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Autism Friendly Parks and Public Lands

Updated: Mar 9

A forest with green diecious trees and green moss. There is a title that reads Autism Friendly Travel Autism Friendly Parks and Public Lands Parks, wheather national parks, state parks, or local parks, are all excellent places to introduce your child to nature.

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, 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.

A sun set photo of a family silhouetted hiking in a pine forest.  There is a jump jumping in the air.

I know that some autistic children and autistic adults do not do well with surprises either. Some people in your family may welcome a snake slithering across the trail. 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 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 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.

A family with children in yellow coats run of in the distance jumping.  A mother with her arm around her child slowly walk behind the group.

Next, areas should be designated as high or low sensory and marked accordingly. These areas could offer a respite from the weather or the overwhelm 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 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 provide things to do to get the wiggles out. Of course, you won’t want to skip the stations that provide quiet to overstimulated autistic children.

At the end of the trail, autistic families will find chalkboards. On those chalkboards, autistic children can draw pictures, write what they are thinking, or sign their names.

Fallen trees and prickly bushes surround the entire trail, preventing an autistic child from wandering further into the woods.

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 members understand what they will experience during their stay.

The goal is to ensure that every autistic child and their parents realize that they may not be able to do something right away, but they can eventually do it. 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.

A family is hiking there is a little girl with a big smile on her face holing a green water bottle.  Her family is behind her.  She has twists in her hair.  There is a title that reads Autism Friendly Hiking Trails Autism Travel

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