All kinds of minds at Autism Nature Trail

Natalia Zukerman playing for a group of school children at the Autism Nature Trail.

Loren Penmann

All kinds of minds at Autism Nature Trail

At Letchworth State Park in Castile, N.Y. the trees have a secret: they whisper to those who listen closely, especially to those who might hear the world differently. This is where you can find the Autism Nature Trail, or ANT, the first of its kind in this country, perhaps in the world. Designed for visitors on the autism spectrum, the ANT is a one-mile looped trail with eight stations at various intervals, little moments strung together, allowing visitors to experience everything from stillness to wild adventure.

The idea for the ANT was born from a conversation in 2014 between Loren Penman, a retired teacher and administrator, and her neighbor. The two women were discussing the new nature center at the park and Penman’s neighbor said that her grandson, who loved the park, probably wouldn’t be able to enjoy a nature center. He had autism and at age seven was still without language and in a state of almost constant agitation. Her neighbor went on to say, however, that she had observed her grandson finding great calm at Letchworth, a state of being he couldn’t achieve almost anywhere else. Speaking to another friend with an autistic grandchild, Penman heard the same sentiment about Letchworth; it completely calmed her grandchild. What was it about this special place that soothed the spirit?

According to the research of Michael Terman, PhD, a professor of clinical psychiatry at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University, a concentration of negative ions produces a positive effect on human beings’ general well-being.

Letchworth Park is roughly 17 miles long, following the course of the Genesee River as it flows north through a deep gorge and over several large waterfalls. Full of these tiny, invisible particles, it’s like a natural prescription to help humans feel better, happier, and calmer. Armed with this research and many personal observations, Penman and two friends, Susan Herrnstein and Gail Serventi, reached out to Temple Grandin, a famous voice for autism and neurodiversity. Grandin replied almost immediately and became a consultant in the creation of the ANT which opened to the public on October 1, 2021.

Fast forward to October 2023. Penman reached out to me to see if I would write a song, an original “ANThem” for the trail. Penman and I met in 2010 when I was playing at a venue in Buffalo, New York. We’ve stayed in touch. She was working on securing a grant that would pay for the song, my travel, several school group visits to the park, and an evening performance for the public. Having never been to the park, I had my work cut out for me.

Autism diagnoses have soared by 175% since 2000. According to the CDC, the incidence of autism in 2024 is 1 in 36. Theories abound - environmental toxins, maternal infections, older parents, the rate of prematurity, and on and on. Little is conclusive, but more and more people are being diagnosed, perhaps due simply to the fact that there is more awareness, and that the “spectrum” is widening.

Throughout my years as a teacher, I have worked with children on the autism spectrum and what I have observed is that they seem almost unbearably alert to the world’s wonders and its dangers all at once. Crying is common, but not necessarily for the reasons that have come to be associated with tears- like sadness, grief, or pain - but more an overwhelm at the connection between joy and sorrow itself. The world is terrifying and mystifying and emoting as a way to try to comprehend it seems necessary. Music can be a great source of relief for children on the spectrum, a way to express the inexpressible, a way to alchemize the experience and mystery of being alive.

Grandin said, “The world needs all types of minds.” A slight alteration and “All Kinds of Minds” became the song. I arrived at the ANT early on the morning of June 5 and spent the day with students from Batavia, Mt. Morris, Perry, and Warsaw Schools, teaching them the song. The children ranged in age from kindergarten through elementary school and varied greatly in terms of how they presented on the autism spectrum. Some were nonverbal, using handheld devices that could “speak” for them. Some kids sang along, some shouted. Some cried, some laughed; all of them seemed intrigued by their surroundings, the guitar, and this new song written just for them. Under a bright blue sky, surrounded by ancient pine trees and waterfalls, we sang the chorus together, again and again:

I don’t know why

But I feel better by the water

And the deep wood pine

I can take my time

Cuz the world needs

The world needs

All kinds of minds.

To find out more about the ANT and to donate, visit: autismnaturetrail.com/allears/


Natalia Zukerman is Engagement Editor at The Lakeville Journal and The Millerton News. She also is a singer, songwriter and visual artist. Her cartoons appear weekly in The Millerton News.

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