Whether you’re taking a walk in your local park or you’re hiking in the mountains, nature can offer solace when things feel overwhelming. For those on the autism spectrum—almost 2 percent of American children, who struggle to communicate and are extra-sensitive to bright lights, loud noises, and new places and people—a nature path provides especially precious wilderness therapy. But many city kids with autism haven’t had the chance to experience this serenity.
That’s why AMC was inspired to create a welcoming outdoor environment for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and their families. The project was hatched by Rondi Stearns, AMC’s director of sales and occupancy, and Terese Dana, an applied behavior analyst who has spent three decades becoming a national leader in prosocial therapy for kids with ASD. Dana believes firmly in the therapeutic power of the woods. “The results show that exposure to nature provides sensory motor and social-emotional benefit to kids on the spectrum,” she says.
Yet these children face higher barriers to getting outside than most populations, starting with finances: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that families of children with ASD pay an extra $44,000 to $66,000 per year on average for medical and behavioral therapy. After budgeting for those expenses, outdoor excursions might be too expensive to justify. Beyond that, public places can be uncomfortable for ASD families. “When kids [on the spectrum] are in a new situation, a lot of times it might be hard for them to regulate their body and their emotions,” Dana explains.
There has been gradual growth in autism-friendly events and travel destinations, but venturing into nature brings elevated safety concerns for all families, not only those with special needs. New York’s Letchworth State Park is currently working to build a nature trail specifically for visitors with ASD, but otherwise outdoor options to date have been scant.
AMC’s new ASD initiative aims to help fill this gap. Cardigan Lodge, located at the southeast foot of Mount Cardigan in New Hampshire’s Lakes Region, is prime for quiet, nature-based immersion. “There’s a pond, there’s a stream, a forest, a meadow, hiking trails, big logs to walk on,” describes Vinnie Spiotti, AMC’s director of lodging operations. He has overseen upgrades to the facility, funded by a small grant secured by Stearns, to ensure the lodge is safe and accessible for future visitors with ASD. That includes sensory-friendly activity stations set up along Cardigan’s Nature Trail, additional markers alerting hikers to what’s coming up next on the trail, a fence around the pond, hammocks, and beanbags for a new “quiet room.”
On August 18, Cardigan Lodge was scheduled, as of press time, to host its first Autism Outdoors Family Barbecue, offering an overnight option for families who want to stay at the lodge. The event will act as a trial run, ideally with more ASD-friendly activities to follow—perhaps a fireworks-free Fourth of July next year.
In preparation, Dana will educate the Cardigan Lodge staff in ASD population sensitivities and how to handle them. “We want to make sure that Cardigan Lodge can be a place where the parents know all the staff is trained on how to help and support kids on the spectrum.” Going forward, trained staff will be on duty year-round, so families can be sure their needs will be understood whenever they choose to stay, even if no ASD event is scheduled.
Knowing in advance what a destination looks like can head off surprises, so ASD families will have access to “visual stories” of the facility, in the form of a series of pictures and videos online. And Dana will be on hand for the barbecue, alongside a certified recreation therapist leading structured activities.
To Spiotti, this initiative supports AMC’s mission of helping as many people as possible be outdoors, and upgrading accessibility at the lodge broadens the range of abilities AMC can accommodate. Saying that ASD “touches everyone,” Stearns celebrates the project. “We’re going to be able to get a really underserved population to come and have fun in the outdoors,” she says.
Dana also emphasizes the goal of having more young people experience the joy of being outdoors: “We know nature has great benefits for so many people. Everyone should feel comfortable accessing it,” she says.
Editor’s Note: In a previous version, the final paragraph used the word “healing” to describe the impact of nature on children with autism. Based on feedback we’ve received that this word implies children with autism need to be “fixed,” we’ve removed this reference in the online story and apologize for any offense the previous term may have caused.