Nature Therapy at Hocking Hills: Unplug…unwind…breathe deep!
Tired of living in our stressful modern world? You can find the perfect atmosphere for nature therapy at Hocking Hills State Park.
We live in fast-paced movements; loud artificial noises; concrete scenery; electronic addictions; and compartmentalized living. No wonder people want to escape it!
These sensory-intense, disconnected environments are often “toxic” for autistic individuals, aggravating their sensitive neurological systems.
But being in nature, even for a few minutes, can have instant benefits. Studies have found that being in nature decreases cortisol (the stress hormone). Those that make longer commitments to be in nature, often on guided group adventures, have found lasting healing from chronic pain, such as PTSD.
Breathing in the forest air immediately brings peace to mind, body and soul. It is calming and rejuvenating at the same time…which can help both sensory-seekers and sensory-avoiders.
Being in the forests of Hocking Hills in Ohio fulfilled my need to escape daily living for a while and feel refreshed. I felt centered, grounded, at-peace and brimming with joy among the trees. My autistic kids absolutely loved spending time there with other family around.
Besides physical health, being in nature can also help improve sensory-integration, spatial/body-awareness, and executive functioning.
Nature therapy at Hocking Hills is ideal for autistic individuals and their families needing a calming atmosphere.
The Japanese call it “forest bathing”. It is the act of being attuned to the smallest of sounds and the scents of the trees. It is not fast-paced hiking. Rather, it is slow strolls or sitting quietly in nature. It is feeling the “life” of the forest.
Reading about others’ experiences with “forest bathing” gave me the sense that they were getting in touch with the “kid inside”. You know, the one who took mud baths, ran barefoot in the grass, and spent most of the day outside with friends.
WHAT TO DO:
- It’s very simple…take your time to walk along the paths. Reflect upon the beautiful scenery and try to think of nothing else for the moment. Let your child take his/her time to explore along the path.
- As you walk or hike at a faster pace, inhale slowly and deeply. Show your child how it’s done. Take breaks to just sit and relax.
Just being in nature has been proven to provide many benefits for kids:
- Leads to increased collaboration, imagination, concentration and positive feelings.
- Fuels higher levels of Vitamin D from natural sunlight, providing an immunity barrier against illnesses and protect against weight gain.
- Teaches kids how to assess risk better than being in a “safe playground” space.
The power of nature as a healer for physical and social health is amazing. But it also contributes to sensory wellness, perfect for those with autism. (Don’t believe me? Read this article.)
Sensory Integration Therapy
Autistic children can be hyper- or hypo-sensitive to the environmental input around them. They react in different ways to make sense of it all. Determine your autistic child’s key sensory issues and use nature as a “therapy tool” to work on them.
Body awareness: Some with autism have vestibular (balance) issues. Others have a hard time knowing where their body is in space relative to other objects or people (called proprioception). Some of the best things to do to improve this condition—besides working with a PT or OT in an indoor, highly-structured setting—is to practice in natural settings.
WHAT TO DO:
- Those with more severe issues can stay on shorter trails that are relatively flat and/or paved in the gorges. Gradually move to more rugged paths and those with no safety rails when you feel confident your child can handle those.
- With gentle guidance on the nature trails, you can challenge your child by slowly and carefully walking over tree roots, climbing over rocks, and wading in a stream.
- “Show and tell” how you walk down muddy steps, then let you child follow one step at a time.
- Consider buying a stable, well-built hiking stick or two (one for each hand). Even experienced hikers use these for stability and support. These are a great therapy tool to practice coordination.
The 5 Senses: Nature, especially in larger state or national parks, provide a more serene atmosphere with much less sensory output. No extreme visual, auditory, or motion-based triggers here bombarding your autistic child. Your child can focus on receiving and processing input one aspect of nature at a time.
WHAT TO DO:
- Hiking in nature can be part of your child’s sensory diet. For example, if you child needs help with auditory input, help him or her pick out the different sounds with active listening. Or, let him or her touch plants, rocks, leaves, running water, etc. (anything non-poisonous, of course).
- Shut out one sense to heighten the experience of another. For example, have your child close his/her eyes to feel a natural object or to hear birds. Or, apply sound-barring headphones to focus on the visual elements to play an “I-spy” game.
Many autistic kids remember a million tiny details but cannot remember 2-step directions. Organizing information in their brain is hard. Add all of life’s daily distractions and environmental sensory triggers and it becomes impossible to focus. But a calm environment with “no rules” can be a good place to practice those executive-functioning skills.
WHAT TO DO:
- Practice following 2- or more-step directions with simple task along the path. For example: “first, find a rock that is round and then throw it in the creek.” Or “find two sticks and put the smaller one behind a big rock”.
- To help with understanding sequences, take photos of places along the path. Have your child take some of his/her favorite spots as well. When you get back from your trip you can create your own social story of your memories in order you did them. (Note day and time of your photos and add them into your story.)
- Have your child help pack the hiking bag with needed supplies. Ask what they think is necessary for the amount of time you’ll be gone of the trail. This helps with learn the process of planning.
Reconnecting with Nature
Tackling important sensory and life skills doesn’t have to happen in a lab-like, institutional clinic. Some of the best progress happens in more natural settings having fun with one’s own family. The truest breakthroughs for those with autism happen in joyful connection and relationship with others.
Hocking Hills is the perfect respite for autistic individuals to connect with self and to forge greater bonds with their families.
See for yourself why people come back to Hocking Hills in Ohio again and again…any time of the year!
Now, let’s move on to the lodging accommodations available at Hocking Hills!