Nature Therapy at Hocking Hills

Nature Therapy at Hocking Hills

Basking in cascading sunlight at Hocking Hills

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.


Nature therapy through forest breathing


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.


“Forest therapy”


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.



  • 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.


Take care of more treacherous paths


  • 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.



  • 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.


Executive-Functioning Therapy


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.


Appreciating the natural beauty of Hocking HillsWHAT 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.


Simple fun at Hocking Hills


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!


Besides Hocking Hill, go out and discover “nature therapy” in any city, state or national park wherever you find an abundance of trees.

Why Autism Families Need Vacations

Why Autism Families Need Vacations


Why Autism Families NEED Vacations Like Everyone Else

It’s actually not hard to explain why autism families need vacations, considering the challenges that they go through on a daily basis.  Vacations provide respite to relieve stress and encourage greater family bonds through fun.

I’ll be honest. My heart BROKE when I read this one particular statistic about autism families:

When surveyed by an autism affiliated travel organization, 87% of autism families stated they did NOT take vacations within the last THREE YEARS.* 



Why Autism Families DON’T Take Vacations

For some people vacation is not a priority. They never took one as a child and don’t see the necessity now.  For others, vacation is only a dream because they cannot financially afford it.

And then there are those families who want one and can afford it but who just don’t go.

Perhaps they believe that vacations would only add to their stress, not take it away. They believe they could not handle the possibilities of even more meltdowns.

They tell themselves…“someday”.

Maybe many autism families are not aware of the greater number of accommodations that are now in place at popular vacation destinations.

Or they don’t realize that their autistic loved one may be totally capable of handling the change of scenery with the right preparation.

By not taking vacations—even smaller staycations on a semi-frequent basis—autism families lose out.

They miss out on opportunities to positively change the family dynamics, especially when they experience high levels of daily stress in the home.


Top 5 Reasons Why Autism Families NEED Vacations

If you are part of an autism family that is hesitant about taking vacations, take a moment to reflect upon these reasons why you MUST take a vacation.

1. Vacations create precious memories.

A unique setting away from home will almost guarantee that you will remember your time there.  Was there something you saw that was awe-inspiring?  What was the look on your loved one’s faces when they witnessed it as well?  Were there moments of laughter?

We love looking at our facial expressions in photos after we rode thrilling attractions at Walt Disney World…cracks us up!  Sure, there will be trying times in a new environment.

But there is nothing like reminiscing over moments of pure joy you’ve captured through videos and photos to make it through tough days at home.

Take lots of pictures of your trips. Have conversations at home about what happened during your travels. Use these as a springboard to plan another exciting vacation.

If making memories at home is few and far between, it’s time to take a vacation!

2. Vacations mean greater family bonding.

Ever heard of the phrase, “a family that plays together stays together”?  I heartily believe in this.

Everyone needs a break from the daily grind that keeps family members apart, especially when life gets too serious from school, work, or other obligations.

Playing together brings families closer and reminds them what is really important in life: enjoying each other’s company.

My son and I really bond over riding our favorite attraction at Disney’s Hollywood Studios: Hollywood Tower of Terror.  He acts like a dramatic storyteller giving me the backdrop narrative as we walk through the queue to be seated.  His excitement is so infectious that I can’t help but share in it. Then we rush back to the rest of the family to tell them all about what happened on the ride.

Joyful interaction leads to greater bonding, and vacations are the secret recipe for joy!

3. Vacations are therapy.

I strongly believe that vacation is another form of therapy that is necessary for the social, mental, emotional and even physical health of everyone in the family.

When people are placed in new environments it can be a challenge, just like a new therapy.

But many parents have reported amazing strides from their autistic children while on vacations, even at places like Disney.  Some spoke new words. Some showed greater resilience to a new schedule and sensory input.

When a child is truly enthralled to be in a place that is tremendously fun and has characters he or she loves, often he or she will show greater motivation and effort to communicate that excitement and to transition better.

My daughter showed a increased willingness to step out of her comfort zone during our past trip to Walt Disney World by going on attractions she would have never dared step foot in before—she went on Space Mountain 3 times with her brother, long after my husband and I pooped out.

We are always amazed at the amount of positive behavioral changes that come with each new visit.  Personal growth that would have taken several therapy sessions to achieve happened within one single vacation!

4. Vacations inspire creativity.

A relaxed mind, body and spirit means being more receptive to creative ideas.  Exciting destinations and natural environments stimulate “out-of-the-box” thinking that can inspire people to consider new directions in their personal lives.

And that inspiration continues long after you get home from vacation.

For my autistic teens, being at Walt Disney World inspired them to develop public speaking skills playing Walt Disney World tour guides in speech therapy and to create Disney-like symphonies in music therapy.

My son writes fan fiction inspired by the Disney stories, and my daughter draws cartoon characters inspired by the characters.

Those vacations motivated me to become a travel planner as I obsessed about the history and amenities of the parks.

Every time we go our excitement for the park experience grows and fulfills our need for creative inspiration.

5. Because life is short!

Do you ever look back on the past wishing you made a different choice?

Many people often regret that they didn’t take time out to do what they really wanted to do, and taking more vacations is one of them.

Vacations give people a better perspective on their lives, something that is hard to do at home. The respite from vacation allows them to do several things:

  • contemplate what really matters
  • take stock of what they need to do to further their purpose and fulfill their dreams
  • analyze if something they are doing in their daily lives is really worth the effort.

Knowing that her time on earth was short, my sister took a “bucket-list” vacation to the Fiji Islands.  She took as many opportunities to see the world within the year before she died. I know she left very happy and fulfilled.

As some have said, “we only have today”. So, go out and explore the world today with your family.

Don’t short-change yourself…“seize the day”!


More Autism Accommodations than Ever Before

There is much greater awareness of the needs of autism are in the public consciousness. And more vacation destinations are stepping up to assist more effectively.

Cruises now cater to families with different sensory needs.  Theme parks include information and accommodations to help those on the spectrum.  And many destinations are become certified autism centers.

There are simply fewer reasons NOT to take a vacation in light of the fact that more destinations are becoming autism-friendly.

I understand that you may be afraid to take that leap into a strange environment with a child who craves routine and structure.  Here are some tips to help you face those vacation fears!

If you are looking for even MORE reasons to take a vacation, check out this article “What Taking a Vacation Does to Your Body and Brain”.


Experience a Well-Rounded Life through Travel

Will you “seize” the opportunity to make memories?

Do you want to forge greater bonds with your family?

Would you like to experience the potential therapeutic benefits through exploration of a new destination?

Do you and your family desire to be creatively inspired?

Are you super ready let go of the stress that is keeping you and your family from feeling connected?

If yes to any or all, then start planning that vacation…TODAY! 


I would love to be a part of your vacation planning!  Just click on this link for a free travel consultation!



Life, Animated: Disney and Autism

LIFE, ANIMATED: Disney Lessons and Autism

The World of Disney Meets the World of Autism

This article is about the documentary”Life Animated” and the Disney lessons that apply to reaching those with autism.

What happens when you merge the world of Disney with the world of autism?

If your autistic child loves Disney like mine, then read on.

You will discover valuable insights about the power of using the lessons from Disney stories to forge a connection between the inner world of autism and the wider world beyond ourselves.


I am NOT a movie critic. 

I viewed this film from the perspective of a parent who has children with autism (aka, the “intended viewer”).  Rather than critique the quality of the film, I observed the lessons both the parents and their son learned over the course of their autism journey.  I found new insights as well as emotional support by relating my own experiences to theirs.

I hope you can, too.



From the beginning of the documentary Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes and Autism, it’s easy to see that Ron and Cornelia are your pretty typical American parents.

They work hard to support one another. They nurture their children to achieve developmental milestones.

And they record their journey raising their kids through video, photos and writing.

But when their youngest son turned three, their world turned upside-down.  “Owen vanishes,” says Ron. His motor skills deteriorated, he was no longer sleeping well, he lost eye contact, and his language processing broke down, only reciting “gibberish”.

“Someone kidnapped our son…”

Owen had AUTISM.  

The painful devastation of receiving the diagnosis for the first time was still very evident on his father and mother’s faces, even though Owen is now in his 20s. Their doctor worried he would never talk again, who told Ron this problem was “out of my league”.

It hurt me to see their longing for the way he used to be.  The idea they could still CONNECT with him seemed gone.


It’s clear in the opening scenes of the film that adult-Owen understands and communicates very well with those around him.  To go from “not talking at all” to expressing himself in full, descriptive sentences obviously means…


After receiving the diagnosis, they did not resign themselves to the possibility Owen would never improve.

But despite four years of therapy, Owen was still exhibiting “echolalia” (a repeated pattern of speech that mental health professions believe to be dysfunctional).  It was not certain that he understood the meanings of what he said.  His parents were starting to believe that wouldn’t change.

Until… “Juicervoice”.


Owen loved watching Disney movies.  It was the only way to keep him calm and happy in an overstimulating world.

It was also the best way he could connect with his older brother—if they couldn’t talk together they could at least have that shared experience of enjoying Disney side-by-side.

As the family watched The Little Mermaid one night, Owen said “juicervoice”.

Finally, it dawned on the family that he was saying “Just your voice.”

This is the line used by the Sea Witch to convince Ariel that taking her voice was a small price to pay for being human. Owen’s parents believe that this line has significant parallels to the type of challenge he faces in connecting to others using his voice.

In other words, he understands its relevant meaning for himself…more than just parroting words.

Ron expresses his astonishment and hope that Owen is “still in there”.  They “set on a rescue mission to get inside…autism and pull him out”. And they used Disney movies as the rescue lifeline.



It wasn’t enough to allow Owen to memorize all the dialogue and act out the scenes of every Disney movie.  He had to interact with others who also knew the scenes.

His parents used puppets to enhance the interaction. This may be helpful for those on the spectrum who don’t tolerate full attention to themselves in their interactions with others (it’s diverted to the puppets).

They knew being able to recite movie-lines well was not the end goal.  “Scripting” was a functional means of working toward achieving meaningful, two-way social communication.

Simply practicing the dialogue also enhanced Owen’s own speech and language skills, both receptive and expressive.  Instead of making Owen practice language that did not have meaning for him in traditional therapy, they used something he was passionate about.

As Owen got older and mastered speech and language, his parents and therapists moved on to helping him figure out the subtle nuances of social communication.

Now it wasn’t enough to act-out movie scenes. They used the Disney stories to help him navigate the complicated social world of non-verbal communication.

Owen likes that fact that animated characters have exaggerated facial expressions to convey emotions—sadness, anger and joy are black-and-white. The slyness of Iago in Aladdin is easily conveyed when he looks to a scheming Jafar.

Disney movies have also helped Owen deal the emotional burdens of transitioning from one setting to another.  The film shows scenes of Peter Pan as Owen is about to embark on a new journey into adulthood: independent living away from home.

Whenever he encounters a new step in his life, he refers to scenes from Disney movies that he can relate to and thereby feel emotionally supported.  “My childhood days are over, but that doesn’t matter,” says Owen, sitting by himself in a dark theater, scripting a scene from the Lion King in which Simba, now king, roars triumphantly.


One of the most haunting fears of any parent whose child has autism is the prospect he or she will be bullied.

When Owen attended a new school, he became more withdrawn and his behaviors regressed.  After a while, they found out that a couple of boys at school told Owen they would burn his house and hunt him down, tormenting him.

Because he thinks so literally he thought his house would burn down and kill his parents.  As Cornelia recounts this horror, scenes of Quasimodo (Hunchback of Notre Dame) getting mercilessly harassed are shown. (I’m basically crying at this point…)

After confronting the bullying at school, Ron noticed Owen working on something in the basement. He had been drawing Disney characters, but they are all sidekicks—no heroes were drawn.

Owen has identified himself not with the movie heroes but as “the protector of the sidekicks…(because) no sidekick gets left behind”.  He wrote “The Land of the Lost Sidekicks”, of which the film shows a beautifully created animated short.

Owen had used Disney characters and themes to create an original story to process his own complicated emotions associated with rejection and loneliness.  Through his story he identifies with those sidekicks who provided him emotional support on his journey through dark times.

At the end he rises to become a “protector” of those “left behind”.

I caught myself thinking, what an amazing achievement…not just for someone with autism, but for ANYONE.  If this isn’t a perfect example of self-empowerment, I don’t know what is!


I laughed, I cried, I learned…

I had previously read the book (which I loved because I could relate to their journey well), so I knew what to expect.

I didn’t expect this documentary to be such a visual treat.

Using scenes from Disney movies that mirrored Owen’s personal growth experiences was very effective in conveying the importance of this form of media in their lives.

Needless to say, it’s a good movie to watch with your autistic son or daughter.  My daughter got into the animated scenes of Owen’s story since she loves to draw.

Because Disney is so ubiquitous in our culture, it should be easy for someone watching this to sense how certain characters and themes were necessary for him understand particular situations in his life.

Disney themes have a steadfast, enduring quality that provide a comforting reassurance. Despite hard times, individuals will rise to the occasion with love and support from others.

As my own kids with autism love Disney so much, this film is incredibly relevant to our family. My kids picked up language easier from watching these movies, especially my son who used closed-captioning as he watched them.

Lesson One: Learn with Joy

Owen’s journey exemplifies that using an AFFINITY-based approach to learning life skills is very effective for those on the autism spectrum (not just a “strengths-based” approach).

The Suskinds approach using Disney is what Temple Grandin has been advocating for years:

target a person’s interests and obsessions rather than general positive qualities and skills.

A person’s “affinities” are used not only to motivate the person to deal with life issues and learn skills in therapy-based settings but can also be used to create and produce a stand-alone product that others appreciate or toward a career.

These affinities should not be seen as a prison but as a “pathway”.  Instead of viewing these “obsessions” as “dysfunctional”, mold them into a functional learning process in which the child learns to interact with the wider world.

As my own children are now in their teens, their childhood Disney passion has become a Disney obsession.

As Disney movies have motivated my son to learn language, he is now self-empowered to write his own Disney stories.  My daughter is obsessed with drawing cartoon characters with intense emotions and themes.

I convinced the speech and music therapists to motivate my kids through their Disney-based interests.  My son practiced social communication skills as a “park tour guide” in speech and composed a Disney musical score.  My daughter learned speech, language and executive functioning skills by reading Disney stories and singing and playing Disney songs.

I even used the original classics upon which Disney based for his movies to motivate my daughter to read books in our homeschooling endeavor.

Without passion, learning language and social skills may be a more arduous process for both the parents and the child.

This link provides more information on the affinity-based techniques that may be used at home or in therapy.

Lesson Two: Get on the Floor and Out of the Box

In order to connect with Owen, Ron and Cornelia had to also know the Disney scenes and dialogue really well themselves. They changed their thinking (and the prevailing thought at the time) that too much TV was bad, that these Disney movies could actually be good for his education and growth.

Just like play-therapy, they got down on HIS level to reach him—to “think outside the box”.

Not only does this mean recognizing your child’s interests but taking the time to really interact in a way with your child that may feel weird or uncomfortable.

For example, it seemed odd or wrong that my kids used movie scripts to talk. But I realized they were able to talk to each other.

“Scripting” was not necessarily a bad thing because they were learning to talk back-and-forth in a two-way social conversation. Once I played along, I had more joyful, meaningful interactions with my kids.

It also means being flexible enough to FAIL—to recognize when something doesn’t work and letting it GO. The reality is that a child cannot be MADE to behave a certain way just because we want them to.

If an approach doesn’t work after a period of time, try something else. Sometimes they have outgrown a certain affinity and it no longer motivates them.  Or an approach is too demanding and exhausts them.  Even therapies can get old and no longer be effective—do something new and fun!

And use puppets if you have to!

Lesson Three: Identify a “Meaningful Life”

I admit that some films with an autism character feel exploitative.  This one did NOT.

Ron and Cornelia don’t complain about Owen’s “bad behavior” but reflect upon the multitude of self-adjustments they had to do in order to meet him where he was at.  Their journey of empowerment and self-discovery was just as important as Owen’s.

As his caregivers, they naturally worry if he has the right social and executive functioning skills to live independently and to his highest potential.

The question of a “meaningful life” is presented in the film. That often comes up in conversations with others, including therapists in IEP and ISP meetings.

The life-goals for Owen are discussed within a collaborative team of “experts” (including mom). Owen generally agrees or disagrees with the ways of achieving those.  While he’s involved in the process of making decisions for himself, he’s not fully “running the show”.

As he gets older, it becomes harder for mom to accept reality of his “deficits” that she has worked so hard to help him overcome as a child (even homeschooling him).

Cornelia’s look of uncertainty and angst hit me in the gut. I know that I will be facing the same reality with my own kids soon. Knowing just how much or little outside help they are going to require to live a good life.

While most parents are dreaming of their children’s futures with starry eyes, many parents whose children have autism often have a very clouded vision of their futures.

Only when I reflect upon some real-world examples of “normal people” needing guidance and support well into adulthood do I realize that I may be taking the perspective of future despair too far.

Ron remarked that letting our kids fail is actually the goal for autism parents.  We need to take a leap of faith and let our kids advocate for themselves at some point.

This was illustrated by the fact that while Owen was invited to give a speech to an autism panel in Paris, France. Ron refused to write the speech for him.  He was firm in making him discover for himself what he needed to say.

We can cheer-on our grown kids but we can’t do it for them. A meaningful life means letting them discover for themselves what they need to do to grow in self-confidence and contentment. It doesn’t necessarily mean a completely independent existence.


I found it interesting that the Suskinds discuss the fact that Owen “disappears” into autism.  To me, it seems evident that he regressed into autism rather than was “born that way”.  They never say he has “regressive autism”.  Instead they use metaphorical terms to describe their experiences.

It’s unclear whether they explored dietary or other medically-based interventions. Based on their language to discuss his challenges, they were more concerned about helping him socially connect to others through innovative means rather than be medically-treated.

The agenda of the documentary is not about what they believe caused his autism but on the present developmental reality of autism.

I recommend this film for those have autism, for those who love someone with autism (especially parents), and for those who work with those with autism.  If it makes you change your perspective even a tiny bit, it will have served its purpose.

As for myself, it led me to conclude that what I was doing to help my kids was actually okay…and that I’m not alone.  I had the same struggles: emotional breakdowns, therapeutic resistance, and educational dilemmas.

But I also have fun, happy experiences with my kids that help them learn, grow and connect with others (like going to Walt Disney World). Knowing that they have achieved so much already gives me hope for their futures.

What a privilege to be granted access to witness the powerful potential in all of us to rise above the challenges we are given with the support of those who love us.

The documentary film LIFE, ANIMATED can be found here.  LIFE, ANIMATED: THE STORY OF SIDEKICKS, HEROES AND AUTISM can be found on this non-affiliate link here.


If you want to experience the magic of Disney in real-life, I would love to help you plan a magical vacation to Walt Disney World in Florida or Disneyland in California!  Just click on this link for a free travel consultation!