Go take a hike, really

My son who has autism adores hiking. He’s not particularly athletic in a traditional sense but he repeatedly has said, “Peace through Nature,” even going so far as to paint this motto in Latin on a piece of art he completed in art class at school. For that reason, we have gotten to know several hikes very well in the Austin area. Hiking the Bull Creek Greenbelt is a favorite for our whole family. However, our son was not able to stay safe on this trail until he was past the age of 10 because there are several cliffside drops. If you have a child with autism that does not understand safety rules yet or the stop command, then this hike is not advisable. For us, we are at a place where we can safely hike this. With this caveat, let’s begin.

 

 

Let’s head out…

Near the intersection of Spicewood Springs Road and Loop 360 in Northwest Austin is the trailhead to “Inga’s Trail” at the Inga VanNynatten Memorial Trail & Bull Creek District Park. After parking in the gravel lot across from the trailhead, carefully cross Lakewood Road on foot to begin the trail. There is a map at the trailhead with the “Inga’s Trail” path winding into the woods to its right.

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Trailhead marker for the Inga Trail on the Bull Creek District Park.

Our family loves this trail because of its relatively flat terrain, the chance to see waterfalls and go swimming. However, I would not recommend this trail for anyone with children under 4, as we saw a family carrying their screaming toddler down the trail and they still had a ways to go before they were back to the calm of their car.

Come prepared…

The terrain is uneven and water shoes are recommended. I mean this is Nature, with a capital N so wear sunscreen, bug spray, and watch for poison ivy. We have hiked this particular trail in all seasons, but the very best of all is late Spring when the wildflowers are in full bloom and the water’s coldness is refreshing instead of chilling.

There is no water source on this primitive trail. We are in a city park, but there are no facilities along this trailhead. Make sure you pack water in. There are no bathrooms along the way.

Walking the trail…

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Water swirling over Central Texas limestone rock.

This trail is perfect to hike two days after a heavy rain (the day after is a mudfest) because of the seasonal waterfalls that sprout up, particularly on an offshoot of the main trail as soon as you enter.

Follow the sounds of water, watching where you’re going, and you will see foaming water making that sound that calms even the most anxious of souls. I just love that sound. My son with autism particularly loves it. But, BE CAREFUL. Do not let children run ahead of you. There are no rails, no way to keep from slipping on algae and there are steep drops. I would gauge how safety conscious your child with autism is before taking on the waterfall offshoot trails of Bull Creek. For us, as a teenager, our son knows not to get too close. His fear index has finally started registering. When he was under 10 we could not manage this. We have a younger child that is neurotypical, and she understands our commands to be careful and to hold our hands. Every parent knows their child the best, use your best judgment.

After meandering down and over the first waterway (oh, that’s cold, says my daughter), you will begin hiking on a rocky incline that will lead you above the creek and offer a few views on your right (again, not getting too close to the edge for that perfect picture, lest you lose your footing on a rock 30 feet above the road), and a steep hill on your left (as my son said, “It’s like a whole new kind of gravity,” when he looked up at the sheer vertical climb to a summit above our heads.)

After about 15 minutes of climbing up the rocky path (there is the occasional bench for resting), you will pop out into a “precious in spring/brutal in summer “open field where the distant hills rise up to look slightly like you’re in a different setting. Hopefully, if you’re hiking this in summer, you’ve brought a hat. The sun is pretty fierce during this portion of the walk.

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Wildflowers blanket the ground during late Spring in NW Austin’s Bull Creek Greenbelt.

Watch carefully, particularly in summer for poison ivy lunging at you from the wall of foliage you are hiking through at this point. Watch out for tree roots, and huge spider webs. It’s quite magical, but you know, watch where you’re going! One time I was hiking alone with my daughter and we came across the HUGEST spider web stretching ALL the way across the trail, with a huge spider sitting happily in the center, blocking the trail. There was no way under or over, so we had to detour off course, and walk through the creek itself in some fairly deep spots to join back up with the trailhead. I wasn’t about to disturb that spider.

At this point, you can hear the water roaring again, and the ground gets muddier as you are nearing the side trail off to the right, leading straight down to the water. You can see it as you walk. Or if it’s summer and overgrown, you can hear it. Follow the sound.

The Falls…

And after hiking for about 20-25 minutes or so, you’ve found the lower falls at Bull Creek Greenbelt. What’s great about this spot, is that you can swim, wade and play in this shallow rock ledge of a water expanse in almost every season. Deep winter, no. It’s much too cold. But, on warm winter days, we’ve hiked down here to see the change in grasses and trees during winter as well. In summer, we submerge fully in the water and walk back to the car wet. In springtime, it’s best for wading. Although falling in because of the slippery algae is a definite quick trip to splashtown. Hopefully you have a towel back in the car or one with you. Never a bad idea to carry a towel wherever you go (per Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.)

Now you’ve earned a rest…have a seat on the rock overhang, enjoy whatever food or small picnic you’ve packed in (and will pack out), lay on a towel, watch the dogs play. But, for sure watch your children! Again, you’re in nature, dude. There are snakes, etc. this is Texas. You will want to spend a bit of time here enjoying your hard-earned rest after your 20-plus minute hike, plus, something that’s always hard on my kids, you’ve got to hike back to the car if you’ve hiked in this far!

 

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The Falls at Bull Creek. Your reward for hiking for 20 minutes on Inga’s Trail.

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ACL Rocks!

Well, we finally did it. We managed to make it to ACL (Austin City Limits Music Festival) and enjoy it without a hitch. My son and my husband enjoyed the Monsters and Men show on Sunday afternoon at the last day of the ACL Festival. Also, if you have a disability, there is an ADA station that you can go to near the entrance to the festival where they have ADA porta potties that are locked and only for people with a disability. They also provide you with an ADA wristband, and if there is room, you can watch some of the bands from an ADA access stage.

The one hiccup is exiting the festival. Once my son is done, he’s done. So, we needed an exit that didn’t require fighting our way back through the huge crowds. To hopefully figure out a solution, I wrote a letter to the ACL festival after we went and asked about next year’s exit plan for people that have autism and need to leave from another exit without fighting through 70,000 people to get back to the one exit gate. The promoters said they would look into this issue for the 2016 concert. So, we’ll see.

I never thought ACL would work, but my son asked to go, he said, “Pretty please, por favor.” So, how could I refuse such a polite request?

My philosophy on outings is…I just try different events with my son and sometimes they’re just not fun and we leave early, and sometimes, with the right supports, we can make it 20 minutes or an hour and that makes everyone really happy. When we left he was very proud of himself and said, “I made it through the whole concert.” Meaning, he made it through an entire act before leaving. We will be back next year!

Museums meet the needs of more diverse disabilities

I’m excited by the recent additions of more and more programs offered by cultural institutions to provide services to differing types of disabilities. For years, ADA has meant wheelchair accessibility, and that’s very important, but also important is meeting the needs of those with intellectual and developmental disabilities, those with visual impairments and other types of disabilities beyond providing a ramp into a building. Speaking from the perspective of a parent with a child with autism, I can tell you that my son benefits ENORMOUSLY from cultural institutions like libraries, museums, and concerts when he can manage the sensory issues. I’m happy to share that our local museum the Thinkery here in Austin has provided several days a year specifically geared to the needs of children with autism and other sensory issues. It’s a great way to enjoy things that typical families take for granted. We all want our kids to enjoy being kids. These community initiatives allow us as parents to help provide that. If you know of a good cultural program that benefits people with an intellectual or developmental disability in your city that you’d like to share, please feel free to add a comment and let us know about it.

Traveling mercies

Austin was lucky enough to have the touring Architects of the Air Luminaria interactive exhibit in our town and our son wanted to go. That’s the good news.

The bad news is the very very long line for this super cool experience. Friends, you know one of the biggest challenges of traveling with autism is difficulty with waiting. Oh, the waits and the fits and then the stares of other parents. It’s enough to make you want to stay home. But, this blog (and life) is about travel and adventure, so we prepared ourselves for a several hour wait. Bringing along an iphone loaded with games to pass the time, off our family went. We left an hour before the exhibit opened in hopes that we’d get a jump on the crowds. When we got there the wait was going to be around two, possibly three hours. So, wait and wait, we did.

Our son had even tried waiting the day before, standing in line with a therapist for an hour before giving up, unable to manage the crowds and the noise. He was determined to try again. I was proud of him for trying but not sure we could do much better. For more than an hour we walked and ran around and tried to entertain him. At one point, I headed off with my daughter and struck up a conversation with a lady out walking her dog around the park we were waiting in. I told her about our two-day attempt to walk inside the exhibit.

“Oh, there’s a line for special needs. I’m sure you can go up there and ask.” But seeing all of the people waiting in line, I didn’t want to “cut” even though our son was getting precariously close to giving up. While I was standing there debating with myself about asking for an accommodation, the dog owner (or was she our guardian angel?) strode up to the front of the line and got us a special needs pass. I let her. I never even got her name. When I went to retrieve my son and husband, our helper was already gone. I wanted to thank her and didn’t get the chance. I did get to thank the touring manager who O.K.’d our request but not the mystery dog walker.

I’ve had experiences like that before and it always make me certain that fate, or luck, or guardian angels is on the side of special needs families when they travel. Traveling mercies indeed.

My son, oblivious to the negotiations involved to get us near the front of the line said, “See I told you waiting isn’t so hard for me.”

So, what’s Architect of the Air exhibit anyway. According to their website:

“Each luminarium is a dazzling maze of winding paths and soaring domes where Islamic architecture, Archimedean solids and Gothic cathedrals meld into an inspiring monument to the beauty of light and colour.

The luminaria are designed by company founder, Alan Parkinson, who started experimenting with pneumatic sculptures in the I980s. They are made of a plastic produced uniquely for Architects of Air. Only four colours of plastic are used to generate a great diversity of subtle hues.”

When you step into the inflated “Luminaria” with its different “rooms” there is a wonderful glow from the colored plastic walls allowing light to filter in at interesting angles. One room has colored windows, like stained glass, and my son exclaimed in happiness, “Look at the stained glass. It’s a cathedral.”

My son was motivated to wait in line (not something he will normally manage) by his deep love and obsession with visual forms. The “Luminaria,” as the inflatable creation is known, looks like an inflated cathedral of colored plastic that you enter and walk around in (without shoes) or lay down in against the soft inflated walls. There is calm music playing in the background and the constant whoosh sound of the entire structure being inflated is quite relaxing. Listening to the music he said, “I hear beauty. I am in a lullaby land.” The whooshing and the near silence of the participants gives it a very spiritual feel. Or as my son said as we entered, “This is a new kind of synagogue,” and he got down and bowed in prayer. It was a beautiful mystical moment.

Thank you guardian angel of Austin for helping us have this wonderful experience.