parks more accessible for people with physical disabilities. Currently, the goal is to include access to anyone with autism or another developmental disability as well.

Nowadays, autistic families can apply for the National Park Access Pass. There is an application you can mail in, or you can fill it out at many federal recreation sites. The processing fee for the pass is $10. Once you have been approved for the pass, you can enter more than two thousand recreation sites for free.

Creating Autism-Friendly Parks and Public Lands

Due to all the obstacles that autistic families face, free passes are simply not enough. Instead, work needs to continue to create autism-friendly parks and public lands. This work can begin by having all staff members and volunteers trained to work with autistic people.

Next, areas should be designated as either high or low sensory and marked accordingly. These areas could offer a respite from the weather or the overwhelm that is caused by being in a new environment. The National Parks, and other parks throughout the country, still have a long way to go when it comes to being autism friendly. But there is hope, thanks to the first Autism Nature Trail that was opened in Letchworth State Park.

That Autism Nature Trail is a one-mile loop that is wheelchair accessible. Along the way, autistic families will discover stations that satisfy the different needs of autistic children. Some stations offer sensory options, while others offer things to do to get the wiggles out. Of course, you won’t want to skip the stations that offer quiet to overstimulated autistic children.

At the end of the trail, autistic families will find chalkboards. Those chalkboards can be used by autistic children to draw pictures, write what they are thinking, or sign their names.

The entire trail is surrounded by fallen trees and prickly bushes. Those items ensure an autistic child cannot wander off further into the woods.

A camp, Camp Puzzle Piece, near the Autism Nature Trail offers short camping sessions for autistic families. Everyone stays in rustic cabins near the lake. But those stays are not successful without a lot of work. The camp staff works with the autistic families for months to ensure the autistic family member understands what they will experience during their stay.

The goal is to make sure every autistic child, and their parents, realize that they may not be able to do something right away, but they can do it eventually. I feel the same is true for taking vacations as an autistic family. If you are ready to take a vacation and experience these autism-friendly destinations or other parks, I will be more than happy to plan your trip for you. Contact me and let’s get the process started.

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