Autism Nature Trail Is First of Its Kind in the United States

A retired school administrator from Batavia had a conversation with her neighbor five years ago that would ultimately provide inspiration for her next path in life.

Penman has said that her neighbor had hopes of getting her grandson Ali back to Letchworth State Park. The neighbor had said that her Grandson Ali was a different kid when he was inside of the park.

“She went on to tell me that Ali had autism, and at 7 years old had no language and was almost always in a state of agitation except when she brought him to visit Letchworth State Park,” said Penman.

Within a couple of days, Penman has said that another neighbor, Susan Herrnstein, had told her that a similar thing had happened with her grandson. Both neighbors began doing research and had come to the conclusion that being surrounded by nature can make a world of difference for people with ASD.

The two neighbors made a decision to do more.

Five years later, Penman and Herrnstein's project has involved a local advocate name Gail Serventi, actor Joe Mantegna, the Perry Central School District, and many others who are actively working to put an Autism Nature Trail inside of the state park.

Penman has said that her previous experience working in multiple school districts is part of the reason she is pushing so hard for this Autism Nature Trail.

“I was a school administrator for many years, and I always felt like there wasn’t enough we could do, should do, we're doing, for children with developmental disabilities,” she said.

The Autism Nature Trail is being privately funded and will have wheel-friendly paths, a musical circle, a maze, and other inclusive options. In order for the project to be completed  $2 million still needs to be raised. Erik Kulleseid is the New York State Parks Commissioner and has said that this project will be the first of its kind in the United States.

“It’s going to be for everybody,” said Kulleseid. “We’re going to learn about each other and maybe hopefully put away some myths that have not been helpful to treating this community and helping it to fully participate in this culture and society.” 

Private funding for passion projects inside of state parks is becoming common, said Kulleseid. He also stated that "friends groups" help develop the quality of the state park experience.

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