Through the Eyes of Autism: The Jupiter Flatwoods Trail

A first-hand experience from a mother about The Jupiter Flatwoods Trail, the first autism-friendly natural area in the state of Florida.

When I heard a local Jupiter trail became the first autism-friendly natural area in the state of Florida, I was excited to test it out. So I packed up my son and his friend, who is also on the autism spectrum, and we set out on a new adventure.
 
Now, I am the furthest thing from an “outdoorsy” person that you can possibly imagine—I do not deserve one letter of that description. So I was delighted from the outset that the ½-mile trail that makes up the Jupiter Flatwoods Natural Area is paved. Aside from my own personal preference for cleanliness, what a gift that is for people in wheelchairs.
 
We have been a part of the autism community for six years now. This community, with all of its heartbreak and sorrow, has brought with it such immense beauty. But autism can be an isolating, difficult life to live day in and day out. And the further along a child is on the spectrum, the more difficult leaving the house can become. Pools may be out of the question because of the danger water represents to many children on the autism spectrum. Movies may be impossible because of the sensory overload that movies offer. Playgrounds may be out of the question because other moms may be less than understanding if a child with autism becomes aggressive.
 
It is easy to understand why it may be tempting for some parents to throw their hands up in the air and call it a day. Sometimes, it just seems easier to give up and stay home because the looks and glares and sheer work it takes to have a successful outing isn’t worth the pay-off in the end.
 
So when someone tries to make life a little easier, intentionally considers children with autism and wants to help them experience and be a part of the community, the crowd goes wild.
 
Well, this crowd does anyway!
 
After getting over my excitement for the paved trail, I noticed there were small fences in front of the water at the entrance to the trail, making it much more difficult for a person to try and enter, accidentally or otherwise. This alone would be a relief to parents whose children are known to wander and be attracted to water. The boardwalk also has high sides, making me feel completely comfortable letting my son run in front of me without worry.
 

Kid looking at a trail map

Maps, always a big winner with kids, were offered at the beginning of the trail. Both kids happily marched around the trail, doing their very own scavenger hunt of the flowers, bugs and animals their maps asked them to find. It kept their attention as much as an episode of their favorite TV program, and I was delighted that neither of them was complaining about the heat or walk or anything else that would normally accompany an adventure that required actual physical participation!
 
Along with the visual scavenger hunt, they were offered a sensory scavenger hunt on the map, on which they were asked to: listen for the pecking of a woodpecker, smell a flower, feel a tree trunk, see a bushy-tailed squirrel, listen for the buzz of an insect, and feel the edges of a pinecone.
 
Cool concept, but my little guys liked the visual scavenger hunt the best. Which makes sense, because children on the spectrum are typically very visually oriented.
 
Along the path, there were two different “sensory walls” that offered children a chance to feel and experience four different types of textures. Had I not been on the lookout for them, we would have all missed them, as they were easily hidden in the backdrop of nature, but once found the kids really enjoyed feeling the varying textures.
 

Kids touching a sensory wall

Scattered along the trail were a few strategically placed benches for the struggling child who needs to take a moment to refocus. Meltdowns sometimes happen for no discernable reason; it’s nice to have a place to sit until they’re over.
 
One of those benches was made into a swinging bench, which was a big hit with my crew. Though they were just having fun with it, the act of swinging can be very calming to a child on the autism spectrum. There’s something about the sensory stimulation that swinging offers that can settle down an overloaded system. Including a swing on the trail was a very thoughtful and helpful addition—and a fun one at that!
 

Kids sitting on a bench in a park

The trail is full of native Florida plants such as Cypress Knees, and we saw countless squirrels, woodpeckers, beautiful flowers, numerous butterflies and other cool bugs. I think the lack of distraction of other surrounding things helped them to focus in on what was around them, because my son has never cared much about nature before this. It was a very calming atmosphere in which a child could have a complete meltdown and it wouldn’t matter one bit.
 
They also offer a Nature Trail Social Narrative guide that gives visual and verbal cues for a child on the spectrum who may need specific, regimented verbal and visual assistance.
 
All in all, the boys had fun! It was a great, FREE something to do with our afternoon.
 
What was their favorite thing about this adventure? My son said his favorite thing was the swing, and his friend said his favorite thing was the bridge (i.e., boardwalk). As a mom, my favorite thing was that someone took the time to make a few thoughtful tweaks to a nature trail, making life just a little bit easier on families affected by autism. In life, sometimes the littlest things can make the biggest difference. The Jupiter Flatwoods Trail is an example of that for us.
 

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Renee Travis
Renee Travis
Renee is a Mama Warrior to one exceptional boy, Austin, and wife to her husband, Barry. At ten months old, her son was given an unprecedented, extremely early autism spectrum diagnosis. A diagnosis that was hard-won and a battle like no other, but one that would change the course of their lives forever. Because of their success and her son’s amazing transformation, Renee’s biggest passion lies with helping other parents like her. Parents at the beginning of this confusing journey who see signs, but find no help.